fig. 1 
Flowerpiece

If anything has been learnt from the great Rembrandt exhibition held in 1997 at the National Gallery of Victoria, it is that attributing paintings to, and de-attributing paintings from, an artist’s oeuvre is a hazardous business. Such factors as brushstroke, fall of light, and composition – and in each case it is tricky to define just what it is that distinguishes one artist’s hand from another’s – determine the status of a work of art: whether it should be attributed to the master, to a talented pupil, or to another artist altogether. Art historians can reach very different conclusions, based on the same data. The question as to whether a particular painting was a commissioned work or was produced for the open market, as well as issues surrounding the regular practices in an artist’s workshop, complicate the matter even more. Master and pupil/s would commonly work on the same paintings, especially on large commissions. In such cases only a small group of connoisseurs are either able or willing to distinguish between the hand of the master and those of his collaborators. One good thing about the Rembrandt exhibition was that it showed works indisputably by the master as well as pieces by his most gifted pupils. But in particular those paintings that were presented as problematic contributed to a further refinement of our image of Rembrandt.1 See A. Blankert & P. C. Sutton, in A. Blankert, Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1997, cat. nos 29–32.

In the exhibition titled The Golden Age of Dutch Art, held almost simultaneously with the Rembrandt exhibition and organised by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, similar attempts were made to qualify our understanding of the idea of authenticity.2 See N. E. Middelkoop, The Golden Age of Dutch Art: Seventeenth Century Paintings from the Rijksmuseum and Australian Collections (exh. cat.), trans. W. Shaffer, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, & Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1997; exhibition venues, 1997–98: Art Gallery of Western Australia; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Of particular significance were the issues surrounding the Man in Oriental Costume,1635 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), a Rembrandtesque head-and- shoulders painting which, shortly before the exhibition catalogue appeared, was reattributed to the master himself (see Middelkoop, cat. no. 28, repr. p. 81). Equally interesting was a painting specially restored for the exhibition, the Battle of Texel, c.1675 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633–1707). There are several versions of this work. Leaving aside my assumption that the Rijksmuseum version must have been painted before the others, the fact that there are several virtually identical versions of it (and of other works by van de Velde the Younger and his father) testifies that these artists, working for the British elite, ran a well-organised studio where with their assistants they produced work to meet popular demand (see Middelkoop, cat. no. 20, repr. p. 65). A restored pronk, or still life, Still Life with Imaginary View (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), attributed to Jan Davidsz de Heem, raised interesting issues associated with authorship. While I suggested in the exhibition catalogue that this painting was perhaps by de Heem in collaboration with his son Cornelis de Heem (1631–1695), Cornelis’s younger half-brother Jan Jansz de Heem (1650–after 1695) has recently been nominated as the most probable candidate.3 See Middelkoop, cat. no. 15, repr. p. 54. The attribution to Jan Jansz de Heem alone has been suggested by Dr Sam Segal, who proposes a date around 1680 (discussion with the author, 31 Deceinber 1997).

Possibly the most problematic question of attribution in the exhibition concerned the Flowerpiece from the National Gallery of Victoria, which is attributed by the Gallery to Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) (fig. 1).4 See Middelkoop, cat. no. 17. A painting by Ruysch can always count on attracting special attention, both because of the consistently high quality of her flower still lifes and because of the remarkable fact that Ruysch, as a woman painter, gained such an outstanding reputation in a professional world dominated by men.5 A study that contains new insights into Ruysch’s life and work is M. Berardi, ‘The Nature Pieces of Rachel Ruysch’, Porticus: Journal of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, vols 10–11,1987–88, pp. 3–15. Berardi is preparing a monograph on the painter. She states correctly that the only existing monograph on Ruysch (M. H. Grant, Rachel Ruysch 1664–1750, Leigh-on-Sea, 1956) is hopelessly outdated and most inaccurate in its attributio.

In her recently published catalogue of the old master collections at the National Gallery of Victoria, Ursula Hoff rightly suggests that Ruysch was influenced by the compositions of Jan Davidsz de Heem. Hoff also names the various flowers represented in the Melbourne painting, noting correctly that these flowers do not bloom simultaneously.6 U. Hoff, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, 4th edn, Melbourne, 1995, p. 264.

In the centre of the composition, brightly illuminated, are three pastel-tinted roses (on the white rose are an ant and a peacock butterfly). Both the roses and the marigold behind them to the right are seen against dark green foliage. The outline of the bouquet is defined by an iris, a poppy and three tulips, their almost exaggerated proportions suggesting a movement towards the right and upwards. At the lower left, providing a counterbalance, is a spray of honeysuckle, trailing over the edge of the table and again fully illuminated.7 For further discussion of the painting, see Middelkoop, cat. no. 17.

The recent exhibition presented an opportunity to analyse this flower bouquet in greater detail. It immediately became apparent that from a stylistic point of view the flowerpiece has not enough in common with the paintings in Ruysch’s oeuvre to justify an attribution to her, despite the inscription on the edge of the table at the lower right.8 In discussions with the author, Sam Segal confirmed that the ‘signature’ is not authentic (discussion with the author, 31 December 1997).

   

Rachel Ruysch’s flower still lifes are characterised by their exceptional pastel hues and by a remarkable concentration on reflections on flowers and foliage. In Ruysch’s exquisite bouquets, emerging from dark, subtly illuminated backgrounds, the arrangements always appear realistic. The bouquets combine a convincing three-dimensionality with a delicate and brittle appearance. Building on the innovations introduced into the genre of flower painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem, Ruysch’s work achieved masterly heights (fig. 2). From a compositional point of view the bouquet at the National Gallery of Victoria would seem closer to de Heem’s models: compact, thoughtful, but somewhat top-heavy arrangements (fig. 3). Might the present painting, therefore, possibly be an example of Ruysch’s juvenilia? This suggestion is rendered implausible by the earliest known works by the young Ruysch, which show her to be already an accomplished artist and one who, even when learning from her predecessors, never quotes directly but always introduces her own voice. A still life of 1682 at the Národní Galerie, Prague, is Ruysch’s earliest known dated work (fig. 4).9 See Berardi, p. 13 n. 3.

Ruysch studied under Willem van Aelst (1626–1683) and was also influenced by Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1619/20–1678), the painter of woodland still lifes. As already noted, de Heem was another source of inspiration for the young Ruysch, as was Abraham Mignon (1640–1679), who proves of great help in our search for the maker of the painting at the National Gallery of Victoria. At the Rijksmuseum there is a large still life by Mignon showing a vase of flowers in the act of toppling over, having been knocked by a cat chasing a mouse (fig. 5). The work is signed in full at the lower left: A, Mignon: fe.10 M. Krämer-Noble, Abraham Mignon 1640–1679, Leigh-on-Sea, 1973, no. A2. Many of the details in the Melbourne painting correspond exactly with details in this large work, albeit on a smaller scale. In the seventeenth century, Mignon’s painting was presumably well known, for there are several copies and variants of it dating from this period.11 A replica is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (inv. no. A 129) (Krämer-Noble, no. A46), with other versions at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig (inv. no. 440) (Krämer-Noble, no. B67) and in the F. P. Vogel sale (New York (Parke-Bernet), 8 April 1956, lot 26) (Krämer-Noble, no. B223, as possibly an eighteenth-century copy). At the time I was preparing the Golden Age of Dutch Art exhibition, it was still not clear to me which of the two still lifes – the Mignon or the Melbourne picture – was painted first, but having studied the latter painting again I believe there is little doubt: the large still life by Mignon was used by another artist as the basis for a variant, wherein the scale was diminished and the overall drama of the piece reduced. This assertion is based on the fact that in its treatment of the individual flowers the painting in Melbourne shows the typical characteristics of a copy. The petals of both the tulips and the poppies, for example, are less confidently painted than those of Mignon’s magnificent, partially transparent, flowers. With their diligent, conscientious precision, the Melbourne flowers seem to reveal the effort of the copyist to equal the original. It is most probably due to this that the piece lacks the unifying strength that characterises the original. Great attention has been paid to individual elements in the bouquet, but as a result the overall composition suffers.

In my entry on the painting in the catalogue of the Golden Age exhibition, I noted that the copper vase in the Melbourne bouquet, unusual in Ruysch’s oeuvre, also appears in a flower painting formerly attributed to Ruysch but now considered to be by Simon Pietersz Verelst (1644–1721), a contemporary of Mignon (fig. 6).12 Sam Segal is not convinced of this painting’s attribution to Verelst (discussion with the author, 31 December 1997); for the earlier attribution to Ruysch, see Grant, no. 47. For Verelst, see F. Lewis, Simon Pietersz Verelst 1644–1721, Leigh-on-Sea, 1979. Although the present location of the latter work is unknown, so that an adequate comparison of the two paintings is impossible, it would seem that the Melbourne painting is indeed closer to Verelst than to Ruysch. Characteristic of Verelst’s work are the direct lighting, the neutral background and the emphasis on the foliage of the bouquet. But despite these similarities, the stylistic differences between the Melbourne painting and works by Verelst are inescapable. Flowerpieces by Verelst, notable for their variety of flowers and foliage, reveal more of a unifying sculptural quality than is the case in the Melbourne picture.

In this context, the painter Ernst Stuven (1657–1712) should also be mentioned. He was a pupil of Mignon’s and is known to have regularly copied the work of his master.13 For Stuven, see S. Segal, Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries (exh. cat.), Nabio Museum 49 of Art, Osaka, 1990, pp. 236–7. The Flowers and Nature exhibition was also on view at Tokyo Station Gallery and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. However, in this case he is not a possible candidate, because his brushstroke is almost always soft and hazy and in no way resembles the rather firm treatment of the individual flowers and leaves that characterises the Melbourne piece.

  

All things considered, it would seem most appropriate to describe the maker of the somewhat puzzling bouquet at the National Gallery of Victoria as ‘a late follower of Mignon’.14 An anonymous note, dated April 1985, at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague, states that the work in Melbourne is ‘after Mignon’. The way in which this anonymous painter has cited Mignon’s work, has borrowed a flower vase from Verelst and has then appropriated Rachel Ruysch’s signature speaks volumes about the reputation of these three artists and about the popularity of their work. Given the clever combination of elements taken from three leading Dutch flower painters of the seventeenth century, a date well into the eighteenth century seems likely for this painting.

This interesting flower still life confronts the viewer with one of the most intriguing aspects of Dutch seventeenth-century art – that is, the nature of its appreciation by subsequent generations of painters, collectors, art historians and visitors to museums. However, whatever we may argue about its attribution, the picture itself does not change.15 An important recent publication on Dutch flower still lifes is P. Taylor, Dutch Flower Painting 1600–1720, New Haven, 1995.

Norbert Middelkoop, Amsterdam Historical Museum (in 1997).

Acknowledgements
This article has been translated from the Dutch by Wendie Shaffer. I should like to express my gratitude towards the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, for allowing me to work on the Golden Age of Dutch Art project, providing me with the opportunity to study the National Gallery of Victoria flower still life. I dedicate this article to Dr Robert Edwards, who has unfailingly supported art historical initiatives between the Netherlands and Australia, in the fullest way. My special thanks to Dr Sam Segal, Fred Meijer and Charles Roelofsz, the leading Dutch specialists on flower still lifes, for discussing the painting with me.

Notes

1     See A. Blankert & P. C. Sutton, in A. Blankert, Rembrandt: A Genius and His Impact (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1997, cat. nos 29–32.

2     See N. E. Middelkoop, The Golden Age of Dutch Art: Seventeenth Century Paintings from the Rijksmuseum and Australian Collections (exh. cat.), trans. W. Shaffer, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, & Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1997; exhibition venues, 1997–98: Art Gallery of Western Australia; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Of particular significance were the issues surrounding the Man in Oriental Costume,1635 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), a Rembrandtesque head-and- shoulders painting which, shortly before the exhibition catalogue appeared, was reattributed to the master himself (see Middelkoop, cat. no. 28, repr. p. 81). Equally interesting was a painting specially restored for the exhibition, the Battle of Texel, c.1675 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633–1707). There are several versions of this work. Leaving aside my assumption that the Rijksmuseum version must have been painted before the others, the fact that there are several virtually identical versions of it (and of other works by van de Velde the Younger and his father) testifies that these artists, working for the British elite, ran a well-organised studio where with their assistants they produced work to meet popular demand (see Middelkoop, cat. no. 20, repr. p. 65).

3     See Middelkoop, cat. no. 15, repr. p. 54. The attribution to Jan Jansz de Heem alone has been suggested by Dr Sam Segal, who proposes a date around 1680 (discussion with the author, 31 Deceinber 1997).

4     See Middelkoop, cat. no. 17.

5     A study that contains new insights into Ruysch’s life and work is M. Berardi, ‘The Nature Pieces of Rachel Ruysch’, Porticus: Journal of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, vols 10–11,1987–88, pp. 3–15. Berardi is preparing a monograph on the painter. She states correctly that the only existing monograph on Ruysch (M. H. Grant, Rachel Ruysch 1664–1750, Leigh-on-Sea, 1956) is hopelessly outdated and most inaccurate in its attributions.

6     U. Hoff, European Paintings before 1800 in the National Gallery of Victoria, 4th edn, Melbourne, 1995, p. 264.

7     For further discussion of the painting, see Middelkoop, cat. no. 17.

8     In discussions with the author, Sam Segal confirmed that the ‘signature’ is not authentic (discussion with the author, 31 December 1997).

9     See Berardi, p. 13 n. 3.

10    M. Krämer-Noble, Abraham Mignon 1640–1679, Leigh-on-Sea, 1973, no. A2.

11    A replica is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (inv. no. A 129) (Krämer-Noble, no. A46), with other versions at the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig (inv. no. 440) (Krämer-Noble, no. B67) and in the F. P. Vogel sale (New York (Parke-Bernet), 8 April 1956, lot 26) (Krämer-Noble, no. B223, as possibly an eighteenth-century copy).

12     Sam Segal is not convinced of this painting’s attribution to Verelst (discussion with the author, 31 December 1997); for the earlier attribution to Ruysch, see Grant, no. 47. For Verelst, see F. Lewis, Simon Pietersz Verelst 1644–1721, Leigh-on-Sea, 1979.

13     For Stuven, see S. Segal, Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries (exh. cat.), Nabio Museum 49 of Art, Osaka, 1990, pp. 236–7. The Flowers and Nature exhibition was also on view at Tokyo Station Gallery and at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

14     An anonymous note, dated April 1985, at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) in The Hague, states that the work in Melbourne is ‘after Mignon’.

15     An important recent publication on Dutch flower still lifes is P. Taylor, Dutch Flower Painting 1600–1720, New Haven, 1995.