A woman holds a palette full of colorful paints as she works on a piece featuring pink flowers. A bouquet of red flowers is seen in the background.
Art,  Enjoy Flowers,  Happiness

A Comprehensive Look at Art’s Greatest Muse: The Flower

Calling all Art History majors, minors, and art fans! Today’s class is about the most precious, stunning, and complex subject that’s graced everything from the walls of caves to the halls of the Louvre: flowers! And we’re not going to take just a superficial look; we’re going to discuss symbolism, theme, brushwork, composition, and more!

Chapter 1: Why Are Flowers Found in Nearly All Styles and Ages?

Is it because of their beauty? Well, partially. But there are numerous elements that make flowers the ideal subject to paint, sketch, and even physically incorporate into pieces. Over the course of centuries, artists have featured blooms and botanicals in their work because:

  • Flowers capture symbolism. An artist can transmit powerful emotions like elation, love, anger, hardship, and purity by depicting a flower with correlating symbolism and meaning.
  • Their voyage from seedling to peak beauty to decay can demonstrate and comment on the cycle of life and the fleeting nature of the human condition.
  • They’re a pretty way to transmit a hidden message.
  • They represent natural beauty and opulence.
  • Drawings and paintings are effective methods to document scientific information through botanical illustrations.
  • Flowers often hold an important religious significance.
  • Flowers present a challenge to the artist themself. A flower’s form is both appealing and complex, making it an ambitious subject to interpret.
  • They’re also accessible and often cheap (if bought) or free (if found in the wild). 

And, yes, sometimes an artist interprets a flower in its most simple form, a beautiful pattern of petals—and that’s just as valid a reason as any.

Chapter 2: Cultural Significance of Flora

As we view and discuss well-known works of art featuring flowers, it’s important to remember that each culture has its own view and interpretation of flowers and their symbolism. To many Western cultures, lilies, for example, represent purity and fertility, which explains why this variety is often seen in depictions of the Virgin Mary, like La Vierge au Lys, an oil painting by French artist Bouguereau.

On the other hand, take the lotus, a flower that for certain Eastern cultures has a powerful religious meaning. Springing from the depths of mud to blossoming into a beautiful bloom under the sun, the lotus symbolizes our relationship with the earth and the heavens. This powerful message can be witnessed through the Lotus Temple located in New Dehli, India. 

The Virgin of the Lilies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Chapter 3: Flowers at Work

With that in mind, we can begin to discuss some famous works that feature flora. As we cover symbolism and meaning, remember that most pieces are open to discussion, and we’re commenting for just that reason, to spark conversation and appreciation of flowers and their natural beauty.

Title: Hibiscus 
: Utagawa Hiroshige Year: c. 1845

A Deeper Look: This color woodblock print, like much of Hiroshige’s work, depicts daily life in the Edo period for middle-class citizens in Japan who were financially able to access travel and entertainment. This piece, like others of Hiroshige, has become sought-after globally thanks to its unique composition.

Title: Amaryllis
: Piet Mondrian Year: 1910

A Deeper Look: Amaryllis is the perfect example of Mondrian’s mesmerizing experimentation with bold colors, a departure from some of his better-known landscape depictions. His striking color choice and the simple depiction of a flower leave a lasting effect on the viewer.

Title: The Meditative Rose
: Salvador Dalí Year: 1958

A Deeper Look: If you’re familiar with Dalí’s works, you may find this painting of a beautiful rose, without the quintessential fantastical and nightmarish elements of a Dalí, quite distinct from his other pieces. This accessibility led to this painting becoming exceptionally popular upon its release.

Title: Hibiscus with Plumeria/Red Poppy
: Georgia O’Keeffe Year: 1939

A Deeper Look: A bit of a departure from her flowers and landscapes of New Mexico, this piece was commissioned by the Dole Pineapple Company as they intended to use the piece for an advertising campaign. Art experts have interpreted the colors and composition of this painting as a reminder of the hope we can find in life, even in the darkest of times.

Title: Zinnias in a Pot
: Clementine Hunter Year: 1965

A Deeper Look: Hunter, a self-taught and prolific artist, lived and work most of her life on Melrose Plantation in Louisiana. After a long day’s work, she would paint from memory on any surface she could find, including milk jugs, wine bottles, pots, and gourds. Zinnias can be found in many pieces by Hunter as they were her favorite variety found on the plantation.

Title: Peonies and Irises
: Emil Nolde Year: 1936

A Deeper Look: While he may not be the most recognized painter who found artistic inspiration from his garden (Monet’s Garden being the most famous), Nolde’s garden dramatically altered his style. He describes his artistic relationship with flowers as “they are such calm and beautiful hours when one sits or moves about between the fragrant and blossoming flowers. I really wish to give my pictures something of this beauty.”

Title: Flowers
: Andy Warhol Year: 1964

A Deeper Look: With just one glance you’ve probably pinned this piece as a Warhol, even if you’ve never seen it before. On the heels of a popular solo exhibition featuring paintings of flowers inspired by magazine photos of hibiscus, this piece breaks the mold when it comes to artistic interpretations of blooms.

Title: Radioactive Nurseries of Enceladus (in the Night Garden)
: Marc Quinn Year: 2010

A Deeper Look: This print is an exciting look at what’s on the horizon for florals in modern art. Its hyper-realistic depiction of flowers and fruits is said to represent the artist’s passion for preserving the environment and a commentary on how humankind is selfishly squandering the earth’s greatest resources.

Final Thoughts (& Final Exam)

You didn’t think you were going to get an A just for showing up to class right? To pass, you must answer one question. True or false, flowers are the ultimate muse! Answer (no cheating): true, of course!

Thanks for following along on our Floral Art History 101 course. Next semester, we’re going to dig into art sculptures, photos, and other mediums encapsulating the striking beauty of flowers. See you then!

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