Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip by Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch

Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip, 1716, Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 36 cm, Private Collection, L1208, On Loan to The National Gallery, London. © Private Collection.

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Wealth and Transience

Commentary by

If Rachel Ruysch’s Flowers fosters reflection on the marvellous ontological gratuity of these fleeting creatures—the gift that is their very being—it also elicits reflection on the social and economic backgrounds implicit in the gathering and staging of this bouquet. The variety of blooms in this vase attests to the extensive economic structures supporting their cultivation and commercialization. In Ruysch’s context, such a grouping of flowers connoted not only intense earthly pleasures but also immensely concentrated wealth and opulence.

Ruysch’s bouquet is crowned with a Semper Augustus tulip, one of the most expensive and highly coveted flowers in Dutch society. Indeed, during the ‘tulipmania’ of the 1630s a single bulb regularly sold for many times an average household’s annual income. The delicate red and white striping is produced from ‘broken’ bulbs, infected with an unpredictable virus that breaks the flower’s natural colour into spectacular patterns but weakens the bulb and hinders propagation—thus compounding demand for it. These tulips bloom for only about one week in springtime, making the play between luxury and fleetingness potent and riddled with questions of value.

Such imagery pulls ‘in the two spiritual directions at the heart of the Dutch predicament: between enjoying and celebrating an unprecedented wealth, while also questioning its true worth’ (Martin 2006: 563). The same cross-pressure pushes through the pages of Ecclesiastes, beginning in the prologue (1:8) and growing throughout (esp. 5:8–6:12).

Flowers also extends these questions of value to image-making itself. Ruysch rigorously observed each individual blossom, yet the overall pictorial ‘bouquet’ is highly fabricated, combining plant species that could never all have been in bloom (and certainly could not have been painted in such detail) at the same time. Ruysch seems temporally to ‘freeze’ each of them, preserving their lavishness from decay. But (in a self-reflexive move) she also builds vanitas into the logic of the image itself: everything pictured here, as well as the patron and the picturer herself, are now utterly gone, leaving only the image.

 

References

Martin, Wayne M. 2006. ‘Bubbles and Skull: The Phenomenology of Self-Consciousness in Dutch Still-Life Painting’, in A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, ed. by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons), pp. 559–84


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