PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
This painting has not been seen at public auction for over a hundred years, when it was sold from the Lesser Lesser collection in London in 1912. At that time it had a pendant, a Fruit piece, described simply as a ‘Fruit, Birds' nest and Insects’, which was also signed and dated 1710 (fig. 1)1. This picture was bought at the 1912 sale by the 4th Marquess of Bute, by whom it was unsuccessfully re-offered in 1923. It was later sold at Christie’s, London, 3 July 1996, lot 145. From the first decade of the eighteenth century onwards Ruysch made several pairs of fruit and flower pieces of this type, all of similar size and painted on canvas or panel. Two of the best known of these pairs are counted among her finest works; those today in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, painted the year before this picture in 1709 for Ruysch’s chief patron the Elector Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz2, and those today in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence (where her work was especially prized), painted in 17163. The similarity of these works, which were effectively variations of a theme (but never identical) and the breaking up of some pairs has made their subsequent identification with those recorded in early sources very difficult. We are extremely grateful to Dr Marianne Berardi for confirming that this work and its companion can now identified with certainty as the pair recorded in the celebrated De la Court van der Voort collection in Leiden and later owned by the renowned and prodigious Leipzig collector Gottfried Winckler (1731-1795). The description of the flower piece in the catalogue of the latter's collection published in 1768 perfectly matches the present work:
'Ein gläsernes Gefäss trägt einen Blumenstrauß, in welchem buntstreichte Tuilpanen, blühender Mohn und Rosen verschiedener Art, bey blauen Schwerdlilien und glühenden Granaten, unter mannischfaltigen kleinern Blumen hervorragend, rangstreitig das gereizete Auge ergötzen. Eine Bremste sättiget sich auf dem schweren Haupte der Sonneblume, welche, vom zerknickten Stengel, auf den marmornen Tisch niedergestrüzet ist; wo die grüne Heuschrecke sitzt. Gaukelnde Schmetterlinge und andere Insekten umgeben die Kinder des Frühlings und nähren sich auf ihren betaueten Blättern'.
'A glass vessel with a bouquet in which colourful tulips, blooming poppies and roses of various kinds, blue irises and glowing granatas jostle together with other diverse and outstanding smaller flowers to delight the excited eye. A horse fly (sic) sits on the heavy head of the sunflower, which has a broken stem and dangles on the marble table, where a green grasshopper sits. The butterflies and other insects surround the children of spring and feed on their bedewed leaves'.4
Gottfried Winckler (1731-1795), the scion of a wealthy banking family in Leipzig, was one of the greatest of 18th century German collectors. His catalogue of 1786 counted 628 pictures, including works by Durer, Holbein, Titian and Rembrandt. From 1765 onwards about 450 paintings from the collection were housed in his town house in St. Catherine Street and the Wincklerschen Gartenhaus. Here they were opened to the public every Wednesday afternoon for two hours, where they were seen by, among others, the young Goethe. As Johann Gottlob Schulz wrote in his Description of the city of Leipzig in 1784: ‘How many princes would be envious of such a wonderful and valuable collection of paintings. It is one of the greatest ornaments of our city, and proof of the riches and status of the same’. At Winckler’s death his collection numbered a reported 1300 paintings, 2,469 drawings and a staggering 80,000 engravings. Much of it was stolen during the Napoleonic wars and the rest dispersed by his heirs. In the former respect it is interesting to note that this pair of Ruyschs was probably split soon after, for the pendant Fruit piece was probably that sold in Paris in 1812 from the De Sereville collection and the two were not to be reunited until they appear together in the Lesser Lesser collection in London a century later.
According to Winckler’s own 1768 catalogue, both pictures were formerly in the renowned De la Court van der Voort collection in Leiden. This famous cabinet collection, one of the greatest of its day, had been sold from the estate of Catherina de la Court van der Voort-Backer in 1766. Both pictures were bought at the sale by the dealer de Winter, perhaps acting as agent for Winckler.5 The pair had passed by descent from Pieter de la Court van der Voort (1664-1739), who had commissioned them directly from Rachel Ruysch (fig. 4). The two paintings were seen in Ruysch's house in Amsterdam on the 14th March 1711 by the travelling German scholar Zacaharias Uffenbach, where they were awaiting delivery to Pieter de la Court. He describes his visit thus:
“We also went to Mr Pool, in the Wolferstraat, a painter, to see the work of his wife Rachel Ruysch (the daughter of the famous Anatomist)... From his wife we luckily saw two paintings, because she rarely has something finished and everything is ordered a year in advance. The two works were for the Mr la Court in Leiden, for which he paid her 1500 Gulden. One was of flowers, the other of fruit. Both were very pretty and painted very delicately. …Mrs Pool reassured us that she cannot paint much more than two paintings in one year. She has to deliver one painting every year to the Elector of the Pfalz, for whom she is the court painter and from whom she receives a pension...… She is a woman of 40 years, trim, but not pretty".
The outstanding provenance of this exceptional still life is thus here traced for the first time to Ruysch herself and its original commission. An immensely wealthy textile merchant, De la Court had settled in Leiden in 1686 and had amassed a stupendous art collection, including a notable group of works by Frans van Mieris and the Leiden fijnschilders.6 Von Uffenbach's testimony is revealing about the relationship between De la Court and Ruysch, for clearly the paintings had been ordered at least a year in advance, and there was still time allowed for her to visit her patron after their delivery in Leiden to touch them up or finish them. He also records that De la Court paid Ruysch the impressive sum of 1500 guilders for the fruit and flower pendants, but according to Pieter's son Allard, recorded in his hand written inventory of 1749, the true price was 650 guilders for each piece, or 1300 guilders for the pair (fig. 3).
At the time this Flower piece and its pendant were painted Rachel Ruysch was at the height of her powers. In the year she painted it, 1710, she made the first of two trips to Dusseldorf, to the court of the Elector Johann Wilhelm van der Pfalz, to whom she had been appointed court painter in 1708. Interestingly, on his visit the following year, Uffenbach also saw the pair of paintings on panel intended by the Elector Palatine as a royal gift for his father-in-law Cosimo de' Medici (and still in the Palazzo Pitti to this day) This position at court Ruysch shared with her husband, the portrait painter Juriaen Pool (1665-1745), and she retained it until the death of her patron in 1716. By this date she had been a painter for thirty-six years, ever since her apprenticeship to the still-life painter Willem van Aelst in Amsterdam between 1679 and 1683. She and her husband still resided in Amsterdam, where despite being the mother to no less than ten children, she continued to work until she was 83 years old, although her production seems to have slowed after 1720. Her pictures were mostly painted at home and then sent abroad; they were highly sought after in her lifetime and indeed have remained so ever since. They have always been scarce, and as auction prices from the 18th Century onwards attest, extremely expensive. No less then eleven contemporary poets paid tribute to her in addition to her biography, written by the contemporary painter Jan van Gool (1685-1763) in his Nieuw Schouburg in 1750.
The magnificence of this Flower piece easily explains Ruysch’s extraordinary reputation. Its scale and the effort it and other such pairs required were such that she claimed to Zacharias Uffenbach a year later in 1711 that she could paint no more than two works per year. This period, when she was court painter to the Elector, saw her finest and most important work. As the present painting so eloquently attests, by this date she had outgrown the competent but limited style of her teacher Willem van Aelst, and completely mastered the idiom of the 17thcentury, with a dark background setting off richly coloured blooms brought into heightened focus and given volume by the sharp contrasts of light and shade. The use of the S curve in the design is subtle and balanced, and the delicacy of the brushstrokes beautifully conveys the softness and fragility of the blooms and their petals. As Marianne Berardi has kindly observed:
'The present bouquet is the first known instance in Ruysch’s oeuvre of the large sunflower which becomes a trademark of her most ambitious flower paintings (note the Pitti bouquet of 1716). The head of the sunflower is so heavy its stem cracks and causes the flower to fall to the tabletop, where it dangles precariously over the edge. Ruysch is very clever in squeezing every ounce of drama out of this event by spotlighting the very fraction of an inch on the stem which is about to give way, and then placing a bumblebee, a grasshopper and a cabbage moth all on the head of the sunflower, visually weighing the head down even more! Would one more fly or ant or bee finally snap it off?'
'Both Jan de Heem and Abraham Mignon used the sunflower for visual drama in their work before Ruysch adopted it. But in her work it functions quite differently. The break in the stem is both artful and jarring. It creates a strong thrust down from the center of the bouquet where she clusters her heaviest blooms to anchor the arrangement. But by around 1708, Ruysch’s bouquets look more modern than De Heem and Mignon’s because the arrangement has many more unwieldy stems swinging out from the neat knot at the heart of the design and spinning into the negative space around it. She had begun in this stage of her career to create a more sculptural effect (interestingly) by relying upon these linear elements. The flowers are not facing frontally and cohering to a strictly (preordained) triangular or circular shape. Rather, beyond the rather dense core are long stems that fan out almost in a pinwheel fashion, but in a point-counter point manner. The basic thrust of this pinwheel is clockwise - note the direction of the tulip and the sunflower. However, counter-clockwise gestures occur in the red poppy at the apex of the bouquet, and also in the amazing variegated orange leaves on the left and in the curve of the honeysuckle to the left of the vase. There is more movement brewing in this bouquet and others beginning around 1708.'
In works such as this, and indeed in the ‘forest floor’ fruit pieces that were paired with them, Ruysch's style reflects the achievement of Jan Davidsz. de Heem, who was an important influence on her work, as well as Abraham Mignon, whom she surpassed. Her later pictures were responsive to the growing colour and lighter palette of the 18th Century and were painted with more movement, but without the sense of refinement and restraint of her greatest pictures such as this.
We are indebted to Dr. Marianne Berardi for her assistance with the cataloguing of this painting.
1. Oil on canvas, 87 by 69.5 cm (34 ¼ by 27 3/8 in). Present whereabouts unknown.
2. Canvas, 91 by 70 cm and 89 x 69 cm respectively. Reproduced in Grant, op. cit. 1956, p. 27, cat. nos. 26 and 27.
3. Grant, op. cit., p. 40, cat. nos. 167 and 171.
4. ''Auf Leinwand. 3 fuss. 1/ 1/2 hoch. 2 Fuss 6 Zoll. Breit.'.....Beide Gemälde wurdern 1710 gefertiget, und hör wie sonst zu Leiden im Cabinette des Hernn de la Court van der Voort, von allen Kennern für die schönsten erkläret, womit die fleisige Meisterinn die Nachwelt beschenkte'.
5. See Provenance below. The Allard de la Court provenance has been erroneously claimed before for the pair of Still lifes sold London, Christie’s, 9 December 1988, lots 107 and 108. Grant (op. cit. p. 29) similarly incorrectly assumed that his cat. nos. 45 and 46 were those in the Lesser Lesser sale in 1912.
6. Another painting from the De la Court van der Voort sale which entered Winckler’s collection, for example, was Willem van Mieris’s Self-portrait sold in these Rooms, 5 December 2012, lot 6, and later with Johnny van Haeften, London.
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