As Sir William Gilbert wrote in “The Mikado”, the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, bring promise of merry sunshine. The sunshine may be fleeting, but those welcome blossoms are the enduring theme of songs and poems and, of course, paintings.
For hundreds of years, floral still life paintings have flourished everywhere, from palaces to cottages. There are treasured examples ranging from kindergartener’s refrigerator art to multimillion dollar masterworks. For the next few months flowers abound everywhere outdoors. All year round, a floral still life brings fresh air into a room of any period, or no period at all.
In the Middle Ages, flowers began to peek out of religious paintings such as altar pieces and the luxurious private prayer books called books of hours. The flowers depicted were highly symbolic: roses for love, lilies for purity. Blossoms weren’t the focus of medieval paintings and tapestries, however. They were included as minor elements, supporting players in a story of faith.
During the Renaissance, flowers came into their own as the main subject of paintings. Northern European artists excelled in highly detailed, realistic depictions of floral arrangements. These pictures often included unrealistically perfect blooms from different seasons and even different continents, all combined in one gloriously colorful bouquet.
As in medieval floral art, allegories and symbolism were ever-present. Carnations were symbols of love and marriage; irises represented trust and a divine message. Every flower could convey a hidden meaning, often with a connection to the newly popular classical mythology as well as the Christian faith. For all flowers, the fleeting nature of youth and beauty were definitely part of the picture.
Baroque. Rococo, Regency, Victorian early, middle and late—the popularity of still life paintings endured even as fashions and painting styles changed. Always a favorite with amateur and hobby painters, still life was also a genre that attracted the skills of professional artists.
Until very recent times, European society was governed by strict class boundaries, and the rules were extended to art. The critics and painters of the supremely influential French Academy of Fine Arts tried to impose a hierarchy on paintings. Their decrees had lingering effects both on how artists were trained and how their work was valued.
The highest branch of painting, according to these authorities, included historic, religious and mythological subjects. Next came portraits, preferably of the famous and/or rich and/or beautiful; genre painting or scenes of everyday activities; landscapes; and, at the very bottom, still life paintings.
To make the point perfectly clear, at the annual salon exhibitions paintings were hung on the exhibit rooms’ walls according to this ranking. Still life paintings were usually down at the bottom, emphasizing their inferior status.
None of this did a thing to wither people’s liking for, and acquisition of, floral still-life paintings. Some of the same flowers beloved in the Middle Ages bloomed under the brushes of the impressionists. Renoir was especially fond of roses, Monet is perhaps best known for his water lilies.
The sensual appeal of floral still life blooms on in modern and contemporary painting. Post-impressionist masters Van Gogh and Matisse and their successors such as Redon and Dufy ushered in a new golden age of floral painting. Twentieth century examples from American painters like Georgia O’Keefe, Florine Stettheimer and Jane Peterson bloom alongside the color-drenched works of Continental masters such as Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt and Franz Sedlacek.
Floral still-life is one of the best-loved art genres. Young or old, sophisticated or simple, traditional or avant-garde, everyone is drawn to these paintings. They allow us to enjoy the beauty of spring and summer all year round with a promise of growth and renewal that keeps us going through the dark times.
This piece was written by Skinner New York Regional Director, Katie Banser-Whittle, for WAG Magazine in 2021.