DIETZSCH, Barbara Regina (1706-1783). A Study of a Thistle. Watercolor on paper.
DIETZSCH, Barbara Regina (1706-1783). A Study of a Thistle. Watercolor on paper. ca. 2nd and 3rd quarters, 18th century. 18 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches. Watercolor on paper.
The Dietzsches were an important family of painters, engravers, and musicians that flourished in Nuremberg during the eighteenth century. The patronage of Dr. Christoph Trew, the great botanist and bibliographer, made Nuremberg one of the foremost centers of botanical art in the world, and the Dietzsch family was one of the most noted of the era. Dietzsch is particularly well known for her marvelous renderings of flowers and fruit in watercolor and gouache. Employed at the court of Nuremberg, she painted primarily in watercolor and gouache and produced extensively for engravers there. Her work was of such outstanding quality that it was used by Trew and the great flower painter Georg Ehret for a number of plates in the Hortus Nitidissimis (1750-86). Indeed, even at the time of its production, Dietzsch's art was much sought after by collectors in both the Netherlands and England, and it is recorded that some of the best known painters of the time even accepted her works as a form of payment, signaling the type of celebrated reputation she was able to attain within her lifetime-a celebration that has only continued to grow ever since.
Like most of her family's work, Dietzsch's watercolors are often characterized by the use of a black or dark brown ground, and it is partly upon the basis of this that the current attribution has been based. Ehret also occasionally placed his bouquets on a dark background, but these are not nearly as successful as Dietzsch's in making the subject come to life. Various examples of her work can be found in the Broughton Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England and in each the dark ground is present. What separates the work of Barbara Regina from that of her other family members is the remarkable clarity of depiction and skill in rendering. With unbelievable mastery and stylistic power, Dietzsch overcame contemporary estimations of women's inferiority in the field of art, creating watercolors of distinctive splendor.
A Study of a Thistle (1) is an exquisite example of the extremely delicate nuances in line and color of which Dietzsch was capable, and her unique ability to use a dark ground to create dramatic, dazzling compositions. Each of the thistle's wild leaves is precisely articulated with graceful arcs and short, bold strokes that twist and turn before meeting in a plethora of sharp points to form the leaves' spiny edges. The veins are traced with the lightest of milky white and mint green so as to palpably suggest the white-colored sap that flows within them, and to which this milk thistle owes its name. The flower itself is exquisitely textured with quick, fluid marks in a rich array of vivid purples, blues, and greys. Such incredible textures and vibrant coloring set against the dark void of ground makes the plant come alive; one begins to feel it bending to meet a dragonfly that gently lands on its head, and to feel its almost forcible struggle under the tight cling of a spider's diaphanous web.
Like the web, whose filaments Dietzsch so dexterously renders as to capture both its fragility and strength, the thistle's flower and prickly thorns make it at once beautiful and pernicious. For this reason, it has historically important symbolic value, standing for harm, resilience, and purity. In France and Britain, the thistle is used to connote endurance and victory, serving as a symbol of Scottish heraldry and featuring on the latter's currency since the 15th century. More broadly, however, the thistle's symbolic meaning derives from the bible, where it stands for original sin as well as salvation; in fact, the milk thistle is also commonly known as St. Mary's thistle, or Marien-Stechkraut ("Mary's pricking plant") in Germany, for it is said that the plant's whitish coloring derives from a fallen drop of the Virgin's breast milk while she was feeding the Baby Jesus among its boughs. With her position in the Nuremburg court, it is likely Dietzsch's own take on the thistle was a confluence of such varied perspectives; indeed, her thistle's resilient strength and powerful dynamism, as well as the noble support it provides as perpetual haven for its many transient visitors, suggests such a complex view may well have informed the artist's striking composition for this simply gorgeously rendered subject.
Description provided by Julia Stimac, a specialist in 19th-century art. Julia received her BA from Cornell University and MA from University of Manchester, and she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Washington. Please contact Julia at 212-628-7625 to arrange a viewing of this work, or visit Arader Galleries at 1016 Madison Avenue, New York.