- Maria van Oosterwyck, Dutch, 1630-1693
About the Artist
Maria van Oosterwyck was born in Holland in 1630, the daughter of a well-to-do Protestant clergyman and his wife. She never married, though she was courted by another flower painter, Willem van Aelst. According to one source, van Aelst eventually gave up because she was so devoted to her career. Female artists were rare in the 1600s, but that didn’t keep Oosterwyck from success. Her paintings were bought by royalty, including King Louis XIV of France and King William III of England, and almost always fetched high prices.
Oosterwyck’s still-life studies included a range of objects such as glassware, coins, musical instruments, and flowers. She created complex images with lots of details, and was skilled at portraying light and reflections. She was particularly well-known for her flower paintings, and was able to capture the detail of individual flowers and foliage by sketching straight from the source. The bouquet in this painting would have been impossible to construct in real life because the flowers bloom in different seasons. Tulips, for example, bloom in the spring, while sunflowers bloom in the summer. Oosterwyck would have assembled this image of a fantasy bouquet from individual sketches she made in outdoor gardens.
What Inspired It
During Oosterwyck’s time, the Dutch were crazy about flowers. Flowers were rare in Holland, and very expensive. Flower bulbs and seeds had to be imported from the East, and only the wealthy could afford flower gardens. As a result, flowers, especially tulips, became symbols of status.
Since only the wealthy could actually afford to buy flowers, flower paintings were a relatively “cheap” alternative and served a number of purposes. Flower paintings lasted longer than real blooms, and people enjoyed them as a reminder of spring during the cold Dutch winters. They also served as a demonstration of God’s bounty. Variety was especially valued in flower paintings—it was believed that only variety could make an image beautiful and delightful. Variety is achieved here through the portrayal of many different types of blossoms, the inclusion of foliage, the positioning of the flowers, and the inclusion of plants in different stages of growth and decay.
The devoutly religious Oosterwyck may have hidden a deeper meaning in our painting. In Oosterwyck’s time, flowers that turned their faces toward the sun were compared to faithful souls who followed God. Notice how the tulip bends around to face the sunflower. Huge sunflowers, with their rays of bright yellow petals, sometimes represented the sun. Some scholars have suggested that Oosterwyck was painting a faithful soul looking to God.
In the top right corner of the painting we see a leaf that has been eaten by insects. A white rose in the center of the bouquet is nearing the end of its life. Notice the small nick in the stone ledge upon which the bouquet sits. All of these things are signs of decay, and serve as reminders that all worldly things will die.
Look closely at the vase and you will notice the reflection of a window.
In each leaf we see individual veins, crisp edges, and the irregular coloration found in nature. During the 1600s, there was a keen interest in botany. Artists were often commissioned to illustrate botanical books and catalogues for flower sellers. Many of the people who bought flower paintings were wealthy gardeners who knew the anatomy of flowers well and wanted to see the botanical details.
Covering the surface of the painting is a tiny network of cracks called craquelure. As paintings age, the paint or varnish will expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity, and tiny cracks will begin to develop. Craquelure is seldom disfiguring and is simply regarded as a characteristic feature of older paintings.
Look for butterflies, an earwig, a honeybee, and a beetle. The insects in this image are another indication of the 17th century fascination with the natural world.
Oosterwyck applied the paint thinly, creating a smooth canvas. There are no ridges, lumps, or trails of paint to indicate Oosterwyck’s process. Notice how the red and white colors of the carnation do not merely exist side by side, but flow into one another gradually.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- See how many colors and textures students can identify in the painting. Start with one color and find how many times it repeats or close variations of the color appear in the painting. What colors does Oosterwyck use the most? Do certain colors jump out more than others? Do you notice any kind of pattern in the color placement? Dive into analyzing the various textures of the painting with these same questions. Discuss how the different elements of color and texture work to produce the whole.
- In 17th century Dutch society, flowers were rare and expensive. Thus, flowers were only owned by the very wealthy and became status symbols for the Dutch elite. Have students brainstorm comparative status symbols of today. Out of their list, have them pick one kind of object to turn into their own contemporary still life.
- As the flower blooms and wilts within a relatively short cycle, it represents the ever-impending passage of time. Oosterwyck has also included other symbols, (such as the insect-eaten foliage, the knick in the stone ledge, and the overblown rose), that speak to the inevitability of change, decay and the transitory nature of life. Have students brainstorm other symbols that represent the passage of time. Have them write a poem about the eternally changing nature of the universe using their observations about Oosterwyck’s symbols and their own.
- Oosterwyck completed multiple studies of flowers before painting Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase. Have students understand her thorough process by sketching their own specimens found in their yard, at botanic gardens, at a nursery, etc. Have students study and sketch each specimen from different angles and at various stages of the life-cycle. From the final compilation of sketches, have students combine diverse kinds and phases of growth into their own contemporary bouquet painting.