You could see the Dutch flower fixation as far back as the 17th century when artists like Rachel Ruysche painted blooms as lovingly as a portrait of a favorite relative or friend. Ruysch was known for rendering flowers as if they were still alive. She wasn’t the only flower painter, of course. The National Gallery in London tells the story of Holland’s bent on blooms in in a current show of painting styles and techniques called – what else? – “Dutch Flowers.”
There was a time when a lot of women like Ruysche painted still lifes. As this column noted some five years ago, before the 19th century, female artists were not permitted to study anatomy, which was key to commissions for history paintings and scenes from the Bible. Both subjects required figure drawing. Women were left to paint the only thing they could study at will – inert plant life – and that’s how they distinguished themselves.
Fede Galizia, a 17th-century painter, was celebrated for rendering fruit so vividly that her patrons thought they could peel the skins. Louise Moillon, another 17th-century still life painter, was good at capturing the texture of water droplets and the texture of woven baskets, which earned her acceptance into the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. This, even though the Academy decreed still life painting unimportant.
Of course, there’s flower painting and there’s – well, mindless copying. Not even Leonardo’s famous botanical study “Star of Bethlehem” can match the evocative power of 17th century still lifes known as Momento Mori.
That’s when things like fruit and flowers stood as symbols for life and death, when they were moral messages, reminders that life is fleeting and material things are meaningless. Such paintings, also known as Vanitas (Latin for vanity), pushed the point with images of rotting fruit, dead leaves, and even skulls.
Many Vanitas were rendered by women. And like their male counterparts, their works held philosophical meaning. The dead leaves and fallen petals in, say, Clara Peeters’ “Still Life,” for example, speak loudly about the impermanence of life.
None of this is to say that male artists didn’t also distinguish themselves with a focus on flowers. Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Orchid” comes to mind. Looking at it is like looking into a night sky where everything is unmarred and perfect. And set against the blackened space is a lone white flower, its blossom like a head, its petals like arms. Mapplethorpe said it, himself: “I look for the perfection of form. I do this in portraits, in photographs of penises, in photographs of flowers.”
The whole of his flowers come across like some heaven-sent spirit. Maybe it’s because Mapplethorpe died young and flowers are the universal sign of youth, but seeing the lone flower can have you hearing in your head that song of life lost on the battlefield, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Mapplethorpe’s combat zone, of course, was the pestilence AIDS.
As you can see, there’s a lot to say about flowers in art making. The London show can get you thinking.