The Low Countries’ Use of Flowers in Still Life Paintings

The English term still life is derivative of the Dutch word stilleven, and the style has many connections to the country.

In 15th-century Early Netherlandish (Flemish primitive) paintings, the borders of artwork often featured elaborate displays of flowers, animals, insects and, in the instance of the famous Dutch work Hours of Catherine of Cleves produced in 1440, a diverse variety of objects.

 Hours of Catherine of Cleeves, circa. 1430

When printed books came into fashion, the same illustrative skills were employed, especially with regard to scientific botanical illustration. The Low Countries pioneered in both botany and its depiction in art.

The 16th century Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel created watercolour paintings of flowers for the Emperor Rudolf II, and there were many hand-coloured floral engraved illustrations for books such as Hans Collaert’s Florilegium, published in 1600.

At the beginning of the 17th century, still life paintings featuring flowers became immensely popular. Flemish-painter Karel van Mander focused on floral motifs, as did Northern Mannerist artists such as Cornelia van Haarlem, whose floral works did not survive. However, floral paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert did survive.

 Bouquet by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1603


Vase of Flowers in a Window Niche by Ambosius Bosschaert, 1620

As a result of the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church’s assertions in the late 1500s, it was forbidden to produce religious iconography in paintings. The Northern tradition of incorporating detailed realism and hidden symbols appealed to the growing Dutch middle classes, who were replacing Church and State as the principal patrons of art in the Netherlands. Through these artistic depictions and hidden symbologies, flowers became representative of Christian virtues.

Additionally, this combined with the Dutch’s tulip mania meant that the two views of flowers—as aesthetic objects and as religious symbols— merged to create a very strong demand for this style of still life, a notion which Paul Taylor expands upon in his book Dutch Flower Painting, 1600-1720. He also asserts that at the peak of tulip mania, in the Netherlands in March 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of skilled artisans.

Dutch still life was rarely commissioned, meaning that artists, for the majority of the time, chose the subject matter of their own work. Due to the aforementioned reasons, Dutch artists tended to stick to floral motifs. The style was so popular that Dutch flower painting was codified in the 1740 treatise Groot Schilderboeck by Gerard de Lairesse, which gave wide-ranging advice on colour, arrangement, brushwork, preparation of the flowers, cohesion, composition and perspective.

The work of Camilla Gobl is highly evocative of the 16th and 17th century Dutch still life floral paintings. Gobl’s Flower piece, from the 19th century is reminiscent of Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert.

Flowers accompany us in every major event throughout our lives; birthdays, courtship, marriage, anniversaries, celebrations, graduations, illness, and even death.

In the classical era, many flowers were linked to pagan deities such as Venus, Diana, Jupiter and Apollo. During the Renaissance, nature was viewed as a reflection of the divine and therefore flowers were regarded as being pastoral reflections of Christian figures and morals. During the Medieval times, gardens were created with both the symbolic meaning of flowers and their spiritual and religious symbolism in mind. During the strictly repressed Victorian era, emotions and romantic thoughts were not openly expressed or vocalised between men and women. Instead, an intricate and almost clandestine language based on flower symbolism was developed and flowers became even more associated with emotion, morals and ideology.

Mark Mitchell Paintings & Drawings specialise in 19th and 21st century British and Continental fine art, including still life paintings and landscape paintings. For more information, or to make an enquiry regarding the Camilla Gobl piece, please do not hesitate to contact Mark Mitchell by telephone on 0207 493 8732.


Flower Symbolic and Religious Meaning
Anemone The anemone symbolises the Trinity, sorrow and death.
Carnation A red carnation symbolises romantic love.
Columbine The columbine symbolises the Holy Spirit and melancholy.
Daisy The daisy symbolises the innocence of the Christ Child.
Dandelion The dandelion symbolises Christ’s Passion.
Hyacinth The hyacinth symbolises prudence and peace of mind.
Iris The iris symbolises the Virgin Mary.
Lily The lily symbolises purity, virginity, justice, the female breast and the Virgin Mary.
Myrtle The myrtle symbolises those converted to Christ and Christianity.
Pansy The pansy symbolises remembrance and meditation.
Poppy  A poppy symbolises sleep, power and death, and is often used in depictions of the Passion of Christ.
Rose The red rose symbolises martyrdom, a white rose symbolises purity, and a wreath of roses symbolizes heavenly joy. Roses generally represent the Virgin Mary, transience, love and Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
Sunflower Sunflowers symbolise faithfulness, divine love and devotion.
Tulip Sunflowers symbolise nobility.
Violet The violet is a symbol of modesty and humility, hence the phrase ‘shrinking violet’.


About Mark Mitchell

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