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.

1986.282 GAP

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

Opening this Week: Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age

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 in this era, 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.

A dark still life oil painting that shows a bowl of dead fish and a plate of shrimp and clams, along with a cat with his paws on one of the dead fish.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, after 1620; Oil on panel, 13 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The Netherlands experienced unprecedented economic growth from the late 16th century through the first quarter of the 18th century. A rising middle class of wealthy merchants fueled demand for paintings and prints of still-lifes, portraits, and scenes of everyday life. By some estimates, there was one painter for every 2,000–3,000 inhabitants, a ratio exceeding that of Italy during the same period. While this era has been widely documented and studied, the many women artists who were part of this thriving scene are rarely included in museum exhibitions.

In fact, to date, there has never been an exhibition devoted to the Dutch and Flemish women artists of the Golden Age. This is remarkable given the sheer scale of artistic production in the Netherlands during this period. Women artists thrived in this environment. Like those elsewhere in Europe, many Dutch and Flemish women were born into families of artists and received their training from fathers or brothers. However, some took the more traditionally “masculine” route of apprenticing with a recognized master and joining artistic guilds. Considering a group of these women together offers an opportunity to upend common assumptions and uncover surprising connections.

An engraved self portrait in black and white of Anna Maria van Schurman, she wears typical dress of the 1600s and looks to the left.

Anna Maria van Schurman, Self-Portrait, 1640; Engraving on paper, 8 1/2 x 6 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Featured artists include:

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750), one of the most successful artists of this period, who is regarded as the greatest floral still-life painter of the Golden Age. Her prestigious career lasted a remarkable 70 years, and she sold work to an international circle of patrons.

Judith Leyster (1609–1660), one of the first women admitted to the painter’s guild in Haarlem, where she also took on her own students. A recently rediscovered self-portrait by Leyster is a highlight of the exhibition—it is on public view in the U.S. for the first time.

Clara Peeters (1594–1657?), a pioneer of still-life painting and the only Flemish woman known to have specialized in the genre as early as the first decade of the 17th century. Peeters was the artist who inspired NMWA founder Wilhelmina Cole Holladay to begin collecting work by women artists.

Considered individually, the stories of the women represented in this exhibition reveal that there was not just one path to becoming an artist, nor was there only one model for success. Through a wider view encompassing each artist’s individual struggles and triumphs, a clearer and more nuanced picture of women artists during the Dutch Golden Age comes into focus.