Daffodils that come before the swallow dares…

The appearance of a flowerpiece by Ludger Tom Ring in Christie’s Old Master & British Paintings Sale on 2 July – ‘one of the earliest independent still life [paintings] in the history of Western art’ – prompts the question, why do we like these things so much? An earlier post touched on the history of the flowerpiece (an extremely long and enduring one), but how exactly is it that these things which we can pick from the garden or bring home from a shop any day of the week have exerted such a continual fascination? Why not have a real bunch of flowers? – a different one every few days?

Ludger Tom Ring II (1522-84), Narcissi, calamine violets & periwinkle in a ewer on a ledge with a sprig of rue, Christie’s

The delicacy and refinement of this extraordinary image might be a clue; its realism is in some senses almost preternatural – if you look at the narcissi petals, for instance, the flower on the right, which is in profile, has a translucency and an apprehension of the fall of light which is breathtaking in its technical accuracy. These are some of the most fragile and ephemeral organisms on our earth; thin as tissue and more easily damaged, they live a few days and then they’re gone. Of course, this made them ideal vessels of symbolic significance – they could stand for earthly vanity or human life, or express qualities such as humility and modesty. For much of the earlier Renaissance, this is what they were doing in altarpieces and devotional works: standing in for the characteristics of the Virgin, the Christ Child or a particular saint. 

 Leonardo da Vinci, The Madonna of the Rocks, from c.1491 to 1508, National Gallery, London

Here, for instance, is a detail showing one of the plants growing in the strange cavernous setting of The Madonna of the Rocks; it is a group of narcissi, painted with similar observational skill and sensitivity to those in the Ring, but here, however, they are more than accidentally or aesthetically chosen as part of the composition – they symbolize the Resurrection. Further into the 16th century, this use of religious symbolism within art was beginning to be tempered by paintings of objects which only have a meaning internal to the work – or even none at all; so that the Ring may depict plants with medicinal qualities, but it is also purely a painting of flowers, chosen for their aesthetic qualities – their delicacy and grace, and their transience.

Alexander Marshall (c.1620-82), The florilegium of Alexander Marshall, Royal Collection: double folio showing the narcissus & Crown imperial

During the 16th and 17th century, the scientific interest in flowers hinted at in the Ring branched off into botanical art, in which the focus was on the accurate rendering of all the different parts of the flower, from root to seed pods, in an effort to categorize and catalogue the vast number of species of plant to which exploration and colonization was rapidly adding. Here the narcissus has no particular aesthetic or symbolic value; it is presented with complete objectivity, devoid of leaves, companions or posed graces. It is still very beautiful, and beautifully painted, but beauty is not the main point of this work.

Jan van Os (1744-1808), Roses and other flowers in a sculpted vase with chicks in a nest, Christie’s, 17 October 2006

 Beauty is certainly the main point of this one… Now, in the second half of the 18th century, the Dutch flowerpiece has established itself as the celebration of flowers par excellence. This is a paean to the ephemeral nature and perfection of flowers – all flowers, from every part of the year, whether they would naturally be seen together or not. Thus the narcissus appears again, alongside primulas, delphiniums, roses, hollyhocks and carnations, in a small walk-on part (although at the very centre of the painting). Even with the best succession houses, it’s unlikely that this could have occurred at this time; what is happening is really the recording and preservation of a transient beauty, in the most attractive way possible, so that those who can afford it, and who cannot – however much they may pay – bend Nature to their desires, may have the perfect vase of flowers (from every season) in their house for as long as they want it.

John Singer Sargent, Still life with daffodils, c.1891-94, Yale University Art Gallery

This is what we understand from the modern still life of flowers: the tension between the lovely fragile thing which lasts for a few days, and the preservation of it for as long as the painting lasts – the almost literal immortalization, which art promises.  This is what so many of us would like to have in our houses, as a reminder that beauty can stay with us, even as time moves on…

Camilla Gobl (1871-1965), Flowerpiece, collection of Mark Mitchell

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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