In nature, flowers have a simple purpose: reproduction. With bright petals and beautiful scents, they lure insects to their pollen-filled centers to facilitate the plant’s fertilization and survival. Over millions of years, flowering plants have evolved into around 400,000 species, producing blooms of different shapes and colors that compete with one another for the attention of butterflies, ants, and bees.
The draw for insects is clear, but why do humans find flowers pleasing to the eye? Some scientists argue that people developed a liking for flowers because they signal proximity to fruit. Others, like the physicist David Deutsch, suggest that blossoms contain a type of objective beauty, attracting humans with their harmonious colors, soft curves, and symmetrical forms. Whether driven by nutrition, aesthetics, or something else, people have long imbued flowers with personal, cultural, and religious significance.
And creatives have been drawn to them for their evocative qualities, too. Over the centuries, artists have captured the rich symbolism of flowers, tracing the changing meanings of roses, irises, tulips, carnations, and more. Depending on the context, a single flower can represent reproduction or decay, purity or promiscuity, love or hardship—or nothing more than a pile of petals. From white lilies representing the Virgin Mary to Jeff Koons’s flower puppy, here are the botanical highlights of Western art.
White lilies and red carnations for the Virgin Mary
One of the most popular subjects of Christian art, the Annunciation captures the moment the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will conceive the son of God. If you take a closer look, you will find that these scenes almost always feature white lilies. Sometimes called Madonna lilies, these blooms represent the chastity and purity of the Virgin, with their golden anthers signifying God’s heavenly light. Their use marked a sharp turn in the symbolism of the flower, which had once been most closely associated with the fertility and eroticism of the Greek goddess Hera.
On the other hand, Christian artists often adorned scenes of the Madonna and Child with a red carnation, signifying the Virgin’s love of Christ and as foreshadowing of his crucifixion. Red roses also symbolized Christ’s sacrifice, with each of their five petals representing one of Christ’s wounds from the cross. While these red flowers stood for mortality in Christian art, they carried meanings of earthly love and devotion in wedding portraits of the same period.
Wilting flowers to capture the fleeting nature of human life
Still life painting flourished in 17th-century Holland, at a time when global trade had cultivated a desire for exotic personal possessions, such as glass goblets and tulip bulbs. Amid these riches, Dutch artists created moralizing still lifes that reminded viewers of the fleeting nature of material wealth. These artworks, often called momento mori (“mementos of mortality”) or vanitas (“emptiness”), featured skulls to signify death, hourglasses to indicate the passing of time, and wilting flowers to symbolize the ephemeral.
Meanwhile, the Dutch also painted bouquets of fresh flowers to highlight the power of Holland and the glory of nature. Though rendered realistically, these arrangements were almost always artistic fantasies, showing flowers together that would never have been in bloom during the same season. While vanitas scenes signaled the transient nature of all living things, these bursting bouquets demonstrated art’s ability to freeze time and grant flowers eternal life.
The boom in botanical illustrations
Erica massoni L.f., 1796-1803.
Francis Masson, Stapelia gemmiflora Masson, 1796.
Botanical illustration dates back to the 1st century B.C., when the Greek physician Krateus began depicting herbal plants with scientific precision. This practice continued through the Medieval era and the Renaissance, but reached its height between 1750 and 1850. Considered the golden age for botanical illustration, the period saw explorers like Sir Joseph Banks and Pierre Joseph Redouté traveling across the globe to chronicle every type of bloom. At the same time, advances in printmaking allowed their findings of never-before-seen buds to be studied and enjoyed back home.
Botanical illustrators portrayed the ideal version of every plant, erasing any leaf holes or petal folds. To do so, they studied example after example of the same floral species, before combining their findings together into one archetypal drawing. Afterwards, they would dissect the flowers, exposing their inner networks of petals, pistils, and stamens under the microscope. These explorations informed both art and science—in fact, the botanical illustrator Franz Bauer is even credited with the first description of a cell nucleus in his study of orchids from 1802.
The secret messages of flowers in the Victorian Era
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, new standards of etiquette limited communication across England’s upper class, so many began sending secret messages by way of flowers. In turn, books about floriography—or the language of flowers—became popular, outlining the types of flowers that signaled flirtation, friendship, embarrassment, or disdain. For example, you might find that red roses indicated love, darker roses suggested shame, and pink roses sent the message that your love should be kept a secret.
In this period of floral fever, the British Pre-Raphaelite artists filled their paintings with hidden botanical symbolism. For example, in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema rendered the tragic tale of Emperor Heliogabalus watching his guests suffocate under a shower of rose petals. While the original story specified violets as the nefarious flower, Alma-Tadema chose roses for his rendition, choosing the species specifically for its association with corruption and death. Meanwhile, the Pre-Raphaelite designer William Morris brought the Victorian fascination with flowers into the home, producing colorful wallpapers patterned with poppies, vines, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers.
“The sunflower is mine”—van Gogh
Until the 19th century, florals existed somewhere toward the bottom of the painting hierarchy. With grand history paintings regarded as the most prestigious of all art genres, landscapes and still lifes were viewed as lesser subjects. These distinctions dissipated with the French Realists and Impressionists, who embraced everyday scenes and objects as subjects worthy of art.
The French painter Édouard Manet was a leader in this effort and dedicated a remarkable one-fifth of his artistic output to still lifes, boldly claiming that the still life is “the touchstone of painting.” In 1880, nearing the end of his life, Manet focused especially on flowers. He created a series of 16 small canvases that chronicled the bouquets his friends had given him on his sickbed, and even decorated his private letters with watercolors of roses and irises.
Like Manet, many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists painted flowers that were personally meaningful to them, as opposed to choosing subjects for their cultural or religious symbolism. Vincent van Gogh began painting sunflowers for the first time in the summer of 1886, but returned to the subject two years later after inviting the French artist Paul Gauguin to stay with him in his yellow house in Arles. Van Gogh created a series of bright yellow sunflower paintings to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom, which may have been a welcoming gesture or a competitive ploy to show off his artistic talents.
Though originally made for Gauguin, van Gogh later took the sunflower as his own personal artistic signature, telling his brother Theo in a letter in 1889 that “the sunflower is mine.”
Georgia O’Keeffe and flowers as modernist form
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. “I want to give that world to someone else.” Often considered the mother of Modernism, O’Keeffe transformed the still life painting into a radical event. Her close-up views of flowers bordered on abstraction, and challenged viewers to slow down and enjoy the process of careful observation.
In 1919, the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who later became O’Keeffe’s husband, first put forward the idea that these floral paintings were actually representations of vaginas. This reading has both dominated and limited discussions of O’Keeffe’s work for decades, and the artist herself always maintained that her floral paintings had nothing to do with the female body or sexuality, but were close studies in the forms of plant life.
But O’Keeffe was not the only artist to take a closer look at flowers in the 1920s and ’30s. In California, photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham all turned their lenses on nature, creating large-scale compositions that captured flowers, fruits, and landscapes in sharp detail. Cunningham, in particular, became famous for her black-and-white series of magnolias and calla lilies, which tightly focused on the core forms of each flower.
Not surprisingly, many critics also interpreted Cunningham’s flowers as symbols of sensuality, though the photographer has asserted that her images stem purely from a deep curiosity in nature.
The technicolor, pop flowers of Andy Warhol
Instead of observing flowers in nature, the pop artist Andy Warhol found his botanical inspiration in a 1964 issue of Modern Photography. There, he discovered a photograph of hibiscus blossoms, which he transformed into a technicolor series of silkscreens that he titled, simply, “Flowers.” (The author of the original photograph, Patricia Caulfield, sued Warhol two years later for the unauthorized use of her image.)
Warhol’s version was so abstracted that critics had a hard time identifying exactly what kind of flowers they depicted. The New York Herald Tribune called them anemones, the Village Voice identified them as nasturtiums, and ARTNews saw them as pansies. Some art historians have interpreted these ambiguous florals as symbols of mourning, as the artist created the series after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Contemporary pop artist Takashi Murakami—sometimes called the Japanese Andy Warhol—follows in this tradition, painting flowers that cannot be pinned down to a particular species. Murakami’s series of “Smiling Flowers” are blooms of his own invention, featuring 12 rounded petals and a joyous cartoon face at the center. While these flowers are undeniably cute (or kawaii, in Japanese), they also contain a certain darkness for Murakami, too, as symbols of the defeated culture of post-war Japan.
Harkening back to Dutch vanitas paintings, Murakami also paints these smiling flowers side by side with black skulls to remind viewers of the fragility of life and nationhood.
Real flowers as artistic material
Flowers have recently entered art history books as an artistic medium in their own right. In the 1970s, the medical-student-cum-artist Wolfgang Laib began creating installations made entirely of pollen, which he hand-picked from the flowers around his home and studio. Laib’s largest installation, Pollen from Hazelnut (2013), enlivened the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art with an 18-by-21-foot square surface of bright yellow pollen. It took the artist 27 years to accumulate the powder, as hazelnut buds only flower for four to six weeks each spring. Explaining his dedication to the material, Laib says, “pollen is the beginning of life.”
In 1992, the American artist Jeff Koons debuted Puppy, a 43-foot-tall sculpture of a West Highland Terrier covered in a colorful carpet of over 60,000 flowering plants. “It’s such a pleasant experience to give up control,” Koons explained, “to let nature take its course.” Now based at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the giant sculpture continues to grow, with marigolds, begonias, impatiens, lobelia, and petunias all sprouting from its surface.
Despite Koons’s allusion to the natural process, the relatively manicured topiary terrier counters the organic and the metaphor for mortality contained therein, suggesting a more eternal bloom that is maintained by a complex internal irrigation system, pumping water and plant food to its coat of flowers.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory