Flowers have inspired artists for centuries. Here we take a look at five artistic figures who have captured the beauty of plants in very different ways
words by Frances Ambler
Associated with beauty, fragility and cycle of death and rebirth, plants offer an abundance of connotations that can be explored through art. Yet until the 16th century in Western art, flowers were only really depicted for their symbolic value or as a record, rather than being considered as worthy artistic subjects in their own right.
A change in status came once the plants themselves became sought-after commodities. As with portraits, they became vehicles for exploring new techniques and conveying emotions. Here’s our pick of five artists – spanning over 300 years – who excelled in capturing the unique qualities of plants. Their varied approaches are fascinating in what they reveal about both artist and subject – and the times in which they were made.
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Ruysch produced over 250 floral artworks over her long career, her mastery of the subject bringing her international fame and fortune.
Her work spanned the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting, a period in which floral still life rose in popularity as a subject that appealed to the newly affluent merchant class. Flowers were status symbols – with exotic examples being imported into the Netherlands from around the world – as were their depictions.
Ruysch’s oil paintings took the plant portrait to new heights. She captures every single bloom, stem and leaf in meticulous detail, and brings them together in an impressive display of beauty. It’s not a static image of perfection, however – the arrangements teem with insects; flowers wilt and die. As floral bouquets were still unusual in this period, the image she produced would be – for all but the extremely rich – an elaborate fantasy.
Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1890)
Regarded by some as the best botanical artist of all time, Redouté was born in the Netherlands but made his career in Paris, becoming the official court artist of Marie Antoinette. Redouté’s work in Paris’s National Museum of Natural History give him access to botanical specimens brought from all over the world. The surge in interest in new plants brought a corresponding explosion in botanical illustration. Coinciding in the early 19th century with advances in colour printing, Redouté’s exquisite samples were reproduced in over 50 publications, with Les Liliacées and Les Roses especially admired.
Redouté is renown for his delicate watercolours, yet his primary concern was to record, rather than to express. However, a certain amount of artistic licence was employed. Just as a portrait often flatters its sitter, botanical art presents an idealised version of the plant – forever in bloom, untouched by time’s ravages.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Responsible for some of the world’s most famous paintings of flowers, van Gogh first turned to plants from economic necessity – painting them was less expensive than hiring an artist’s model. His 1888 Sunflower series, however, transformed the still life into a means of personal expression. It articulates the optimism van Gogh felt as he awaited his fellow painter Paul Gauguin’s arrival in Arles, Provence, and the pleasure he found in creating contrasts and capturing the shape and textures of his plants – a marriage of technique and emotion.
As seen in the later images of irises and roses he painted shortly before being released from Saint-Rémy’s asylum, van Gogh also turned to plants for consolation. He found comfort in their beauty, and understood them as a reminder of the continuity of life – in turn, as how many see his images today.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)
In the 20th century, it is probably O’Keeffe who is most closely associated with plant portraits, as can be seen in a major retrospective of her work at the Tate Modern in London this summer. She painted her first large-scale flower portrait in the mid-1920s, examining in microscopic, sensual detail the anatomy of a flower. O’Keeffe wanted, she said, to make people really stop and look at their structure. It was an exercise she repeated in more than 200 works in her six-decade career, celebrating plants ranging from Calla Lilies to cactus flowers.
Even in the 1920s, these were interpreted as representations of female genitalia, a uniquely feminine form of modern art – an interpretation that persists today, despite O’Keeffe’s denial in her lifetime. But her works did bring a new vocabulary to modern art. Grounded in reality, these plant portraits became a vehicle for O’Keeffe’s explorations of shape and colour.
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989)
From 1973 until his death in 1989, the American artist Robert Mapplethorpe made flowers the subject of an extensive photographic study, explored in an exhibition currently showing at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Although he experimented in capturing them with different techniques, this wasn’t purely an academic exercise. He referred to them as his ‘Y’ portfolio, with the ‘X’ representing his sadomasochistic imagery and the ‘Z’ nude portraiture.
This description encourages an interpretation of Mapplethorpe’s flowers as being as much about love, death, beauty, and sex as the rest of his work, and as equally valid subjects for contemporary art. He emphasised the sexuality of the flower’s anatomy, transforming them into symbols of masculinity. In his crisp black-and-white images, Mapplethorpe celebrated the sculptural elegance of a flower’s form, while his colour works enhance the luxurious intensity of their tones – photographs as carefully composed and deliberately complex as Mapplethorpe’s human portraiture.