17th century Dutch painter Maria van Oosterwyck sold her floral still lifes to royal patrons throughout the world. Her signature motif, a Red Admiral butterfly, appears in most of her significant paintings; scholars believe that van Oosterwyck included the boldly-patterned insect to send a hopeful message about resurrection.
Flower Still Life (1669) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Cincinnati Art Museum)
About 24 paintings, mostly floral still lifes, are attributed to Maria van Oosterwyck.1 Her works are known for their colorful mixtures of meticulously observed flora, and she experimented with illusion by extending petals, insects, and other elements over the edge of the surface on which they sat. She was especially fond of striped plants, including tulips, carnations, and grasses, but her most consistent motif was the Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta).
Because they transform from caterpillars into their lovely final form, butterflies can symbolize transformation, or Christ’s resurrection.
Portrait of Maria van Oosterwijck (1671) by Wallerant Vaillant (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Van Oosterwyck’s father and grandfather were ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church 2, and she was described as “modest and unusually religious.”3 In her portrait she holds a Bible.4 A motif with Christian significance would have appealed to her.
Here are only a few examples of paintings that include Red Admirals.
Vanitas – Still Life (1668) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Kunsthistorisches Museum)
Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase (c. 1670) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Denver Art Museum)
Still Life with Flowers in a Decorative Vase, c. 1670–1675, by Maria van Oosterwyck (Mauritschuis)
Still Life of Roses, Carnations, Marigolds, and other Flowers with a Sunflower and Striped Grass,
in a Glass Vase with a Knife and String upon a Marble Ledge (1680) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Christie’s)
Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase, ca. 1685, by Maria van Oosterwyck (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha)
The painting above may be the only work in which Van Oosterwyck included two Red Admirals. (The butterfly on the table’s edge is beautiful, too. If you can identify it, please comment.)
Still Life with Flowers and Butterflies (1686) by Maria van Oosterwyck (Royal Collection Trust)
Writer and accomplished amateur lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was another notable Vanessa atalanta devotee. The butterflies play a role in his experimental novel Pale Fire, which includes a long poem by a fictional American poet called John Shade. Shade/Nabokov writes,
Come and be worshiped, come and be caressed,
My dark Vanessa, crimson-barred, my blest
My Admirable butterfly…
(Elsewhere in the book Shade explains that the butterfly’s original Old English name was the Red Admirable, which over time became simply “Red Admiral.”)
Vladimir Nabokov by Marc Riboud Source: Magnum Photos
When asked about this particular butterfly’s appeal, Nabokov said: “Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called ‘The Butterfly of Doom’ because it first appeared in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read ‘1881’. There is something interesting in the Red Admirable’s ability to travel so far.” 5
(Apparently the 1881 marking is on the underwing with the 18 on the left and 81 on the right, but it’s hard to decipher.)
Like some of her peers, Van Oosterwyck also seemed intrigued by reflected light. In several still lifes she included a glimpses of her studio windows, as shown here (and also in the Denver Art Museum’s painting):
Some viewers have seen a figure reflected in front of the window at the lower right.
Featured Work: Flower Still Life
Artist: Maria van Oosterwyck (1630-1693)
Born near Delft, van Oosterwyck studied with noted still-life painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem.6 In a display of marketing initiative unusual at the time, she hired an Amsterdam agent to market her work in Germany. 7 Although she was denied membership in the local painters’ guild because of her gender, 8 van Oosterwyck’s patrons included Louis XIV of France, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I,9, King Jan Sobieski of Poland10, and Anne, Queen of Great Britain.11
Material & Support: Oil on panel
Size: 46 cm. x 37.1 cm. (18 1/8 in. x 14 5/8 in.)
Location: Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Maria van Oosterwyck Biography
CODART, “Joslyn Art Museum Adds to European Collection with Still Life by Maria van Oosterwyck,” June 7, 2019.
Berardi, Mariane, and Delia Gaze (ed.), Concise Dictionary of Women Artists. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001, pp. 524–528.
Heller, Nancy G., Women Artists – An Illustrated History, Third Edition, New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.
Houbraken, Arnold, Maria van Oosterwyk, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen, 1718 (in Dutch). Digital Library for Dutch Literature.
- Heller p. 41.
- Berardi, p. 524.
- A. Houbraken, De Groote Schouburgh, II, Amsterdam 1718-1721, p. 216.
- Berardi 528.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, Vintage, p. 170, cited in SerenitySpell.com.
- Arnold Houbraken; also Heller p. 41.
- Maria van Oosterwyck, Roses and Butterfly, n.d.” Crocker Art Museum.
- Crocker Art Museum.
- Bailey, Colin J. (February 2005). “Enchanting the Eye. Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age by Christopher Lloyd”. The Burlington Magazine. The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd. 147 (1223): 123–124.
- Houbraken; also B. Haak, The Golden Age: Dutch Painters of the Seventeenth Century, New York 1984, p. 454.
- Royal Collection Trust website.