Women in Art: Barbara Regina Dietzsch

barbara regina Dietzsch Thistle

Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706-1783), “A Study of a Thistle,” Watercolor on paper, 46.4 by 36.8 cm.

Born into an important family of painters in Nuremberg, Barbara Regina Dietzsch came to be known for her paintings of botanical and zoological subjects. She was not the only woman in her family to take up painting—her sister, Margarethe, also became a noted painter. Dietzsch also took female students, both amateur and professional.

Barbara Regina, like other members of the Dietzsch family, favored working in gouache on a dark ground. These dark backgrounds lend drama to her compositions, and highlight her crystalline precision. Dietzsch’s compositions were typically anchored to the sheet’s central axis, strongly lit by a single source of light, lending the image a sense of supernatural, otherworldly intensity—never have we seen whites as white as these, nor such shocking reds and acidic yellows. Dietzsch developed a distinctive method of working on vellum, building up the background by first applying a layer of gold leaf and then covering the gold with opaque dark brown or black gouache. This gave the background an unmatched richness and depth.

The eighteenth-century was a great moment for botanical art, and eighteenth-century Nuremberg became an important center for the discipline—nurtured, in part, by the patronage of Christoph Jacob Trew, Count Palatine, court physician, and passionate amateur botanist. Trew sponsored the publication of lavishly illustrated works on botany, commissioning artwork from artists such as Barbara Regina Dietzsch and Georg Dionysus Ehret. Both Dietzsch and Ehret produced illustrations for Trew’s Hortus nitidissimis (1750-1786).

Dietzsch appears in Germaine Greer’s 1979 history of women painters, though Greer’s evaluation is rather negative: “An elder daughter of Johann Israel, Barbara Regina Dietzsch mastered the art of flower painting in gouache, mostly for engraving. Her work was exact and linear, as one might expect of designs for engraving, but in her more ambitious flower pieces she exhibited a conservatism of approach which was fairly antiquarian.” (247)

Although Dietzsch produced designs for engravings, 18th-century collectors valued her botanical paintings highly as autonomous works of art. Her best works are models of affective economy and restraint. Everything—birth, death, abundance, senescence—has been compressed into the confines of a single rectangular plane.

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