The Great British Art Tour: split flesh and a feasting lizard

A luscious arrangement of late-season fruit is amassed at the base of a young oak tree. Clusters of grapes nestle between plump peaches, unhusked corn and a single, rotund gourd. Encroaching on this display is a rich woodland understorey: fungi, thistle, white dead-nettle, forget-me-not and thorny sprays of bramble. Brilliant flashes of red and orange in the form of physalis seed heads, rowan berries and corn kernels enliven this shaded spot. A chipped stone plinth is a singular vestige of what may have once been a formal garden. The scene teems with snails and insects – creatures whose short lifespans embody transience and impermanence, the hallmarks of a vanitas. So too do the ripening fruits, some on the cusp of over-maturing and rotting. White mould blooms on a grape; the dewy flesh of a peach has split. In the lower right corner, a miniature drama unfolds: a lizard feasts on a speckled egg in a bird’s nest.

Still Life With Fruit, Bird’s Nest and Insects is a masterful study of earthly abundance and forces of decay, the promise of life and the certainty of death. It is the work of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1740), one of the most admired flower painters of the Dutch golden age and perhaps the most successful Dutch female artist in history. In a period where few women painted professionally, Ruysch led a lucrative career that spanned almost seven decades, saw her become the first female member of the Confrerie Pictura in The Hague and named court painter to the Elector Palatine in Düsseldorf – all while raising 10 children.

The technical virtuosity and scientific precision with which Ruysch executes this scene is a testament to her upbringing. Her father, Frederik Ruysch, was an eminent botanist and anatomist and Rachel would have had access to an unparalleled collection of plants in Amsterdam’s Hortus Botanicus where her father was keeper.

Her first-hand botanical knowledge is evident here. She expertly recreates the vein-like patterns (reticulate venation) of foliage, including the surface and underside of leaves. The arrangement, however, is anything but natural – the peculiar ecology and composition of this woodland tableau is wholly staged.

Today, the painting is in the collection at Dudmaston, an early 18th-century house situated on ancient woodland in Shropshire. It hangs in the library alongside other Dutch flower paintings inherited by Lady Rachel Labouchere (1908-96), the last chatelaine of Dudmaston, who, in addition to sharing a first name with Ruysch, also trained as a botanical artist.

You can see more art from Dudmaston on Art UK here, and find out more on its website.




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