Maria van Oosterwyck was a well-known and successful flower painter during the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, but as a woman, she couldn’t even join the artists’ guild.
Read on to learn about Maria and her beautiful flower still lifes, and why they’re called Vanitas paintings.
This post includes 5 things about Maria and her work:
- A bio of Maria van Oosterwyck
- Information about Maria’s paintings, and how tulipmania and red admiral butterflies figure in her work
- Activities to help you and your children enjoy the paintings
- A kid-friendly devotion based on the paintings
- At the end is some background information. It’s not essential to enjoy Maria’s art, but it will help you better understand the art of this time and give you curriculum connections for this series.
Portrait of Maria van Oosterwyck holding a Bible and a paint palette, by Wallerant Vaillant, public domain
Maria van Oosterwyck was born in a small town near Delft in 1630. Both her father and grandfather were Protestant ministers, and Maria’s faith was central to her life and work. No one knows for sure where she first learned to paint. We do know that later Maria lived in several other cities and studied with flower and still life artists. In 1666 she moved to Amsterdam and set up her own studio.
Despite having to work and sell outside the artist’s guild, Maria sold paintings for high prices. In 1669 Cosimo d’Medici bought one of her paintings, bringing her international attention. Kings of France, England, and the Holy Roman Emperor all bought her paintings.
Maria never married, dedicating herself to her art. After retiring in 1690, she went to live with a nephew who was a minister. She died at his home near Amsterdam in 1693.
Although not widely known today, Maria van Oosterwyck’s paintings appear in many museum collections.
Maria followed the Netherlandish traditions of close observation of details and attention to the effects of light on objects. She loved to show reflections in glass, the nubbly texture of leather book covers, and the sheen of satin ribbon. Maria’s portrayal of plants and insects is accurate enough for a naturalist’s work.
Roses and Butterfly by Maria van Oosterwyck, Crocker Art Museum, public domain
Look at Maria’s paintings and see how items emerge from the shadows of the dark background and so appear even brighter. We see this same dramatic use of light and shadow in the work of Rembrandt, Maria’s contemporary. Also notice the light blue reflection of a window in the glass vase.
Flower Still Life by Maria van Oosterwyck, Cincinnati Art Museum, public domain
Maria applied paint thinly and blended colors into one another. She liked to put complementary colors next to each other to increase contrast–red flowers behind green leaves, yellow flowers next to violet flowers, and blue and orange flowers next to each other.
Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase by Maria van Oosterwyck, Denver Art Museum, public domain
Go to this link and enlarge Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase, to see these details.https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/edu/object/bouquet-flowers-vase
The Dutch loved variety in still lifes, so most flower paintings have flowers from different seasons. Maria studied and drew the flowers when they were in season, then put them together in the final paintings.
Tulipmania: in the 1600s flowers were rare and expensive. Seeds and bulbs had to be imported, so only wealthier people could afford flower gardens.
- Flowers, especially tulips, became a status symbol. When Maria was a child, tulip bulbs that might produce striped or speckled petals became so popular, that prices rose to crazy levels–as much as a house. The stripes and speckles were actually caused by a fungus on the bulbs!
- Tulipmania lasted only a short time, but a few people lost small fortunes speculating with tulip bulbs!
- Flower paintings were much more affordable, and the flowers didn’t die. Notice that Maria often has a red-striped tulip—one of the really expensive kinds—in her still lifes.
With her flowers, Maria often included glassware, musical instruments, coins, globes, shells, books, insects, and skulls. Each item shows careful attention.
Vanitas-Still Life by Maria van Oosterwyck, Kunsthistorisches Museum, public domain
Vanitas with Sunflower and Jewelry Box by Maria van Oosterwyck, public domain
Because of trade many could afford luxuries, such as oranges, furs, and porcelain from around the world. These paintings showed off the wealth of the Dutch during the 1600s.
But they did more. When a still life had insects, skulls, chewed leaves, half-eaten foods, wilted flowers,etc., it became a Vanitas—a painting meant to remind viewers that life and worldly possessions are fleeting.
Maria went a step further, almost always including a red admiral butterfly to lead you into the painting and represent the resurrection of Christ and eternal life for those who believe in Him.
Red Admiral Butterfly: the red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), along with the related painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) are among the most common butterflies in the world.
- They live on every continent except Antarctica.
- They’re medium-sized butterflies whose caterpillars can live on many different plants.
- Admirals and painted ladies migrate, but they have kind of a rolling migration. As winter approaches, they begin flying south laying eggs as they go. Soon those eggs hatch and that generation continues south, and so on until some reach warmer places where they live and breed year round. When spring arrives, the process reverses, and they repopulate northern climates. Some years they leave or arrive in such large groups that they show up on weather radar.
Activities to Help You and Your Children further Explore these Beautiful Paintings
- I always like to first ask children what they think is going on in a painting, and what tells them that. This grabs their interest and makes them feel their ideas are valuable. You’ll often be surprised by their observations. And you can enhance their observational and verbal skills by rephrasing words and adding new vocabulary.
- Play an I Spy game to find butterflies, foods, books, different flowers, reflections, etc.
- Or, try this fun activity: have children look at the painting briefly, then turn away and tell all the things they remember. With a group have each one write down what they remember and then compare answers.
Ask children what things the Dutch liked to include in still lifes. Remind them that flowers and other items in Maria’s still lifes were luxuries and so became very important. Then have them gather or draw things they would put in a still life to tell important things about themselves and why.
- Discuss how our interests, skills, and possessions are all gifts from God. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17 NIV)
- Discuss how these should be used to love God and our neighbors. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mathew 22:37-39 NIV)
- What is one way they could use a skill or possession to show love to another?
- Ask children what things in each of Maria’s Vanitas paintings remind us material things don’t last. ” The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 NIV)
- Then ask what they might put in their still life as reminders that life is fleeting—a broken toy, an insect perched on a bowl of cereal, etc.
- Maria also put in a butterfly to stand for Christ’s resurrection and eternal life for those who believe in Him. Discuss with children why a butterfly has long been a symbol of the resurrection.
author photo of swallowtail butterfly perched on lilacs
Here’s some information about butterflies that may help your discussion: At one time people didn’t know about the life cycle changes of insects, frogs, etc. But during Maria van Oosterwyck’s life, many were studying and learning more about nature. Another woman artist who also lived in the Netherlands at this time, studied and painted butterflies, helping people learn about their life cycle.
- Maria Sybylla Merian
Maria Sibylla Merian
public domain, wikimedia
proved that a butterfly begins as an egg, hatches into a hungry caterpillar, and then forms a chrysalis to complete the change into a butterfly.
Maria Sibylla Merian’s work
public domain, wikimedia
You can learn more about her life and work in this post I wrote in June of 2018, called, Artists/Naturalists: Maria Sybilla Merian and Titian Ramsay Peale II.
Chrysalis, public domain
- Scientists now know the change from caterpillar to butterfly is even more profound than anyone thought. Inside each chrysalis a caterpillar actually liquifies and every part is completely rearranged to produce a butterfly.The caterpillar, which is often ugly and must crawl along leaves, becomes a beautiful new creation that can fly!
- If you’ve never raised caterpillars and watched this process, you and your children will love it! Order monarch, red admiral, or painted lady caterpillars online and watch them grow, form chrysalises, and emerge as adults. Then enjoy releasing them to fly away into the sky, just as Jesus did at His ascension!!!
What a wonderful and amazing picture for us of Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and our resurrection into eternal life! Here are some verses to read together:
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20 NIV).
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight (Acts 1:9 NIV).
For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. Tor the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality . . . (1 Cor. 15:52b-54a NIV).
Prayer Heavenly Father, thank you for Your Word, which endures forever and teaches us about Jesus our Savior, and His death and resurrection. Thank you that one day we will be resurrected also, and you’ve given us such an amazing picture of that transformation in butterflies! In Jesus’ name, amen.
Some background of the religious, political, economic, and art history of the Netherlands is helpful to understand the amazing Golden Age of Dutch art and Maria’s work. I’ve just given brief descriptions. Homeschoolers may wish to use these as jumping off places for more research for reports, diaries, plays, charts, timelines, etc.
Dutch Faith Important forerunners of the Reformation came from the Netherlands.
- The Beguines were women who banded together in cites and towns to study Scripture and volunteer as teachers and nurses for the poor. Many groups formed in the Netherlands in the 1200s.
Drawing of a Beguine from Des dodes dantz, printed in Lubeck, 1489, public domain
- The Brethren of the Common Life opened schools and printed Bibles and other books from the 1300s on. The Netherlands had a higher literacy rate than many other European countries. Thomas a Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ, was a member of this group.
- Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) wrote of the need for religious reform and produced the first Greek New Testament.
When the Reformation began, Protestantism really took hold in the Netherlands, but persecution followed:
Dutch Independence Charles V (the same one who presided over Luther’s trial in Germany) and later his son Philip II ruled the Netherlands as part of their empire. They were determined to stamp out Protestantism in the Netherlands. Terrible persecution killed many, and the Dutch rebelled to gain religious and political freedom. The war was long and harsh. Sometimes the Dutch opened dykes to flood farmland or burned crops as part of the fight. One group of fighters known as the Sea Beggars helped win battles against the Spanish fleet.
Battle of Haarlem by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, public domain
Dutch Economy After independence in the early 1600s, trade and commerce grew rapidly in the Netherlands. Dutch traders traveled to Asia and America. They established the colony of New Amsterdam (New York) in 1624. They brought back spices, furs, Turkish rugs, and silks, making the Dutch among the wealthiest people in Europe.
One much-loved luxury was Chinese porcelain, especially the blue and white-patterned vases and table ware. Eventually the Dutch learned the art of making this and today “Delft” dishes and vases are still very popular! Which one of van Oosterwyck’s still lifes has a blue and white piece?
Dutch Art Oil paints were first invented and used by early Netherlandish artists, such as Jan van Eyck. Northern European artists became masters of close observation of every detail and loved to show how light reflected off glass or metal. They carefully painted every facet of a jewel or the softness of a fur collar.
Protestant churches no longer commissioned art, but independence and trade enabled ordinary Dutch people to buy paintings. They loved to decorate their homes and businesses with still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and scenes of everyday life. Dutch artists often specialized in one type or another, and the Golden Age of Dutch Art was born. It encompassed most of the 1600s, and some of the most famous artists—Rembrandt, Ruisdael, and Vermeer!
Molly and I hope you enjoyed learning about Maria van Oosterwyck and all the amazing events that surround the artists of the Golden Age of Dutch Art! Comment and tell us what you found most interesting or enjoyable.
And we hope to see you right back here soon for a fun art activity about tulips and butterflies!