The art of flowers reached a peak in 17th century Holland, as the glorious exhibition currently at the National Gallery shows. Guest writer Nigel Andrew marvels at the skills of the Dutch flower painters – but warns: don’t try these impossible arrangements at home…
Dutch flower fever
In 17th-century Holland they took their flowers very seriously – so seriously that they began to want paintings of them, paintings inhabited by nothing but flowers, with a nice vase and perhaps the odd butterfly or bee to show off the painter’s skill.
This fascination with flowers had its roots in the scientific revolution that was having a big impact on life in Holland at the time, with botany and horticulture becoming subjects of intense interest. At the same time the cultivation of exotic plants by well-off individuals and in the new botanical gardens drove a thriving trade and fuelled the kind of passions that sparked the infamous ‘tulip mania’, at the height of which a single bulb could change hands for the price of a town house.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – ‘Flowers in a Glass Vase’ (1614). Note the two tulips! Image credit: National Gallery
That bubble burst, of course, but flower paintings continued to be in high demand right through the 17th and 18th centuries – and a fine selection of them can currently be seen in Room 1 at the National Gallery (until 29th August).
It’s one of those compact exhibitions – just 22 paintings – that are such a joy because you can give proper attention to each picture and come out at the end refreshed rather than exhausted.
Their rich colours gleaming from the walls of the softly-lit gallery, the paintings are hung in chronological order, with usefully informative labels (no art-crit jargon), enabling you to follow the development of Dutch flower painting across the best part of two centuries, from its rise to its high point and on to what looks very much like its fall.
The invention of flower painting
A portrait of Jan Breughel the Elder and his family, c.1612, by Rubens. Image credit.
The story begins with Jan Breughel the Elder, who virtually invented flower painting and gained huge fame from it.
He is represented in this exhibition by a vigorous, brushy depiction of an arrangement of tulips, chrysanthemums, narcissi, roses, irises and other flowers in a well-painted glass vase. Look a little closer and you will find a butterfly, a beetle and a delicate fly.
The style developed by Breughel – dark background, flat picture space, symmetrical arrangement, each flower shown (as it were) full-face – became standard in the first phase of Dutch flower painting. The virtuosity, however, increased rapidly, as can be seen in Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s exquisitely painted Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase, which comes complete with three pearly seashells, a Red Admiral butterfly, a dragonfly, a caterpillar and a bee.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase’ (1609-10) Image credit: National Gallery
By the time you reach this magnificent picture, you might be thinking, ‘Just a minute – tulips, lilies, peonies, irises, marigolds, narcissi, roses, columbines, fritillaries, pinks, all in perfect full bloom at the same time? Surely not!’ You might also be thinking that the arrangements themselves are often structurally impossible.
And you’d be right on both counts: these are not paintings of actual flower arrangements but of specimens – many of them too precious ever to be used as cut flowers – arranged by the artist on the canvas (actually not canvas – wood and copper were preferred, as showing off the colours more strongly). The aim was to display these flowers to best effect and with the maximum of botanical accuracy, not to provide ideas for home flower arrangers.
Some of these 17th-century pictures also carried a moral message. A painting by Osias Beert the Elder (no Youngers in this exhibition) emphasises the transience of natural beauty by showing fallen petals and leaves affected by insect damage. Another of Beert’s hammers the point home with an inscription: ‘What you see in these flowers, which appear so beautiful to you, will vanish. Beware. Only God’s world flourishes for ever.’
Jan Davidsz de Heem ‘Vase of Flowers’ (c.1660) Image credit: NGA
Stillness and dynamism
Dutch flower painting reached its peak with Jan Davidsz de Heem, who introduced movement and dynamism into his arrangements, with flowers facing in different directions and stems and tendrils breaking out in all directions. His Vase of Flowers livens things up with honeysuckle, ears of wheat and a bunch of redcurrants, and the complex reflections on the glass vase are beautifully rendered. This is flower painting with real impact.
Star of the show for me, however, is Dirck de Bray, whose Flowers in a White Stone Vase is a simple and perfectly balanced composition. This simplicity and the relatively loose brushwork give it an almost modern feel, and it has a welcome quality of stillness that contrasts with the dynamism of De Heem and Rachel Ruysch, whose strong diagonal compositions are full of movement.
Rachel Ruysch ‘Flowers in a Vase’ (c.1685). Image credit: National Gallery
Ruysch, whose father was head of the Amsterdam botanical garden, became internationally famous in her lifetime, but her fame was as nothing to that of the ultimate superstar of Dutch flower painting – Jan van Huysum.
Van Huysum was a master of texture, lighting and detail. In his Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase, the precision of his rendering of the hollyhock leaves and the crepe-like petals, just beginning to curl at the edges, is quite astonishing.
Jan van Huysum ‘Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase’ (1702-20). Image credit: National Gallery
Over the top?
However, Van Huysum also represents the point at which Dutch flower painting tipped into a kind of unreal decorative extravagance that, while hugely popular in its day, now looks like a sad falling-off from the best of what went before.
Van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, a virtuoso piece on a grand scale, shows which way the wind was blowing. It’s full of brilliant painting – the grapes, the bird’s nest – but the arrangement and the setting are entirely artificial, the palette is brighter and lighter, the traditional dark background has been abandoned, and the whole effect is… well, way over the top; there’s just far too much going on here.
Paulus Theodorus van Brussel ‘Fruit and Flowers’ (1789) Image credit: National Gallery
And it only got worse, as the arrangements became ever grander and ever more impossible, each picture a riot of flora and fauna, with exotic fruits – pineapples, melons – joining in the fun. By the time we reach the three works by Paulus Theodorus van Brussel that end the exhibition, the decline into mere decorative prettiness and virtuosity for its own sake is complete.
However, the actual painting of individual flowers retains its superb quality to the end, and this exhibition – the first of its kind in London in 20-odd years – contains plenty for any flower-lover to enjoy, marvel at and take inspiration from.
Just don’t try these impossible, towering arrangements at home.
Nigel Andrew is a writer and host of the Nigeness culture blog.
A note on images – we have illustrated this post with images in the public domain and available to use under the Creative Commons license. Not all the pictures in the exhibition are so available, so we’ve used alternatives and provided links to the images on the National Gallery website in those cases. We have also made a donation to the National Gallery via Justgiving to help them continue their magnificent work!