Few types of painting have been more beloved by the general public yet more dismissed by art historians than the floral still-life. Even the simplest bouquet of painted flowers offers pure uncomplicated pleasure while decoratively brightening a room and dispelling gloomy moods. Yet, it is precisely their apparent mindlessness that has made them rather looked down upon as “serious” painting. In the official hierarchy of painting established by the French Royal Academy in the seventeenth century, religious and historical subjects were considered the greatest of genres, requiring mastery of perspective, composition figure painting (particularly the nude), and most importantly, the ability to move and inspire the viewer toward noble thoughts and devout and patriotic beliefs. Genre painting and portraiture—considered to be little more than “face painting”—was much less highly regarded, and still-lifes, particularly of flowers were at the very bottom: there was nothing inspirational about a handful of tulips. Certainly there were successful flower painters, but their works were considered little more than interior decoration to be placed above doors or between boiserie.
It took the Dutch to kick the reputation of flower painting up a few notches. Their century-long interest in the study of botany led to both the disastrous financial speculation of rare tulip bulbs imported from India and the production of flower-paintings of dazzling verisimilitude and refinement never previously seen which still astonish and delight, even today. The undisputed king of the floral still-life was Jan van Huysum. His highly finished sensual bouquets—with almost microscopic renditions of the shimmer and softness of a peony blossom and the sparkle of a dewdrop—made his works among the most prized and expensive pictures one could buy, and were eagerly sought after all over Europe. They may not have been “serious,” but nobody cared.
Few of van Huysums followers could match his hyperrealism, but those that came remarkably close enjoyed similar success, particularly in France. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centurries, the Dutchmen Gerard and Cornelis van Spaendonck and their French follower Antone Berjon spent most of their careers producing gardenfuls of bouquets in marble or crystal vases of almost suffocating plushness. At some point, something had to loosen.
How French flower painting relaxed into another strain of shimmering naturalism can be seen in “Working Among Flowers: Floral Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth Century France” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond (closing June 21). Beginning with the looser brushwork of Eugène Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, and continuing through Frédéric Bazille and the early Pierre-Auguste Renoir, polish was replaced by life. Soft blossoms on unwieldy stalks tumbled out of overstuffed vases. And while critics may have have had issues with these artists nudes or landscapes, their “flower pieces” were almost universally admired and were quick sellers.
The Richmond exhibition is particularly rich in the works of the most successful flower-painter of nineteenth century France: Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904), who straddled both Realism and Impressionism. There is a subdued, almost melancholy simplicity and stillness about his softly illuminated tablescapes featuring a glass of loosely gathered chrysanthemums or wildflowers and his roses droop as if needing a change of water. By contrast the flowers of Édouard Manet and Claude Monet revel in bravura brushwork and lashings of paint, their technique belying the carefully considered composition of each canvas.
Ironically, the most adventuresome master of late nineteenth century flower painting in France was the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. Well represented at Richmond, Van Gough’s flowers can also be seen in “Van Gogh and Nature” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (opening June 13) and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, centering on two paintings each of irises and roses created as an ensemble. The Metropolitan owns two, the others are lent by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery in Washington. Powerfully delineated in a brush which practically kneads the paint upon the canvas, these works were originally even bolder—the Metropolitan’s “Irises in a White Pitcher” originally had a background of brilliant pink which has since faded to white (through August 16).