Urgent Museum Notice

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

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
A still life painting featuring an asymmetrical arrangement of flowers; the central section features pink, orange, yellow, and blue flowers and is dramatically highlighted compared to the background and outer edge of arrangement.

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.

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.

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.

Related Posts

  • Now Open—Julie Chen: True to Life

    Posted: Oct 12, 2020 in Library and Research Center
    Julie Chen creates elaborate books that ask readers to do more than simply turn pages. NMWA's new exhibition presents more than a dozen captivating works from the artist's 33-year career.
    A close up photograph of an artist's book. Each layer of blue paper has an organic, irregular shape cut out of the middle so the layers form a tunnel. A line of text is printed in small type on each page, receding into the tunnel like an underwater cavern.
    Blog Category:  Library and Research Center
  • Iturbide and Kahlo: A Conversation

    Posted: May 18, 2020 in NMWA Exhibitions
    In one intimate photograph, Graciela Iturbide responds—and pays homage—to Frida Kahlo’s cultural legacy, creating an artistic dialogue between the two women.
    A black and white photograph of a worn body brace pinned on a blank concrete wall. The photograph is taken from slightly below and to the left of the brace. Similar to a corset, the brace itself is simultaneously lonely, foreboding, and empty as it hangs.
    Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions
  • Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico: Capturing Death

    Posted: May 04, 2020 in NMWA Exhibitions
    Graciela Iturbide confronts what she calls “Mexico’s death fantasy” as it appears in the street, at festivals, and in the cemetery.
    A black-and-white photograph shows the back of a woman as she crests a rocky path above a vast desert landscape beneath an expansive sky. Her traditional, ethnic full skirt, long-sleeved blouse, and long, straight, dark hair contrasts with the modern portable stereo she carries.
    Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions