Floral arrangements are among the most popular themes for still life paintings, always have been, and remain so. As we near the end of this series, I have chosen a few of the finest floral still lifes to trace their development and show some of the key paintings. In the beauty of these flowers, there is also a recurrent tinge of sadness, and an association with illness and early death.
I start with what was probably one of the first still life paintings in ‘modern’ art.
Hans Memling painted these Flowers in a Jug on the back of a panel bearing a portrait of a young man praying, in about 1485. It’s thought that this was part of a diptych or triptych, and could have formed its back cover when folded.
His choice of jug and flowers confirms its religious nature: Christ’s monogram is prominent on the body of the jug, and each of the flowers has specific references. Lilies refer to the purity of the Virgin Mary, irises to her roles as Queen of Heaven and in the Passion, and the small aquilegia flowers are associated with the Holy Spirit.
Floral still lifes were popular early in the Dutch Golden Age, when they became established as one of the major sub-genres.
Ambrosius Bosschaert painted this Flower Still Life in oil on copper in 1614. At first its eclectic mixture of different flowers and flying insects might appear haphazard. However, the flowers include carnation, rose, tulip, forget-me-nots, lilies of the valley, cyclamen, violet and hyacinth, which could never (at that time) have been in bloom at the same time. The butterflies, bee and dragonfly are as ephemeral as the flowers around them, suggesting that this has an underlying vanitas theme.
Another early still life master, Clara Peeters, employed symbols of vanitas in her undated Still Life Of Flowers In a Roemer With a Field Mouse And An Ear Of Wheat, which was probably painted at about the same time.
As still life painting enjoyed its heyday, more ingenious treatments were needed to attract sales.
Nicolaes de Vree’s undated Forest Floor Still Life with Flowering Plants and Butterflies from the latter half of the seventeenth century is a fine example of a painting which goes beyond the normal still life and depicts a more natural scene.
Jan van Os’s Flowers from about 1780 is a much later example of the combination of flowers, fruit and butterflies, featuring a Peacock, Swallowtail and Red Admiral. Each would have been painted from a dead specimen in a collection; collections became popular as the Age of Enlightenment encouraged the better-educated to take an active interest in developing sciences such as entomology. This still life is thus a bridge to natural history and botanical painting.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that there was a real specialist, though. Henri Fantin-Latour started his career painting copies of works in the Louvre. Then in the early 1860s he tried his hand at floral still lifes, which were the first of his original works to attract any interest from collectors. His friend Whistler promoted Fantin’s paintings in London, and Fantin was soon making a comfortable living from them.
Still Life with Chrysanthemums, from 1862, is one of his earliest, and I think one of his finest. It’s not hard to see how attractive they must have been at the time. But Fantin wasn’t content painting them, and embarked on a series of ill-fated group portraits of contemporary artists, men of letters, and music-lovers. I think he related more closely to cut flowers, though, and his floral paintings are where his true art shines through.
In the Spring of 1870, during Frédéric Bazille’s tragically brief career as the figurative painter among the French Impressionists, he painted a small group of floral still lifes, among them Flowers. Just seven months or so later he was killed, fighting in the Franco-Prussian War.
Seven years before Vincent van Gogh painted his famous series of Sunflowers, Monet painted this Bouquet of Sunflowers (1881), a thoroughly Impressionist work but in keeping with the still life tradition.
Then, two years before the tragic end to his life, Vincent van Gogh painted the most famous floral still lifes of all time. This, known as the fourth version or Still Life: Vase with 15 Sunflowers, is normally the most popular painting with visitors to London’s National Gallery. Seen in the flesh, its background is one of the most remarkable passages in any Western painting, with its unique metallic sheen.
Lovis Corinth isn’t famous for his still life paintings, but there are two which are particularly poignant. He painted these Roses in 1910, at the height of his careeer. He strikes a perfect balance between botanical detail and accuracy of the blooms, and looseness in the foliage and background.
Late the following year, Corinth suffered a severe stroke which nearly killed him. Despite its devastating effects, Corinth and his devoted wife worked hard through a long convalescence to recover his ability to paint, although there were lasting effects.
The contrast in style after his stroke is perhaps most evident in these Roses which he painted in 1919.
My last two paintings are by the American artist Charles Demuth (1883–1935), who developed Type 1 diabetes in adult life. As a result, he suffered increasingly frequent episodes of diabetic illness. During the 1920s, he became one of the first to receive injections of insulin, but his bouts of illness became more severe, and he died in 1935 from their consequences.
He painted Amaryllis in about 1923 when he was recovering from acute complications of his diabetes, as both solace from his suffering and an aid to recovery.
Zinnias, Larkspur and Daisies (1928) is one of his later exquisite floral watercolours, featuring a rich variety of colours and forms. If only his health could have been improved by his paintings.