The charm and power of the flowerpiece…

Jan van Huysum, Still life with roses, tulips and peonies, c, 1718, oil on copper, National Galleries of Scotland

The  acquisition by the National Galleries of Scotland of a spectacular flowerpiece by the artist Jan van Huysum is a reminder of just how popular this critically rather undervalued genre of painting has been for hundreds of years (there are Roman frescoes, if not of flowers in vases, then of growing flowers, such as the garden room, Villa of Livia, Palazzo Massimo, Rome).

Floral mosaic, 4th century AD, from the ceiling, Santa Costanza, Rome

Mosaics also show flowers; for example, in the 4th century ceiling of Santa Costanza, where the decorative, informal scattering of flowering branches and birds from pagan Roman designs has been adapted to a sacred form, and introduces the theme of the Garden of Eden in one of the earliest of Christian mosaics.

Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, c. 1528, British Library

Books of Hours in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance were ornamented in the margins with beautifully naturalistic flowers, petals, small fruits such as strawberries, and insects. Many of these had symbolic significance, although in a religious and spiritual dialogue with the reader, unlike the 19th century language of flowers with its lovers’ meanings. The rose was the flower of the Virgin Mary, the heartsease and the bluebell stood for humility and the forget-me-not for remembrance.

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the carnation, 1478, Alta Pinakothek, Munich

Leonardo’s Madonna of the carnation contains a vase of flowers, from which the Madonna has taken the carnation she shows the Child; here, the carnation is symbolic of Christ’s Passion, and of His mother’s love. This is an early use of a formal arrangement in a vase: the bouquet, which contains irises (another attribute of the Virgin, and also the symbol of her sorrow), small lilies and blue daisies, is stuffed, rather unconvincingly, into a delicate glass with an urn-like base and long, slender neck. It illustrates the use of internal symbols to expand the meaning of the painted scene, and to provide a shorthand for the virtues which were intended to be suggested to the worshipper.


Ambrosius Bosschaert, Flower still life, c. 1614, J. Paul Getty Museum

The Baroque age, when secular paintings began to take over from religious, and more varied genres emerged – peasant scenes and still life – really saw the popularity of flowerpieces increase as subjects in their own right. The Dutch artist, Ambrosius Bosschaert, produced some of the earliest surviving examples: for instance, Flowers still life, of c. 1614 (above).

Juan van der Hamen, Still life with flowers, artichokes and cherries, 1627, Museu de Prado

And the work of Juan van der Hamen, a Spanish artist of Flemish extraction, marries extraordinarily delicate paintings of flowers in fragile vases with a dramatic dark ground and fruit which appears to be packed with a surreal significance. The invention of dining rooms and garden rooms instead of the all-purpose banqueting and living halls of earlier ages meant that these paintings of flowers, as well as game and fruit, were sought-after decorations. The 17th century became the great age of flowerpieces, stimulated too by the Dutch ‘tulip mania’ which elevated a bulb into an unlikely form of investment (just as had happened when the hyacinth was introduced). Important flower artists included Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Willem van Aelst, masters of rhythmically swirling compositions, dramatically lit and coloured arrangements, and combinations of flowers from different seasons.

Jan van Huysum, Still life with roses, tulips and peonies, c, 1718, oil on copper, National Galleries of Scotland

Jan van Huysum learnt from both de Heem and van Aelst, surpassing them with his virtuoso depictions of complex, interwoven bouquets, vividly coloured and highlighted with drops of dew and lovingly detailed insects. Like Juan van der Hamen he used dark backgrounds – at least in his early works – so that the flowers emerge with enhanced brilliance and glamour from the shadowy ground, dramatically sculptural and three-dimensional. In the work acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland, the colours of the flowers are woven through the composition in a sophisticated choreography of reds, pinks, piercing blues and vibrant greens, and the delicacy of the drawing is breathtaking.

This combination of miniaturistic detail, theatricality and opulence is characteristic of the 17th century; 18th century flowerpieces tend to be painted in a lighter key, and to be set against a sunlit landscape or summer skies; they are lighter in all senses, frillier and more Rococo.

Simon Saint-Jean, Flowers & fruit, 1848, Wallace Collection

Similarly, Victorian flowerpieces lack the grander, architectural rhythms and swirling strength of van Huysum’s painting; brighter, blowsier and far more ephemeral looking, they are the sweet face of floral paintings, compared with the grandeur of the Dutch style. Simon Saint-Jean’s flowerpieces sum up this difference, falling far short of the ironic permanence suggested by van Huysum’s ephemeral display.

Charles Swyncop, Still life with white flowers, collection Mark Mitchell Paintings & Drawings

Flowerpieces are still, always, desirable – investments which decorate a home and can be enjoyed for their sheer, sensuous appeal: colour, pattern, texture and composition. Look at Charles Swyncop’s painterly vase of white chrysanthemums, the transparence of glass and water suggested with a swagger, the vibrance of the white cloth beneath the glowing petals…

About Mark Mitchell

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