The Art of Flowers: A Floral Tour of the National Gallery

There are countless ways to enjoy London’s magnificent National Gallery. Here’s how a flower-lover could take a tour…

There are countless ways to enjoy London’s magnificent National Gallery. Here’s how a flower-lover could take a tour…

By Nigel Andrew


Having found the National Gallery’s Dutch Flowers exhibition such an eye-opener, I thought I’d go and see what other pictures the gallery has on show that flower-lovers might enjoy.  Here are some of the floral highlights…


Still life and symbolism

Flower painting as such – painting flowers for their own sake – didn’t really get under way until the Dutch took it up in the 17th century. Before that, flowers feature mostly as decorative background features or, in religious paintings, as bearers of symbolic meanings. But there were religious artists who painted flowers with evident enjoyment and who were clearly seeing them as more than mere symbols.
Virgin and Child
The Virgin and Child in a Garden (1469-91) – Style of Martin Schongauer. Image credit.


A fine example of this is The Virgin and Child in a Garden (Room 65) in the style of Martin Schongauer, a German artist of the generation before Dürer. That iris is symbolic of the Virgin’s grief, and carnations, it was believed, first sprang up where Mary’s tears struck the earth.

That’s as may be, but Schongauer presents us with real flowers, only very slightly stylised – and those wild strawberries and lilies of the valley bordering the garden path are just lovely.


A Cup of Water and a Rose *oil on canvas *21.2 x 30.1 cm *about 1630
A Cup of Water and a Rose on a Silver Plate (c.1630) –  Francisco Zurbarán. Image credit.


There might be an element of religious symbolism in Francisco Zurbarán’s A Cup of Water and a Rose (Room 30) – this 17th-century Spanish artist is mostly known for his sombre religious paintings – but it can be enjoyed simply as a superb piece of still life painting. An earthenware cup, a silver plate, a pink rose, its petals just beginning to curve back – each element is painted with intensely focused care and attention.

The fall of light across the scene – on the surface of the water, on the lustrous silver, on the inside of the cup – and the reflections of the rose and the cup on the edge of the tray are exquisitely rendered.  Look at the shaded side of the cup where it is outlined against the gleaming inner rim of the tray – that is great painting.


Fruit and Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1777-8) – Jan Van Os. Image credit.


As a reminder of how long-lived was the Dutch ascendancy in flower painting, here is Jan Van Os’s Fruit and Flowers in a Terracotta Vase from 1777-8 (these pictures were often painted over several months, to capture each species at its peak).

By this stage, Dutch flower painting was a century past its golden age and its practitioners were turning out ever more extravagant virtuoso pieces that were highly decorative but had long since taken leave of any possible arrangement of flowers in the real world (how on earth did that pineapple get there?).

This picture by Van Os is typical, painted with the utmost naturalistic skill, inviting the viewer to take a close look and gasp (the bloom on those grapes, that bird’s nest, that mouse nibbling on a walnut). It’s bright and light, it’s pretty, everything is on the surface – it’s closer to interior design than to art.


Van Gogh to Gaughin

It was in the mid-nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth that flower painting was revived and perhaps reached its peak. The astonishing sunflower paintings of Vincent van Gogh showed that it was possible for a flower painting to soar into the artistic stratosphere, achieving the kind of truly iconic status previously reserved for the likes of the Mona Lisa. Not bad for a series of canvases intended only to brighten up Gauguin’s room in the Arles house he briefly shared with van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, 1853 - 1890 Sunflowers 1888 Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73 cm Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1924 NG3863
Sunflowers (1888) – Vincent van Gogh. Image credit.


The National Gallery’s painting, titled simply Sunflowers (Room 43), was the fourth in the series and depicts fourteen flowers, some in full bloom, some wilting, others halfway to becoming seed heads. Painted with tremendous verve and built up in thick, loose brushstrokes, it’s a beautifully balanced, dazzling – almost literally – work that captures the essence of the sunflower and the sunny South. You could warm your hands on its radiance. No wonder it is one of the National’s most popular pictures.


A Basket of Roses (1890) – Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour. Image credit.


A flower painter with a more conventional approach was Henri Fantin-Latour, whose still life works were at least as popular in Britain – where he was championed by Whistler – as in France. A Basket of Roses (Room A: Paintings after 1600) is a gorgeous example of his flower paintings, and was snapped up by an English collector in the 1890s.

Fantin-Latour was essentially conservative in his approach to art and never identified with the Impressionists, but the free handling of paint in rendering these artfully strewn roses is not that far from Impressionism. (Fans of the band New Order will recognise this painting from the cover of the album Power, Corruption & Lies.)


A Vase of Flowers (1896) – Paul Gauguin. Image credit.


Paul Gauguin – for whom Van Gogh painted all those sunflowers – is not best known for his flower paintings, but he produced some good work in that line in the course of his prolific career. The National Gallery has a very fine – and unusual – example, A Vase of Flowers (Room 43). This was painted soon after Gauguin’s final move from France to Tahiti, and the flowers are all tropical blooms. Oddly they are in the French national colours – blue, white and red – though that’s unlikely to be a case of unconscious nostalgia for his homeland.

It’s a beautifully composed picture, the colours and shapes perfectly balanced, the muted colours of the background and of the vase setting off the bright exotic flowers. It was sold in 1898 to Degas, an early admirer of Gauguin, and himself a fine flower painter.


Wild flower impressions

Now for some wild flowers. Edouard Vuillard’s The Mantelpiece (Room 42) shows a rather sumptuous interior (a room in a rented château in Normandy) cluttered with artists’ impedimenta – bottles, unframed pictures, painting rags hung to dry. On the sharply foreshortened mantelpiece, brightening and enlivening the whole scene, stands a vase (or is it just a glass?) of wild flowers – dog daisies, cow parsley, bugloss, hawkweed, a poppy, a spray of bramble, everyday flowers artlessly arranged. Their informal beauty steals the show.

Edouard Vuillard The Mantelpiece
The Mantelpiece (La Cheminée) – Edouard Vuillard (1905). Image credit.


And finally, the ever popular Claude Monet. Irises (Room 41) is a painting that evolved over several years (1914-17), probably alongside the artist’s gigantic murals showing the play of light on the lily pond in his garden at Giverny. Irises shows a view from above – perhaps from the famous Japanese bridge – of a winding path beside the pond, bordered with irises. Thick paint – blue, green and purple – is freely, even crudely applied, but it achieves its effect.

It’s a pity the National doesn’t have one of van Gogh’s many iris paintings for purposes of comparison. But we can always go back to the beginning, to Schongauer’s Virgin and Child in a Garden, and there it is again – the iris.

monet irises
Irises (about 1914-17) – Claude Monet. Image credit.



A note on images – we have illustrated this post with images in the public domain and available to use under the Creative Commons license. We have also made a donation to the National Gallery via Justgiving to help them continue their magnificent work!

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