The Painted Flower
by Joe Anna Arnett



In nature, the seed of a flower lies dormant, cold, unlovely and unloved. But even in this most lowly state it contains, in incredibly complex codes, all of the information it will need for an entire life. All the beauty, the fragrance, the strength and the promise of passion are already programmed. The seed waits only for light and warmth and a season of its own.

In human history, every season has found some place for the flower as imagery. For centuries, in virtually every culture East and West, we find flowers: woven into fabric, carved into architecture, painted along borders of text and glazed onto porcelain. In another realm, flowers have been drawn with great care, by those devoted to science and healing, into the pages of “herbals” and medical studies.

The grand flower painting as we know it in Western art history began much like the tiny seed that finds refuge in a rock crevice, a seed that takes root and holds on until it gains strength to bloom. We can follow the flower in Western painting almost creeping in from the ground up. From primitive societies to the great Greeks, there are countless depictions of flowers in art before the Renaissance, but the paintings of this enlightened age seem a likely place to search for the roots of the independent flower painting. The changing symbolic journey of the flower, too, began earlier and continues even in our own time, but it is especially fascinating during this same period of rebirth in Western art.

Beneath kneeling shepherds in many of the Adoration paintings are found tiny flowers; perhaps these tentative blossoms were painted as design elements, more likely for pleasure and charm than actual iconography. But in many of the Annunciation paintings, as the angel Gabriel kneels before Mary announcing her chosen above all others, there is deliberatly a pot of lilies nearby. Robert Campin’s Merodé Altar piece (1425) in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a beautiful example. Sometimes, as in Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation in the Uffizi, Florence, a branch of lilies is held by the angel. The lilies painted in such contexts as these are put there purposefully to symbolize the Virgin’s purity; hence, her worthiness to bear the Christ child. The flowers in such paintings are almost always included as generally-understood symbols or attributes of the saint depicted in the painting. The Virgin Mary claims the greatest variety of floral attributes. A fourteenth-century hymn compared twelve different kinds of plants to the Virgin. The white lily is the most prominent, of course, but the blue iris and the white iris are included. When the violet was used, it symbolized Mary’s humility. The rose is prominent as well. Popular literature of the time claimed that before the rose became a flower of the earth, it grew in Paradise without thorns; the thorns came after Eden to remind man of his sins and fall from grace, the fragrance and beauty remaining to remind him of the splendor he has lost. It is in reference to this legend that Mary is called a “rose without thorns,” as she was free from original sin.

Many of the flowers used in Christian and early Renaissance painting (and beyond) borrowed their symbolism from pagan mythology. The hyacinth, Christian symbol of prudence, peace of mind, and the desire for heaven, came from the legend of Apollo’s accidental killing of Hyacinthus. The narcissus (of the famous self-love legend) is sometimes painted in scenes of the Annunciation or of Paradise to show the triumph of divine love and eternal life over death, selfishness and sin.1 Mythological subjects, although often still painted with Christian overtones, continued to be painted in the high Renaissance as well. Commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, Sandro Bottecelli created two of the most famous and beloved Renaissance masterpieces: Primavera (1478) and The Birth of Venus (1490). In both paintings, flowers are prominent. In Primavera, Zephyrus, the wind god, enters from the right in pursuit of the nymph Chloris, from whose mouth issues flowers. She is transformed into Flora, goddess of Spring, who strews flowers from her flower-embroidered gown upon the earth; the female in the center is Venus, goddess of beauty and love. In The Birth of Venus, the goddess, standing on a cockle shell, rises from the sea and is blown to shore by the wind gods. Bottecelli painted flowers blowing with the wind and a flowered gown for the newborn goddess held by Hour, who awaits her arrival.

It is acknowledged that the flower takes a significant step toward independence in the central panel of the Portinari Altar Piece by Hugo van der Goes (1467-1482). In his foreground of the Adoration of the Shepherds, he painted two vases of flowers. One contains white lilies and blue irises, both symbolizing the Virgin. The other is a glass vase of columbine, the form of which has been likened to a white dove; for this reason, columbine has been used to symbolize the Holy Ghost. But the first time a vase of flowers broke out of the religious picture to stand completely on its own is disputed. Wolfgang Born (in his 1947 book, Still-Life Painting in America), cites a painting by Hans Memling, who lived in the late fifteenth century, as the earliest.2 The painting (done on the back of a portrait) presents a bunch of wild flowers in a majolica pitcher on a table covered with an oriental rug of geometric design. Lilies and irises are the subjects of a pair of tall, narrow wood panel paintings that other scholars cite as the first authentic still-life of flowers.3 These may have been cabinet doors and they were painted, probably as a commission, by the German artist Ludger tom Ring the Younger in 1562. Whichever was first, the flower was at last free to become a legitimate subject all on its own.

Once freed from religious and allegorical genre paintings, the independent flower painting exploded with the beauty and passion we have come to expect from the subject, finding its greatest champions in Flanders and Holland. While artists there admired flowers for their aesthetic value, the development of realistic flower painting, as well as still-life painting in general, was also encouraged by religious and economic changes. The Low Countries gained independence from their Spanish Catholic rulers. Calvinism, the new religion in power discouraged devotional imagery, forcing artists to turn to secular subjects and to secular patrons, who were now present in the newly-prosperous merchant class. The sea-going traders of Holland had established commerce throughout the world. Business was booming and the cities, corporations, and the bourgeois class had great freedom in matters of trade. There was born a new prosperity and a heightened sense of nationalism.

Two of the earliest and most influential painters of flowers were Flemish: Jan Brueghel and Ambrosius Bosschaert. Brueghel, born in 1568, specialized in flowers and shells and collaborated with Rubens in supplying still-life settings for figure compositions. (Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens created The Sense of Smell, Madrid, Museo del Prado). Bosschaert transferred to Holland before 1593, trained his three sons and other pupils, notably Balthasar van Der Ast. With these Flemish artists and their influence on the Dutch, the golden age of flower painting was born. Full bloom came with Jan Davidsz de Hemm and Abraham van Beyeren and blossomed on into the eighteenth century with Rachel Ruysch and Jan van Huijsum.

The responses by artists to the changes in their society gave us some of our most beautiful and powerful flower paintings. Breaking from the overt and usually saintly symbolism of earlier Christian works, symbolism became a reinforcement relating to human conduct and lessons about moral behavior. Individual flowers were still allowed some of their former meaning, but those meanings were brought home literally from the interior of the church and palace to the dining rooms of the merchants. The lily, once belonging to Mary, now preached purity to all. The violet, formerly the humility of The Virgin, encouraged humility in every man. Then there was the moral lesson of the fleeting quality of a blossom’s magic, with the passing of such beauty understood as a metaphor for the briefness of human life on earth.4 Symbolic pictures and explanatory texts in contemporary emblem books of the time were known and adopted by artists. Almost every object was assigned some moral significance.

“Disguised symbolism,” a result of the new Calvinist order, was not the only influence on choice of subject. While presenting religious and moral commentary in this manner was socially comfortable, there were other, more practical factors to consider. Many of the flowers so faithfully presented were rare and valuable. Traders who imported tulips from the Near East, for example, made enormous profits. One lady who was unable to afford a certain kind of tulip commissioned a painting of it from Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is reported that some bulbs were sold for their weight in gold. Representations of rare, unblemished flowers reflected the wealth and prosperity of the patron. The tulip, in fact, first presented purely for the love of its beauty and its extravagant value, most likely attained some additional status as a moral symbol for the hazards of greed with the crash in tulip speculation. Roemer Visscher’s book Sinnepoppen shows an engraving, Striped Tulips, 1614, bearing the inscription, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” The science of botany, incidentally, another important influence on the flower subject as art, was gaining in popularity, so many artists presented their flowers with careful, almost scientific attention to detail. The city of Leiden had one of the finest botanical gardens in the seventeenth century, and new, rare plant specimens were brought there from around the world for all to see.

Significant stylistic differences developed between such flower painters of the early seventeenth century as Jan Brueghel and Bosschaert and those of the end of that century, notably Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch. In the earlier paintings, the compositions were almost mechanical, and equal allegiance was paid to each flower. As the century progressed, the compositions became as important as the individual flower. While no detail was lost, the later artists (Jan Van Huijsum in particular) presented their flowers in flowing, extravagant compositions that even today delight the senses.

With the death of Van Huijsum in 1749, the flower piece became much less popular and, finally—although Van Huijsum had many imitators—the golden age of Dutch flower painting came to an end. Some attribute the ultimate cause of flower paintings demise in Holland to another period of political and economic change that brought about a very different treatment of the flower in art. Arthur Edwin Bye in his book Pots and Pans, Studies in Still-Life Painting, presents this explanation:

After the death of William III of Orange, the political prestige of Holland waned, while at the same time, under Louis XIV the prestige of France rose to its height. This political ascendancy of France, carrying with it a national prosperity, was naturally coincident with French influence. To Paris, instead of to Amsterdam, the eyes of the art world looked, and for two hundred years the western world fell under the influence of French Classicism. Dutch art, it is true, entered France, with Watteau, the Van Loos and others. The Flemish Rubens did much to mold French taste, and Chardin, an isolated figure, was quite Dutch in spirit; yet, we must say that Dutch art was sleeping in the eighteenth century.5

French classicism had long and far-reaching effects. Classical and academic canons were strictly followed, and the flower became only decorative again. There are beautiful examples of flowers in art during this time, but the flower on canvas had only a minor role. There is, however, one flower painter of that period who must be mentioned. Pierre-Joseph Redouté (in 1786) was appointed draughtsman to Queen Marie-Antoinette’s Cabinet and later employed by Empress Josephine as head of a team of botanical artists working at Malmaison. While Redouté is best known for his botanical renderings, he did do some paintings of flowers in a still-life setting, and his style influenced artists to follow. Later, in flower painting of nineteenth-century France, there were diverse styles flourishing side by side. There was even a very popular Neo-Dutch tradition that emerged. Many of these paintings are striking and beautifully executed, but no singular voice rose above the others until the middle of the century with Henri Fantin-Latour.

Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) is, today, one of the most admired flower painters of all time. He gained his initial reputation with his Salon picture, Atelier aux Batignolles, a group portrait of some of the Impressionist giants. But it is the flower that has kept his art alive. Rejected when he sought admission to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he chose the Louvre as his next teacher and began to make copies of the masters he most admired: Delacroix, Rembrandt, Halls, Chardin and Watteau. It was during these years of study that he met Edouard Manet and the young James McNeill Whistler. Whistler became a close friend and invited Fantin to England, complete with an offer of introduction to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Edwards. The Edwards became the artist’s unofficial agents and found buyers for many of his flower still-lifes—Fantin-Latour and the English with their profound love of flowers seem a natural match. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a surprising number of small but excellent Fantin-Latour floral works. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has Still Life with Pansies (1874) on display, a painting that demonstrates Fantin’s rare feeling for texture. One can almost feel the velvet of the petals and, while there is greater looseness and a broader handling of brush and paint than the Dutch examples, the heritage of light and attention to the individual flower in the Dutch flower piece is still there. Flowers to this artist were truly flowers, not religious or economic or moral statements but real flowers that invite touch and smell and contemplation. Although he was a friend to many of the Impressionists, even painting some of their portraits, Fantin developed his own, very personal style, preferring the controlled light of the studio to the outdoor light effects so popular with others.

Many of Fantin-Latour’s Impressionist contemporaries, however, did find flowers to be a worthy vehicle to express light and form; the flower as vehicle rather than the flower as flower drew them. Artists were probably aware of the symbolic past of the flower, but symbolism did not play a prominent role. Some of the most famous flower paintings ever created came from this period: the peonies of Manet, the countless blossoms of Monet expressing that artist’s life-long love of flowers, and, most famous of all, Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises of recent auction fame.

In America, flowers entered the world of art in a perfectly natural way as artists accompanied exploratory expeditions to the new world and recorded their findings. The flower was painted for botanical correctness and often in its natural setting. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that American artists became interested in treating the flower as an independent subject free from landscape and botanical interest.

A German immigrant, Severin Roesen, was among the first artists in America to treat the flower as a grand still-life subject. Roesen, George Henry Hall and William Jacob Hays all had their roots firmly in the Dutch tradition. These artists, working from the mid through the late nineteenth century, shared with the Dutch artists of the past their interest in gathering the showiest of garden flowers, but they did not seem to share a need for symbolism and moral content. Then, from 1859 throughout the sixties, an important American artist produced flower paintings that echoed none of the Dutch influence. John Lafarge’s flowers were painted from direct observation and sought to express the spirit of flowers rather than their botanical form. Of his early flower studies, he said, “There were certain in which I tried to give something more that a study or a handsome arrangement. Some few were paintings of the water-lily, which had always appealed to the sense of something of a meaning—a mysterious appeal such as comes to us from certain arrangements of notes of music.”6 Lafarge’s originality, the growing knowledge of the work of Fantin-Latour, as well as a new awareness and understanding of the qualities found in the Oriental art of flower painting all had a revolutionary effect upon flower painting in America.

Wilton Lockwood, Howard Gardner Cushing and Maria Oakey Dewing helped bring flower painting into the American twentieth century. J. Alden Weir must also be mentioned, as he was interested in texture and shape without meticulous attention to detail. While William Merritt Chase’s more famous still-life paintings were of fish, when he chose to paint flowers, he, too, was concerned with surface and the vitality of the form. The symbolic nature of the flower deferred to the beauty and excitement of the painted surface.

As we have seen, the treatment of the flower in art has drifted with the changing cultural seasons. Religion, economics, government and social custom have all had their effect both on the physical presence of the painted flower and the symbolism surrounding it. Throughout the past, attitudes about certain flowers and their place in the hierarchy of art were most often dictated from sources outside the individual. But in sharp contrast, the place of the flower in art today speaks volumes about the way our own current society thinks and looks at the world. There is no simple prevailing attitude and no single set of rules. With the possible exception of the greeting card and flower merchant, no one tells us what to think about a specific flower. Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote: “When you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower and I don’t.”7 So true. Each one of us owns pieces of knowledge collected from school, the media, the people in our lives and our own private thoughts and dreams. Today, more than any other time in history is the era of the individual, so it is the individual who brings a personal symbolism to each flower.

Of course, knowledge of the symbolism of the past is not dead. We often incorporate that knowledge into modern experience, but, consciously or unconsciously, we also add our personal symbolism. The rose, with possibly the longest symbolic past of any flower, is a good example. To the Romans, the rose was the symbol of victory, pride, beauty and triumphant love: Venus’s own flower. We continue, today, to attribute victory and love to the rose; at the race track, it is the run for the roses, and lovers still send more roses than any other flower. But individuals, because of personal experiences and perceptions, bring their own meanings, too. The rose has become the saddest of all flowers to one woman because, to her, it is the flower of apology, of love lost. The violet may still signal humility to some, but to another it will forever be the wedding flower. The grand peony, symbol of abundance in its native China became shame and bashfulness to the Victorians, but to a certain executive the peony is warmth, comfort and unquestioning love, having, in his childhood, been a constant presence at his grandmother’s back door. Persephone, in her fear when pursued by Hades, dropped the lilies she was picking, and one legend says they turned into daffodils as they touched the ground. This may have caused some in the past to regard those flowers as unlucky, for they hang their heads when brought inside. But to thousands of Americans the daffodil conjures up days of innocence when we stood as school children and recited Wordsworth’s, “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills. When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.”

It is impossible to group the flower painters of today into a single category. The choice to acknowledge or ignore symbolism, whether personal or historic, lies with the individual. So too is the choice of style. There are artists today painting flowers in a hyper-realistic, almost investigative manner. Others have chosen the freedom of expression of a more alla prima brush. As diverse as is the population, so diverse is the method of expression with the flower and images in general. This makes personal perception all the more important. The artist may plant the seed of meaning in any given work, but the viewer will decide which ideas will flourish and grow in their own minds. And with the image of the flower, as with all other imagery, that is as it should be.

1. George Ferguson. Signs & Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954

2. Wolfgang Born. Still-Life Painting in America, Oxford University Press, New York, 1947

3. Margaretta Salinger. The Flower Piece in European Painting, Harper & Brothers Publishing, New York, 1949

4. Pierre Skira. Still-life: A History, Rizzoli International Publications Inc., New York, 1989

5. Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans, Studies in Still-Life Painting, Princeton University Press, 1921

6. Bye, page 194

7. Ella M. Foshay, Reflections of Nature, Flowers in American Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984 Weathervane Books, New York. Page xiii

Joe Anna Arnett is a still-life painter who specializes in flowers, both of her own choosing and those commissioned by clients. She has exhibited at prestigious galleries and exhibitions in New York City, London and many others in the American Southwest, as well as ART ASIA in Hong Kong.

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