To celebrate the arrival of spring we explore the fascinating history of flowers in art.
Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts
Surviving illustrated manuscripts provide a beautiful timeline of their aesthetic and decorative evolution. Motifs usually consisted of an illustration or flowers and arabesques.
Flowers often carry a symbolic value and this symbolism developed as a way of teaching religious truths. Roses, for example, symbolized the blood of Christian martyrs and carnations God in human form.
Other manuscripts from this time, and even earlier, like the Islamic Qur’an, are decorated solely by foliage. By rule of the Islamic religion, no figurative decoration was allowed, so illustrators turned to nature for inspiration.
Dutch Still Life to French Impressionism
17th Century: Flowers initially became the central subject of paintings in the Netherlands. Floral still life paintings were popular, conveying both beauty and facillitating the study of new, exotic plants imported into Northern Europe by the flourishing Dutch East India Company. These flowers symbolised greater meanings about life, the nature of art, and the bounty of God’s creation. Depicted in all phases of growth, flowers mirrored the stages of life and reminded the viewer of life’s fragile brevity.
18th – 19th Century: In France, artists began to experiment with still life painting, but they were more concerned about technique and aesthetic. It was in the 19th century, however, that the French Impressionists radically broke with tradition. They were interested in the theories and moods of light in a specific moment and espoused painting outdoors to record the play of light. Brushwork became loose and brushstrokes were visible, creating the impression of a moment rather than a realistic depiction of a subject.
Redouté: ‘The Raphael of Flowers’
Nicknamed “The Raphael of flowers”, Pierre-Joseph Redouté was a Belgian painter and botanist. Initially a court artist for Queen Marie Antoinette, in his later career he documented the extravagant gardens of Empress Josephine.
Empress Josephine had a keen interest in botany is famed for her desire to collect all known roses of the world. Redouté was commissioned to record the plants in her garden, Malmaison. He published a book solely on roses with 168 plates; half of the roses featured grew at Malmaison. The flowers originated from locations as exotic as Japan, South Africa, Australia, and America.
Although plants have been documentated for milennia, ‘career’ botanical illustrators did not appear until the eighteenth century. These artists were responsible for documenting plant species in precise detail for study and to ensure universally accurate identification – a crucial task, as many of these plants were used in medicine.
Initially botanical publications, with their meticulous drawings and paintings, were for a niche market of botanists, gardeners, and natural historians. The arrival of the printing press, however, meant texts could be dispersed more widely. Illustrations show the plant in its entirety, along with underside views and magnified details.
Floriography: The Language of Flowers
Floriography, or the language of flowers, was a major means of communication during the Victorian era. Men and women expressed feelings through flowers when open communication was forbidden or deemed inappropriate in public according to Victorian etiquette. Heavily symbolic bouquets and flowers were sent to individuals and would be received like a coded message.
The most popular expressions were of love and affection, but negative messages could be sent too. One flower could have dual or opposite meanings depending on how it was arranged, whilst colour was also a critical factor. A red carnation, for example, symbolised deep romantic love, but yellow ones signified rejection.
Floral Print: The Legacy of William Morris
As Europe formalized its trades with the East India Trading Company, as well as utilising the Silk Road through Asia, more elaborate and exotic objects permeated European shops. Lavish designs and fabrics meant initially only the rich could afford these items. However, as local craftsmen began to copy what was imported and the Industrial Revolution introduced mass production, such products became more affordable.
William Morris was a nineteenth century English textile designer, responsible for the revival of traditional textiles and their production. He practiced weaving and hand-dyeing fabrics along with textile printing and was highly successful, with his designs used for both textiles and wallpaper. A pioneer of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he returned the textile industry to its former glory and emphasized the quality of hand-made items.
See more images by William Morris
Flowers and the Impressionists
The late 19th century saw the rise of the French Impressionists. With its radical style and belief in painting ‘en plein air,’ Impression was greeted disfavourably by the traditional art establishment.
The Impressionists valued the final visual effect more highly than precise attention to detail and believed it was imperative to be outside to capture light and mood correctly. Furthermore, to acheive intense colour vibration, these painters ceased to blend together their brush strokes and pigments.
Oriental Floral Design
Chinese and Japanese cultures are known for their love of nature. This passion is visible in their art, where nature has a very prominent role. Images of nature conveyed a message of peace and calmness. Some works are minimalistic and others more detailed, but all possess similar motifs of flora and fauna.
Japanese culture heavily emphasizes the correlation between flowers and the seasons, using plants to reflect the annual cycle of life and rebirth. Like the Victorian era, flowers were given to people to convey a message and Eastern cultures had their own flower language very different to that of Europe. Despite many converting to the European version after World War II, the traditional Asian language still survives today.
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