Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.
Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.
Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.
Other flower symbolism includes:
- Amaryllis – pride
- Cypress – death, mourning or despair
- Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
- Daisy – innocence
- Gladiolus – strength of character
- Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
- Iris – good news
- Lavender – devotion
- Marigold – pain and grief
- Orchid – refined beauty
- Pansy – thoughtfulness
- Primrose – eternal love
- Rosemary – remembrance
- Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
- Violet – faithfulness
Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.
Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”
Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.
Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.
After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)
When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.
The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.
The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.
Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)
Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.
The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)
Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.
From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.
“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe
Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.
O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.
Andy Warhol (1928-87)
As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.
For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.
The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.
Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.
Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.
Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.
At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.
Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.
Jeff Koons (b.1955)
Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.
An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.
A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.
In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.
Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.
It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.
Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.
Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)
Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.
Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.
By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”
William Morris (1834-96)
William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.
Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.
The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.
By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.
Édouard Manet (1832-83)
Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.
Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.
Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.
The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.
Anna Atkins (1799-1871)
Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.
Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.
Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.
In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).
At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.
Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.
Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.
Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.