A Brief History of Flowers in Western Art
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
White lilies and red carnations for the Virgin Mary
One of the most popular subjects of 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
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
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
“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
The French painter
Like Manet, many Impressionists and
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,”
In 1919, the photographer and art dealer
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
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
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.
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 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 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.