We've all, no doubt, heard the call to "stop and smell the flowers." Some of us have even done so. Basically it means to slow down and enjoy life, if only for a moment. But taking this mantra seriously, artists were strangely rather late to heed its suggestion. Though flowers have long been considered among the most beautiful things on earth; and it's not hard to imagine even prehistoric men, women, and children, stopping, smelling, even picking them, it might surprise you to know that the painting of flowers dates back only about five hundred years. Hans Memlinc, a fifteenth century Dutch artist is credited with having painted the oldest surviving floral image around 1485. It was painted on the back of a portrait. He depicted lilies, symbolic of the Virgin, rising out of a highly decorated pitcher set in the centre of a deeply shadowed alcove. The exquisitely decorated pitcher rests on an intricately decorated cloth. The tromp l' oeil effect is matchless. The flowers, by contrast, are dull, lifeless, one might even say ugly.
It was another hundred years before artists really learned to paint pretty flowers. Another Dutch artist, Ambrosius Bosschaert, the founder of a dynasty of artists, specialised in painting them (every Dutch artist specialised in something). His Vase with Flowers, dating from 1620, has a kind of Audubon-like textbook quality in which each blossom is precisely rendered in all its radiant beauty, yet with an artificial, illustrative look in which not one bloom covers another, all are displayed equally, and one might even say perfection is given a bad name. Such a look is not surprising. Botany and horticulture were new sciences and in Northern Europe, especially in Holland, growing and "breeding" flowers were raised to a high art.
Of course the Dutch have always been crazy about flowers both in art and in their gardens. Their tulips, first imported from Turkey in 1554, reached such popularity that by the early years of the seventeenth century, there was such mania for them, especially rare breeds, that tulip bulbs were traded like valuable gems. People would trade all their possessions for a single rare bulb, speculating on astronomical price increases not unlike we might play the stock market today. But in 1630, the bubble burst, the market collapsed, and thousands lost everything. As a result, Dutch artists sometimes used flowers (especially tulips) to impart moral truths involving sinful, covetous greed.
For all their beauty, flowers have always occupied a rather discreet little corner of the still-life genre. Surprisingly, beautiful as they are, they were seldom painted in profusion except perhaps in the wild. Monet comes to mind. But cut and arranged, they represent the transitory nature of life (something artists might want to forget). Initially, artists chose to ignore, even to combat, the fleeting beauty flowers possess, painting them as a means of preserving forever their delicate beauty. One might even call flowers nature's own art, for despite what I said before, in any form, flowers are seldom ugly. Matisse often chose to make them the central focus of his interiors both in depicting flowers themselves and in using floral designs elsewhere in his compositions. Still another Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, of course, made famous the sunflower, and may have been one of the first to embrace the temporal nature of floral beauty. In an 1888 painting, he presents them in all stages of their life, some strong, upstanding, vibrant, some limp and wilted, nearly dead, their brilliant yellows representing life, their dull browns the laboured death he must have seen coming.
In the twentieth century, floral paintings have been embraced for their inherently decorative qualities. Interior designers love them for brightening up their elegant, but otherwise often sterile, white on off-white rooms. Georgia O'Keeffe is undoubtedly considered the queen of the American flower culture in that light. And though she often denied their seldom-subtle sexual symbolism, her near abstraction of their already nearly abstract beauty could be seen as the epitome of their visual presence in the painters' art. In today's art, while they're not all that uncommon, they have taken on the image of typically "female" art. It would seem that just as they don't eat quiche, neither do "real" men paint flowers. Coincidentally, though not for this reason, I've only done perhaps two floral paintings in all my life. I'm not sure why. I know it's not because I haven't stopped to "smell the flowers." I do, every time I pass through the floral department at Kroger. I guess I just prefer the real thing over painted imitations.