While Rusych’s depictions of individual plants and animals radiated scientific precision and studied realism, she combined them in fanciful tableaux. Her father’s Wunderkammer included floral specimens from across the globe, and her paintings of riotous, tangled bouquets blended breeds that flowered in different seasons and grew in different parts of the world. In other words, Ruysch created bizarre ecologies where apple blossoms and orange lilies could bloom in concert. She was also one of the first Western painters to include cacti in her still lifes, as in A still life with devil’s trumpet, a cactus, a fig branch, honeysuckle and other flowers in a blue glass vase resting on a ledge (ca. 1690), as well as the first to depict the Alyte, or midwife toad, in a sottobosco piece.
This fusion of exquisite realism and imaginative composition was innovative: It neither “conformed simply to the predominant conventions of allegorical floral still-life in the period nor to those of scientific illustration, yet participated in both,” as art historian Marsha Meskimmon points out in her 2012 book Women Making Art: History, Subjectivity, Aesthetics.
Interestingly, Ruysch didn’t just observe her father’s collection of specimens; she also played a key role in arranging the dioramas that visitors from across Europe came to ogle. As early as 1680, when Ruysch was in her late teens, she sewed and posed elements of the embalmed memento mori displays, which blended scientific documentation and eccentric artistry. In some, “skeletons of foetuses were placed on ‘rocks’ of kidney and bladder stones and set amidst blood vessels inflated to look like tiny trees,” according to Kooijmans. Anthropological historian Elizabeth Hallam has noted that at least one embalmed fetus wore a flower crown and held a bundle of flowers, pointing to a fusion of Frederik’s and Rachel’s interests.