A Guide to Flowers in art!

Flowers have featured in visual art ever since humans first daubed paint on a cave wall. It is easy to see why – flowers are beautiful, fleeting and symbolic… and far less fidgety than a human muse.

Flowers in Art

Flowers have featured in visual art ever since humans first daubed paint on a cave wall. It is easy to see why – flowers are beautiful, fleeting and symbolic… and far less fidgety than a human muse. I’m no artist myself, but I wanted to take you on a quick guided tour of some of my favourite flower-inspired art.

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Renaissance Fan

Everybody loves the Renaissance painters – they’re like the Jackson 5 of art. But we tend to associate them with Cherubs or Madonnas rather than flowers. But, look a little harder at some of the most famous art of the Renaissance and you’ll see flowers everywhere.

Botticelli painted many of the most famous works of the period. His Birth of Venus alone features both a flower nymph and the goddess Flora, spilling petals. Even more impressively, his luscious Primavera depicts approximately 190 varieties of flower, with 130 identifiable. After you’ve given our boxes a try, you too will be able to identify 130 types of flower!

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Dutch (Flower) Masters

The Dutch are skilled people. Not have they produced some of history’s most loved artists but they’re also the world’s best flower growers. It comes as no surprise to me that the Dutch painters turned to their national speciality for artistic inspiration.

From Van Dyck to Rubens, the Dutch Masters loved incorporating their national symbol into their paintings. In fact, Rubens’ Madonna with Wreath is giving me ideas for the Christmas season!

The Dutch are also keen painters of flower still life. Almost every Dutch painter of the 17th Century had a go – it was a bit like the Instagram of the day, with the noteable contributions from Brueghel, van Veerendael, Davidz de Heem and Frans van Dael. Honestly, stick a paintbrush in your hands and a few extra vowels in your name and you too could give it a go.

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Desperate Romantics

Back on home shores, our own Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood carefully incorporated flowers into their mythical, symbolic work.

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is a British classic, and sure enough, it contains loads of amazing floral detail. For the natural elements, Millais actually painted from nature, in the Surrey countryside. Fortunately, he didn’t make his model lie in a real river, but painted her in a bath. It still didn’t stop her getting pneumonia – that’s the price you pay for art.

The flowers in the picture are so detailed that, according to the Tate, at least one Professor of Botany took classes to study the picture, as he was unable to get them out to the country. This wouldn’t be an issue now as they could just get the flowers delivered directly to their door for £22!

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First Impressions

In previous blogs, I’ve covered flowers in Impressionist art, and these can be found here.

But, I couldn’t do a post about floral art without mentioning the most recognisable flower paintings of all. No, not the ones your niece did in Reception, but Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Given these are an iconic classic, it is amusing that many scholars now think he was inspired to paint these pictures because they were quick and easy money-spinners.

Even if this is true, as I write this I’m looking at our very own sunflowers, from our Indian Summer box, and I can confirm that a gorgeous sunflower is all the inspiration you need.

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Vienna to Tokyo

As we head into autumn, I’m reminded of my favourite painting by Gustav Klimt: The Kiss. It is an incredibly famous image, depicting two lovers smooching on the edge of a flowery meadow. Not only are the flower details beautifully realised, but the painting uses gold leaf to give the whole thing a shimmering, autumnal feel – it reminds me of the glorious golden Solidago we’ve got in our upcoming Autumn arrangements.

Klimt’s work was heavily inspired by the techniques of Japanese art and you can see the floral link – with gorgeous cherry blossoms and wildflowers, the work of painters such as Hokusai almost makes me want to take up a paintbrush too! Just look at his Bullfinch on Weeping Cherry and you’ll see where Klimt gets his ideas.

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Flowers that Pop

Now, at Freddie’s Flowers, we like to combine contemporary looks with classic blooms. One artist who did this amazingly was Andy Warhol. He might have been more famous for pictures of Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe, but to my mind, the best of Warhol’s work was his series of flower prints.

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They’re colourful, sharp and distinctive, like all good flower arrangements. Warhol famously used silk-screen printing to produce his hibiscus blossom designs and this means that each of his Flowers is every so slightly unique – just like our boxes of flowers there is a slight variation. I think this is a great approach to painting flowers, as no two blooms are the same. That’s the fun of a gorgeous fresh bunch!

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Many other 20th Century artists also turned to flowers as a great subject for their work. Georgia O’Keeffe’s close-cropped, colourful and symbolic paintings could have been a direct inspiration for Warhol. The closeness of her work, such as the amazing Red Canna is incredibly modern, like the pictures you snap and send into me!

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Jeff Koons went one further, with his cartoonish sculptures of arranged flowers. His Large Vase of Flowers is an enormous, bright realisation of a 3D bunch that looks somehow real and completely false. Made in 1991, it has looked great for 27 years… slightly longer than one of our boxes, but only just.

The Modern Weiwei

Even today, artists are still featuring flowers in their work. Conceptual artist Ai Weiwei filled the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with clay replicas of seeds in his Sunflower Seeds, a very modern take on floral art. 

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The dissident artist was unable to see his impressive work come to fruition as the Chinese government had confiscated his passport. In protest at this, Ai created another noteworthy flower piece, With Flowers. Every day, Ai would place fresh flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside his studio in Beijing – a symbol of his hope and independence. Finally, after 600 days (and 600 bunches of flowers!) Ai’s passport was returned and he was able to travel once more. Part-performance art, part-documentary piece, it is a thoroughly worthy addition to my run-down of flowers in art.

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You may have heard of the brilliant American artist Kehinde Wiley – he has just painted Barack Obama’s Presidential portrait for the Smithsonian Museum. Wiley specialises in photo-realistic portraits of African-American subjects, set against luscious and distinctive florals and patterned backgrounds. Obama is backed by flowers representing his history; blue Kenyan lilies, Hawaiian jasmine and Chicagoan chrysanthemums. That fabulous mixture almost sounds like one of our boxes!

A contemporary echo of the pattern-work of the likes of William Morris, Wiley’s floral backdrops makes his portraits distinctive and fresh while giving his work a hyper-real edge. 

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Both Ai Weiwei and Kehinde Wiley bring the idea of flowers in art right up to date, showing us that flowers still have a place in the gallery… or in your home.

Having a piece of conceptual art in your living room is probably not very convenient. But at Freddie’s Flowers, we can deliver the flowers that inspired the art, hassle-free directly to your door. What could be more simple – or artistic – than that?

Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.

Dutch Flowers at the National Gallery – Don’t try these at home!

Marvel at the skills of the Dutch flower painters – but don’t try these impossible arrangements at home!

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, 1573 - 1621 Flowers in a Glass Vase 1614 Oil on copper, 26 x 20.5 cm Bequeathed by Mrs Sally Speelman and Mr Anthony Speelman in memory of Mr Edward Speelman, 1994 NG6549 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6549
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.
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.

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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.

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Osias Beert the Elder – Basket of Flowers (1600/1650). (Not from exhibition)

 

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.

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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, 1664 - 1750 Flowers in a Vase about 1685 Oil on canvas, 57 x 43.5 cm Bequeathed by Alan Evans, 1974 NG6425 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6425
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, 1682 - 1749 Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase 1702-20 Oil on canvas, 62.1 x 52.3 cm Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876 NG1001 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1001
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, 1754 - 1795 Fruit and Flowers 1789 Oil on mahogany, 78.4 x 61 cm Presented by Frederick John Nettlefold, 1947 NG5800 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG5800
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.

 

 

Dutch Flowers continues to 29th August 2016. More information is on the National Gallery website, with a useful look at the exhibition in detail here

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!

 

Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.

Freddie’s Complete Guide to Peonies

With their fancy frills and gorgeous colours, peonies are really just show-offs. Here’s everything you need to know about them…

Peonies are really just shameless show-offs, with their fancy frills and gorgeous colours. Here’s everything you need to know about these seasonal sensations…

Try creeping up to a flower person and suddenly whispering ‘Peony!’ at them. You’ll see their ears prick up, their eyes go all misty and there’s a decent chance they’ll say in a dreamy voice: ‘That’s my favourite flower, how did you know?’

Because peonies are, let’s face it, sensations: great explosions of frilly petals, bursting out in the most outrageous manner from tiny tight buds.

They’re show-offs, really. Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular contemporary varieties is named after that legendary diva, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who looked like this:

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The flowerful Sarah Bernhardt in around 1878

 

Whenever we’ve included Sarah Bernhardts in our Freddie’s Flowers boxes we’ve had rave reviews from our customers. Well, just look at them…

In terms of arranging peonies, you don’t have to do much really as they’re perfectly fine on their own. Pop them in a vase and they just keep opening and opening, filling your room with scent and colour.

 

A brief history of peonies

Peonies as popular garden and cut flowers actually date back much further than La Bernhardt. The genus Paeonia (the only genus in the family Paeoniaceae) is native to Asia, Europe and North America, with around thirty or forty varieties worldwide.

They’re named after Paean, a physician in Greek mythology who was turned into a flower by the god Zeus. But historically, they’re most associated with the Far East.

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Portrait of a peony by Chinese artist Yun Shouping, 17th century

 

In China they’ve been cultivated since at least the sixth century, initially for medicine and then increasingly as ornamental flowers. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Japanese began cultivating them in earnest, creating cross-breeds between herbaceous and tree peonies called ‘Itoh’ (or ‘intersectional’) peonies.

And European peony-mania really began in 19th century France when the great floriculturalist Victor Lemoine began creating the glorious ancestors of the varieties we see today.

 

Growing your own peonies

In general, you plant peonies in the autumn and they flower between mid-spring and early summer. They have a reputation for being quite tricky to grow: you need to plant them in full sun and they often require staking as the stems may not be strong enough to keep the large flowers upright by themselves. They’re also vulnerable to a ghastly fungal infection called peony wilt.

But if you fancy having a go, the RHS has a good guide to growing peonies here.

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Freddie talking all things peony with specialist grower Mr Scobie

 

Freddie’s Peony Facts!

1. Confucius used to eat them

In Ancient China peonies were used for flavoring food, and Confucius liked them so much that he once said: “I eat nothing without its sauce. I enjoy it very much, because of its flavour.”

 

2. You’ve got to hide from woodpeckers when picking them

…otherwise, according to an ancient superstition, if one sees you it might peck out your eyes.

 

3. Renoir loved them

The great Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir painted lots of peony pictures. This is just one of them:

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 August Renoir – Peonies (1880)

 

4. They’re bashful, or possibly angry

In various varieties of floriography (‘the language of flowers’) peonies represent ‘bashfulness’ or ‘shame’ because their petals apparently conceal mischievous nymphs. On the other hand, in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s terrific flower dictionary they mean ‘anger’.

 

5. They’re very popular in Japanese tattoos

The 18th Century painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s illustrations of Sumarai warrior myths feature a lot of peonies, which in Japanese culture have a masculine, devil-may-care symbolism. His designs are still very trendy for tattoos.

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Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s peony-covered Samurais

Love flowers? So do we! Make your home naturally lovely all year round by signing up for a delivery box for just £24 a pop here.