What have flower paintings in common with flower? In both cases it takes someone who really appreciates the use of line and colour to produce a work of art, and since no art is completely divorced from the other arts, one may help us to appreciate the other more.
Religious paintings of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (at this time art was often connected with the church) depicted Madonna lilies arranged either in a vase or held in the hand (if carnations were shown instead of lilies, they could well have represented a protection against disease, for the juice of the carnation was supposed to be a specific against plague.)
Sometimes a group is shown, perhaps cut from the garden with a specimen of each flower that is out at the time. In the painting by Gerard David (1460 — 1523), of the Virgin and Child, the small group consists of one dark blue iris, a spray of blue columbine, aof sweet rocket with two or three other small difficult to identify. A charming still life by Baugin, about 1630, depicts the five senses, one of these, smell, is represented by three red carnations in a simple glass bottle. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Flemish artists painted still lifes of extraordinary beauty, and these lead on to the Dutch flower paintings of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries. There is a well known story about in these times. Flowers were rare and expensive to buy, and a poor Dutch woman asked Jan Brueghel (1568-1625) to paint some flowers for her. She could afford to have them painted, owing to the low, value of artists’ work, but she could not afford to buy them. This story may suggest a reason for the flower paintings of the Dutch schools.
These Dutch flower paintings have obviously been constructed bit by bit as the various flowers came out into season, (this is illustrated by the more obvious instances of tulips, narcissi, apple blossom and birds’ nests arranged and painted with grapes, morning glory, and ripe peaches).
One of the greatest of all still life painters, JeanBaptiste-Simeon-Chardin, (1699-1779), showed in a painting of tuber roses and carnations quite a different approach from the Dutch school which preceded him. This is a simple painting, almost unadorned, of a small cluster of flowers in a single blue and white vase. This particular flower arrangement is a natural one, the flowers have been appreciated for themselves, observed closely and then carefully selected. “There is no seeking after purely decorative effects, no superfluous accessories round the base of the vase. . . It stands there simply and it is, at last, an example of a vase of flowers which we might place in our own rooms today though it was painted more than a hundred and fifty years ago.”
The Chardin painting was an important milestone not only in itself but because it paved the way for further developments — Edouard Manet (1832-83) influenced by Chardin, loved especially the richness of red peonies as is shown by his painting in the Louvre of red and pink peonies with their pointed. Fantin-Latour (1836- 1904), who is perhaps best known for his paintings of roses, especially the basket of white, yellow, pale pink and deep red ones in the National Gallery, London. (Fantin-Latour roses in paintings are as characteristic as the Billingsley rose in porcelain.) Following on came the flower paintings of Renoir, Cezanne, Henri Rousseau le Douanier, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Then moving into contemporary paintings, the work of Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque and Marc Chagall. James Fosburgh (born 1910) puts a bunch of into an earthenware jar and stands it on the edge of a cottage type chair. It is simple, unaffected, and brings to mind the Tleurs dans un vase vert’ by Odilon Redon (1840-1916). This represents a bunch cut from the garden of his country home near Paris. He was very happy there. ‘In my new home’, he wrote to friends, ‘I enjoy so much felicity that I must abstain from telling you about it; the subject is inexhaustible’. The peace and happiness in that garden comes out in his flower painting.
Now the flowers are presented as an entity. They complete the picture, with very little need of supplementary decoration.
Any number of beautiful, exciting and unusual colour contrasts and harmonies are suggested by paintings. In Fenetre Ouverte Collioure by Matisse there are bright blues, greens, yellow and reds. This painting opens up channels of ideas for contrasting or combining these colours — ideas which one might otherwise not have discovered. One’s mind immediately produces a picture of blue love-in-a-mist, the Himalayan poppy, and delphiniums, with bright red geraniums and clear yellow daisies, and leaves of different greens, perhaps hosta, fennel, hydrangea, and hollyhock foliage.
Van Gogh’s Ripe Sunflowers, whilst at first sight seems to be purely in blues, and yellows, is found on close inspection to have deep van Dyck brown shadows enriched by streaks of dark red and purple in the background.
The first impression of the well known Cezanne Tulips and Apples is red and green with small touches of yellow and white ; it is only at close quarters that one can see the deep mauve and pink shadows on the white petals of the narcissus flowers and rich aubergine in the green tulip leaves.