Maria van Oosterwyck<br/>
<em>Still life with flowers and butterflies</em> 1668<br/>
Oil on canvas <br/>
87.6 X 75.8cm   <br/>
Purchased with funds donated by Dodge Bequest, Margaret Bland, Joy Anderson, Tim Fairfax AC & Gina Fairfax AC, The Betsy & Ollie Polasek Endowment, Michael Heine Family Foundation, Suzanne Kirkham, Carol Sisson, E. & D. Rogowski Foundation, and donors to the 2022 NGV Foundation Annual Dinner and 2022 NGV Annual Appeal, 2022<br/>

Women and Dutch still life painting


Still life painting ‘bloomed’ during an economic boom period in the Netherlands fuelled by imperialism, trade monopolies and the use of enslaved labour. The rise of the still life painting was closely linked to the country’s economic and scientific development. As new species of plants arrived in the Netherlands via Dutch trading ships, botany took root as a popular pursuit in both academic and amateur circles. Plant collectors and naturalists, such as Agnes Block, commissioned artists to document their collections, creating demand for botanical illustrators. Imported plants were luxury objects and status symbols, grown and sold as cut flowers to wealthy Dutch citizens. The booming international trade and domestic demand for plants peaked in the 1630s with ‘tulip mania’, which saw the price of plant bulbs rise to extraordinary heights, precipitating a market crash. Dutch society’s interest in flower painting, however, survived the crash and endured throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Women were an active presence on the competitive still life art market. Born in Antwerp in the late 1580s, Clara Peeters was part of the early development of still life and flower painting as a distinct speciality. Her first known paintings, dated around 1608, are among the earliest recorded works of the still life genre. Peeters’s large-scale paintings featuring luxury tableware and rare foods were bought by wealthy patrons, including the Spanish royal family. Born around the time Peeters stopped painting, and at the height of tulip mania, in 1630, Maria van Oosterwyck was trained by two of the still life genre’s most successful proponents, Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Willem van Aelst. Working in Utrecht and then Amsterdam, van Oosterwyck developed a distinct style characterised by technical precision, contrasting yet harmonious use of colour and subtle allegorical themes.

In preparation for painting, van Oosterwyck created scientifically accurate botanical sketches working from living specimens or existing scientific illustrations. Using these sketches as reference material, she composed arrangements of flowers belonging to different seasons and regions, creating ‘impossible bouquets’. Rather than depicting realistic grouping of plants found in nature, van Oosterwyck’s paintings were rich in symbolic meaning, often informed by her deep religious faith. Themes of innocence, martyrdom, transience and the ephemerality of life are captured in the guise of velvety, striped petals and fluttering butterflies.

There is speculation that van Oosterwyck played a role in training Rachael Ruysch, one of the period’s most successful still life painters. Ruysch was also a pupil of van Aeslt, whose studio was located opposite van Oosterwyck’s own. It is likely that the two artists were at least familiar with each other. Both sold works for high prices and to high-profile buyers, including European royal families. Van Oosterwyck sold a painting to King William III for 900 guilders while Ruysch regularly sold works for between 800 and 1200 guilders, double the price commanded for Rembrandt’s work around the same time. A key difference in the two artist’s practices was their prolificacy. Over her long career, Ruysch created more than 250 known works. In comparison, van Oosterwyck, known for her slow and painstaking working methods, produced only around thirty recorded paintings. The subject of the 2022 NGV Annual Appeal, Still life with flowers and butterflies, 1668, exemplifies van Oosterwyck’s meticulous approach to painting. We warmly invite you to support this appeal and we are truly grateful for donations of any size to make this acquisition possible.

This essay was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine #35, JUL-AUG 2022

Dr Maria Quirk is Assistant Curator, Collections and Research, NGV.