Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age: Illuminating the Natural World

Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age presents paintings and prints by eight successful artists in the Netherlands during the 17th and early 18th centuries—a period of unprecedented economic growth. Works are drawn primarily from NMWA’s collection, with key loans that illuminate the artists’ lives and careers. The exhibition highlights women who excelled as artists, pushing boundaries in art and in life. On view October 11, 2019–January 5, 2020, this presentation features works by Judith Leyster, Maria Sibylla Merian, Clara Peeters, Rachel Ruysch, and more.

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Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 1 (from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

The lives and works of women artists of the Dutch Golden Age reveal connections between artists, patrons, and the subject matter of the natural world. The Dutch took pleasure in the wonders of nature—from flowers to food—and this is evident in the profusion of still-life paintings executed during the era.

The field of botany took root in the Netherlands, where one of the oldest botanical gardens, the Hortus Botanicus (est. 1638), still exists in Amsterdam. Private citizens also tried growing and maintaining the new species of plants that arrived via the Dutch East and West India Companies. One of these individuals was Agnes Block (1629–1704), a wealthy, educated collector of plants and art. Block commissioned artists, including Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), Alida Withoos (ca. 1661–1730), and Maria Moninckx (ca. 1676–1757), to document her gardens in paint and pencil. In 1687, Block commissioned Withoos to paint one of her prize plants: the first successfully grown pineapple in Europe. While Withoos’s painting does not survive, Merian’s two illustrations of it in her publication Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphoses in Surinam do. Merian based the images on observations of plants and insects during her travels to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America.

Artists in Bloom

The greatest floral still-life painter of the Golden Age was Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), whose compositions burst with movement and color. She achieved such authenticity because of her experience looking closely at organisms. Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was professor of botany at the Hortus Botanicus, as well as a surgeon, obstetrician, and collector. Art historian Maryanne Berardi notes that while surrounded by these natural wonders, Ruysch honed her observational power and artistic skill.

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Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. late 1680s; Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 33 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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Clara Peeters, A Still Life of Lilies, Roses, Iris, Pansies, Columbine, Love-in-a-Mist, Larkspur and Other Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Table Top, Flanked by a Rose and a Carnation, 1610; Oil on wood panel, 19 1/2 x 13 1/4 x 2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

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Alida Withoos, Still Life with Irises, Morning Glory, Fox Gloves, a Red Lily and Other Flowers on a Forest Floor, ca. 1700; Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 x 22 1/2 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Clara Peeters (1594–after 1657), a pioneer of still-life painting, was the only Flemish woman known to have specialized in the field as early as the first decade of the 17th century. When Peeters painted her largest and most exuberant floral work, A Still Life of Lilies, Roses, Iris, Pansies… (ca. 1610), the genre was still relatively new.

Withoos excelled in forest still lifes, or bosstilleven. Rather than depicting flowers in a vase, she anchored them to the forest floor, indicated by the tufts of sprouting grass. The grouping of flowers is pure artistic invention, however—bouquets like this do not grow naturally.

These artists flourished while creating authentic, imaginative renderings of the ephemeral natural world.

—Adapted from Virginia Treanor, “Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age,” Women in the Arts magazine, Fall 2019

On View: Salon Style in the Eulabee Dix Gallery

Like many museums, NMWA is only able to show a small portion—perhaps 3%—of its collection at any given time. Many objects stay safely tucked away in storage until curators select them for display. In an effort to place more of NMWA’s collection on view to the public, the staff recently reinstalled the Eulabee Dix Gallery, located on the museum’s fourth floor, “salon style.” Open to the public during weekday hours, this gallery now showcases an array of landscapes, interior scenes, portraits, and still lifes.

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NMWA’s Eulabee Dix Gallery before (left) and after re-installation (right)

The new salon-style installation—a selection of artworks of varying sizes, with mismatched frames, arranged in a crowded manner—allows the museum to exhibit more of its smaller paintings. For years there were fewer than a dozen paintings in the gallery. The recent reinstallation enables NMWA to exhibit more than 30 works, some of which have not been seen by the public in over a decade. Visitors can rediscover treasures from the museum’s collection and encounter new favorites.

Jane Peterson, Tower Bridge, ca. 1907; NMWA, Gift of Alice D. Kaplan

Jane Peterson, Tower Bridge, ca. 1907; NMWA, Gift of Alice D. Kaplan

Landscape paintings in the gallery depict scenes as varied as Jessey Dorr’s Lone Cypress (1906), which shows a tree overlooking a waterside cliff, Grandma Moses’s Calhoun (1955), a farm scene awash in yellows, and Gabriele Münter’s view of a mountain lake, Staffelsee in Autumn (1923).

Two paintings by Jane Peterson (1876–1965) are on view, a sunny Beach Scene (ca. 1935) and a watery, shadowed Tower Bridge (ca. 1907). In Tower Bridge, Peterson evokes misty London, with a nearby dock and distant bridge rising above the water.

Two works are on view by French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938). Nude Arranging Her Hair (ca. 1916) exemplifies Valadon’s style: rich colors, dark outlines, textiles, and simplified forms, with an awkwardly posed subject.

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Arranging Her Hair, ca. 1916; Oil on canvas board, 41 ¼ x 29 ⅝ in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Suzanne Valadon, Nude Arranging Her Hair, ca. 1916; Oil on canvas board, 41 1/4 x 29 5/8 in.; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Valadon had no formal training—instead, she grew up in Montmartre and modeled for painters. She learned from the artists around her, including friend and mentor Edgar Degas, and successfully transitioned from model into artist. Valadon also painted floral still lifes. Her Bouquet of Flowers in an Empire Vase (1920), also on view, features her vibrant color palette, strong outlines, and palpable brushwork.

There are more still lifes to discover in the gallery, including two by Dutch painter and botanical illustrator Alida Withoos (ca. 1661–1730). She emphasized flowers’ growth and gave them a naturalistic appearance. Arrangements of cultivated flowers appear to grow from the earth, accentuated by blades of grass and a frog near the bottom.

With the new installation of the Eulabee Dix Gallery, visitors have the opportunity to encounter more work by women artists at NMWA, exploring the abundant details of these paintings and their salon-style neighbors.

The Eulabee Dix Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, open to visitors Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Catherine Bade is the registrar and Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.