Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

There is long history of floral painting that all but disappeared by the mid-20thcentury.  Asian artists, especially the Japanese and the Chinese found endless inspiration in the natural world and included flowers as a symbol, not only the transitory beauty of life, but also the healing, poetic, power nature delivers in blossoming flowers.

            Softly waving above the jade pool: white lotus blossoms.

Going, coming, blue birds are tranquil and silent.

The hermit doesn’t drink, but leisurely carries

his staff,

Merely recalling the pure fragrance of flowers in the


Ch’ien Hsiian 1235-1307—Chinese floral painter and poet

The Greeks and Romans and Egyptians carved flowers into friezes, signifying everything from paganism, to rebirth, to the power of motherly love (daisies in association to the Virgin Mary), to roses representing the blood shed by Christ.

Floral design with a complex set of symbolism decorated illuminated manuscripts in the middle ages.  You’ve all seen these, picture them in your mind’s eye.

In Holland in the 1630’s some tulip bulbs were auctioned for more money than the most expensive houses in Amsterdam. Realistic paintings of flowers purchased by Dutch families as substitutes for the real thing were also an indicator of wealth and class.

After the microscope and telescope were invented the idea of the science of flowers became popular in paintings. And once societies broke free from a dominant religion, flower paintings became a common substitute for religious-dominated themes in art.

See the “Water Lilies”. Monet said: “I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers….” The floral painting tradition was strong with the impressionists and the post-impressionists––think Van Gogh.

Matisse and Picasso made wide use of patterns created from flowers. And, as we move through the 20th century, see Georgia O’Keefe’s and Helen Frankenthaler’s large, important abstractions of flowers as their only monumental subject.

Germain Greer in The Guardian (7.13.2008):“Despite the phenomenal marketability of flower paintings, no one does them any more…  Modern botanical art, characteristically, appears unaware of a picture frame; the specimen portrait floats in nothingness, ready to be cropped or reduced at the whim of a designer. All emotion ebbs away, to leave nothing but detail.

Flowers have movement and habit. We recognise a wildflower in the distance not because we can count the number of anthers, but because of the way it dances. Its stem has pliability or stiffness as well as colour and dimension. The difference between botanical art and flower-painting is the difference between the illustration in your field guide and the bird on the wing.”

You might have guessed, with spring and sunshine and all, we are going to paint flowers.  SO PLEASE BRING ONE.  (I will have some back-ups.)

As this idea steeps in the next few days, see the flowers you pass in context to a larger image. Experiment mentally with how they might fit in the “picture frame”.  Do not be concerned with detail. Do be concerned with emotion. See it move, see it unfold. See it fade. Try to stretch you vision to see a flower/s in something other than a vase, a pot or a planter.  Imagine.

Work within your skill set. Because you may not be able to render a flower doesn’t mean you can’t compose an impactful picture plane.  Some more modern looks at floral-inspired paintings follow. Notice the

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variety. We’ll look at them in class too.

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