Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was reported to have said ‘I hate flowers‘ in the New York Herald Tribune on April 18, 1954 ‘I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move!’ Clearly no romantic notions or emotional attachments there. It was about getting the job done.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an early twentieth century American painter whose creative brilliance revolutionized modern art in her own country. Over her long lifetime (98 years) she became one of its most important cultural icons. She was celebrated for her exceptional powers of observation highly visible in the boldness of her brilliant flower paintings.
She enlarged and expanded the European tradition of flower painting during the 1920s in America by making large-format paintings of beautiful blooms presenting them up close and personal and as if seen through a magnifying lens.
It can be safely assumed and perhaps agreed by a majority of people that there is an innate quality about the presence of flowers in any room. They bring about a sense of joy and celebration as well as pleasurable associations if they are there to highlight an occasion.
Flowers can express a broad range of feelings, stimulate the senses with their scent and provide subtle messages for those literate in the language of flowers, developed in England and Europe during the nineteenth century, as a response to an admiration for the beauty of flowers.
It was a more subtle means of communication in which various flowers and floral arrangements allowed individuals to express their true feelings that otherwise may not have been spoken.
They would be arranged in bunches to send coded messages an attribute many people enjoyed, and a great deal of fun was had by all.
The giving of daffodils, one of the most dazzling of the flowers of spring meant having a great regard for the receiver.
Red tulips like their rose counterparts were a declaration of love, a red Poppy meant pleasure while Hyacinths, with their heady scent were considered appropriate for those who enjoyed sport and liked to play games.
Lilies, well they were about purity, sweetness and modesty and the yellow Sunflower was all about pure and lofty thoughts.
Beware though of yellow carnations for they meant disdain, while striped carnations spelled disaster, because they were all about refusal.
And, red carnations, well they meant alas my poor heart.
In Australia and all over our wide brown land exotic and native flowers bloom beautifully in the Spring and Summer. These days however some are out of season and completely out of step with the weather and nature.
Southern states where cooler weather is more conducive specialise in producing prolific quantities of flowers, not usually available at this time.
In many ways today this is now an accepted practice and an important aspect of any progressive commercial economy. However for those who enjoy planting a garden of flowers that bloom in harmony with the earth and the seasons, it may also be both disappointing and disillusioning.
The warrior gardener Mohamed Babur, a descendent of Genghis Khan founder of the Mughal dynasty, visited the city of Samarkand in the early 1500’s. He and the gardens he loved so well were laid out near Kabul nearby to Delhi and based on the principal of an Islamic Paradise Garden.
At that time Tulips grew in the wild nearby the Turkish city of Konya. From the sixteenth century onward Tulips became an integral aspect of Ottoman culture. Turkish florists, instead of relying on what was available in the wild began breeding and shaping them to suit many different tastes.
Tulips went to Vienna from Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1554 taken there by Augier Ghislain de Busbecqu the Ambassador of Ferdinand 1 of the Habsburgs to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of Turkey.
Flowers as a decorative element became influential throughout Europe through the success of Dutch flower painters in the seventeenth century and these included tulips.
Still life painters fuelled a love of flowers to a point that many people actively sought employment in the field of botany.
With the emergence of the flower garden as a distinct entity, the flower acquired a specific typology, established by the personality of the artist who recorded it.
An important flower piece included flowers of different flowering periods. They had stems of exaggerated length.
Flowers both large and small were arranged together in an upright manner in an earthenware pot, or better still a blue and white Delft vase.
They featured specific flowers that hovered weightlessly above the rest like a crown.
Tulipomania, a passion for that most exotic of flowers the tulip was a European phenomenon that reached epidemic proportions during the seventeenth century.
It resulted in wealthy connoisseurs throughout Europe paying vast sums of money for a single bulb, giving a blooming beautifully boost to the Dutch economy.
Poets wrote about their beauty and form and in a promotional zeal prizes were offered to the best poem.
They were also given evocative names such as Burn the Heart and Matchless Pearl.
French Chef Francois Massialot Cuisinier Royal at the court of Louis XIV set a high standard for dining throughout Europe from 1698.
He used flowers to decorate the dessert remove following a great dinner.
Other descriptions of flowers decorating the dessert at Versailles include one with twenty-four silver pots filled with fabulous flowers and one with potted flowering shrubs decorating the table for dessert, hung with preserved fruit and ribbon garlands.
At a gala a vase of silver filigree held an orange tree covered with flowers and fruit. Around its base was sixteen baskets and vases filled with flowers’.
Another momentous occasion saw tables covered with turf as green as if it was the month of May encircled with garlands charged with leaves, flowers and fruit.
This was laid out on round tables made fashionable by Louis XIV, who wanted a clever way to defy protocol and place his mistress, the Marquise de Maintenon, opposite him, rather than at the far end of a long narrow table.
At the turn of the eighteenth century A.F. Desportes recorded in a painting a multi-tiered buffet set up for a banquet at Versailles. Garlands festooned the shell-framed mask of Pan and tumbled over the plates and dishes.
The Twelve Months of Flowers produced by Robert Furber (1674-1756) a nurseryman from Kensington at London had twelve colour plates depicting 400 different flowering species illustrated for him by Dutch flower painter Pieter Casteels (1684-1749).
It was first published in 1730. Each month of the year was illustrated by an appropriate arrangement with individual flowers numbered to a corresponding key. This helped customers to make an order.
Furber’s nursery was the first known source for the Moss Rose. Conceived primarily as a flower catalogue, its commercial function was adroitly veiled, and its list of subscribers read like the who’s who of England at that time.
In 1732 he also produced a book entitled The Flower Garden Displayed, which was meant to be a general-purpose book written for the expanding middle classes. One could say that he was ‘hedging all his bets’
Many new species of flowers were being cultivated and like the tulip a century earlier, they were named for famous classical or contemporary figures.
It was such a success Furber published another series based on fruits in season.
We do not know whether Twelve Months of Flowers actually increased the sales of seeds and plants, but the catalogue itself went through innumerable reprints during the course of the eighteenth century
Because of a fashion for circuit walks around lakes and over hills and dales or through the landscaped park there were seldom flowers grown near the house in eighteenth century England.
Walks’ in the country designed by such luminary architects as Scotland’s Robert Adam after 1760 for Lord Scarsale at Kedleston were furnished with bowers and enchanting ‘outdoor rooms’.
These were filled with sweet smelling flowers to provide resting places and viewpoints along the way. Scarsdale ordered 1,000 sweet briar, 100 jasmines, 1050 syringa’s, 1200 lilac, 350 honeysuckle, 100 sweet Williams, 3000 mixed tulips as well as various roses and carnations for his ‘rooms’
From 1771 plants from Australia appeared at London although most of them only survived in other areas like California, parts of South Africa and Mediterranean regions, which had comparable climates and where people were curious about them.
Sir Joseph Banks founder of the Royal Horticultural Society at London had the genus Banksia named for him. The famous Florilegium that bears his name was commissioned as a stunning record of the flowers growing in Australia during early colonial times including those he had identified on his journey to the Antipodes.
By the end of the eighteenth century dining rooms in England had great floral painted services of porcelain to dress a table along with superb biscuit figures and groups.
Flowers were arranged in especially designed porcelain baskets. The choice of flowers complemented those painted on the plates and tiny orange trees in small flowerpots were arranged on the mantelpiece.
‘I dined with the Duke and Duchess…it was a very fine affair….the table was prepar’d for dessert…which was a beautiful park, round the edge was a plantation of flowering shrubs and in the middle a fine piece of water with dolphins spouting out water and grazing deer were interspersed irregularly over the lawn; on the edge of the table was all the iced creams and wet and dried sweetmeats…it was such a piece of work it was all left on the table ‘til we went to coffee’
Botanical artist Pierre Josephe Redoute (1759-1840) had a great gift that enabled him to paint flowers so delightfully and in such minute detail he became and remained known as the Raphael of Flowers. He was appointed personal tutor to Queen Marie-Antoinette.
The Sevres porcelain factory was her husband Louis XVI’s responsibility. As he had been taught the importance of thrift, he made drastic changes after discovering embezzlements by its managers, turning losses into profits.
Marie-Antoinette suggested in 1782 that Hetlinger should add cornflowers to the stock decorative flowers, which included roses, tulips and jonquils and they were instantly successful.
Great dinner services with cornflower trails and monograms became popular, especially those painted by the artists at the Manufacture de la Reine, Rue Thiroux factory in Paris of about 1780. Cornflowers were Marie Antoinette’s favourite flowers as she particularly loved and admired English gardens.
Her liking for naturalness and simplicity also coincided with current Parisian taste and she mixed with ordinary Parisians, actively seeking the people’s good will by keeping open the gates on the hunting lodge so they could walk freely and picnic in the park. This was a complete break with custom, one that caused one Paris Bookseller named Hardy to record it as a ‘revolution’.
Following the French revolution Empress Josephine employed Redoute to record her plant collection. His finest achievement is generally considered to be the publication of Les Roses (1817-2). Around the world during the second half of the nineteenth century the expansion of wealth generated by the expansion of industry meant where high society led others could now afford to follow.
In 1884 in England Kate Greenaway published her book The Language of Flowers, a Handbook for Victorian lovers when flowers appeared in elegant, sparsely furnished rooms.
Fabulous flora blooming beautifully spilled out into the streets when the young Danish Princess Alexandra arrived at London in England to marry Queen Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII.
She found the pier, stations and streets festooned with roses, with walls of houses draped with wreaths and garlands of laurel and white and red roses and evergreens.
They set an example by the decoration of their table for houses, dinner, dresses, carriages and so forth and the whole community copied their example with passionate fervour.
The Prince and Princess of Wales wedding celebration was also decked out with flowers.
Alexandra enjoyed everything from lowly wild flowers to the regal lily or marvellous magnolia.
She was so mad about flowers she had them sewn onto many of her dresses, including her own and her bridesmaids on her wedding day.
At one stage Edward decided they must economize and inspected her floral arrangements.
However the only saving he could make a small vase of three roses from her boudoir which she indignantly ordered him to put back and, at least as far as she was concerned, that was the end of the matter.
Shortly after leaving the hospital at Saint-Rémy after a yearlong stay, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) produced four lush still life depictions of flowers, including blue ‘Irises.’
This painting along with one of a vase of roses is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s collection. Van Gogh’s mother throughout her lifetime kept them both.
Van Gogh enjoyed using the innovative pigments available in the late nineteenth century, especially chrome yellow which he used to highlight the intensity of his sunflowers.
Van Gogh began painting sunflowers after he left Holland for France in pursuit of creating an artistic community. The first decorated his friend Paul Gauguin’s bedroom and was created along with a great many others in Arles, France from1888-1889.
Van Gogh did create some sunflower paintings prior to this time in Paris around 1887 but these are depicted lying on the ground as against the ones from Arles being painted in a vase.
French Painter Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) one of the fathers of modernism was renowned for his horticultural wizardry, the central motif of his artistic genius. He celebrated the art of flowers in the creation of his now world famous garden at Giverney.
He had a comprehensive botanical library and throughout his life remained faithful to the stalwarts of any French garden – Hybrid tea roses, dahlias, gladioli, and geraniums.
The simple flowers he loved best were poppies and sunflowers, Christmas roses and jonquils. He never tired of them or of painting them and they are still growing there today.
He claimed that the ‘poor palettes’ of the painter could not capture fully the colour of flowers and explored new ways of interpreting the world leaving us with a lasting impression that it was the creator who perhaps guided his imaginative genius, as well as his hand.
Monet’s paintings dripped green, violet, flowing pink, with quick and with quick lively proliferating brushstrokes, he would render light on trembling foliage, zigzag reflections on still water and the waving of a flower in the breeze.
He also liked nothing more than to gather a selection and bring them indoors. Monet was fascinated with photography, which was a new invention of his time.
It is good that today we have a contemporary record of this amazing man and his garden at Giverny, which has been handsomely restored so that people can come from all over the world to enjoy his vision and to see the sorts of flowers that inspired his work in art and life.
Constance Spry became a household name after she released her first book of flower decoration in 1934, two years after opening a flower shop in Burlington Gardens at London.
She caused flower arranging to become an art form teaching pupils who enrolled in her flower school at South Audley Street in 1935.
She advocated a revival of ‘mixed flowers’ paving the way for a revival of interest in historical flowers and their charms. A flower garden she believed needed to be conceived as integral to the philosophy behind decorating a house as a whole.
Flowers that would grace the rooms of a house were to be picked from its garden, providing both pleasurable profusion and a sense of abundance, which was indicative of a ‘lucky country’. Her ideas were taken up avidly in England, America and Australia.
An ultimate celebration of a profusion of flowers blooming beautifully has been published in 2011 by Charles, England’s Prince of Wales. He sponsored publication of The Highgrove Florilegium, one of the most lavish and, at £12,950, one of the most expensive books of modern times depicting the flowers in his own garden at his house Highgrove.
It embodies The Prince’s environmental philosophy: that it is better to work with nature than against it. All the profits from its sales go to his charitable foundation. The two volumes are filled with 120 prints of watercolours of flowers painted by 72 leading botanical artists. It harks back to the great age of botanical book publication, when grandees would commission massive, illustrated studies of rare plants and flowers that took the world by storm.
It would be the ultimate gift for someone who, unlike American artist Georgia O’Keefe, simply loves flowers.
Carolyn McDowall, ©The Culture Concept Circle, 2011, 2012