During the Dutch Golden Age, flower painting was a niche industry. These still life scenes were sought after by the newly wealthy merchant class. In addition to being status symbols, the paintings could be read as allegories on life. The average Dutch household would understand not just the greater meaning of flowers, and shells, but the specific meaning of the flowers chosen in the composition. Several artists made a living creating them, including a handful of women. The works combine scientific observation, with the Dutch love of allegory. We will take a look at the history that gave rise to this trend, the possible meanings of the works, and a closer look at four of the key artists who propelled flower painting forward.
Behind the drive towards flowers
During the 1500s the, Low Countries (modern day Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) experienced a lot of fighting, and wars. Eventually seventeen provinces, that roughly make up the modern day Netherlands, broke away. They gravitated to the Protestant religion. This is important because the Dutch mostly stopped depicting Christ in art. Instead they begin to use items found in the natural world to represent Christian themes, and other ideas too.
The Cycle of Life
Before we look at flowers, we will look at two other still life paintings from the 1600s. There is an abundance of symbolism in Abraham Mignon’s, “Still Life with Fruit, Fish, and a Nest.” Looking at this basket of fruit, and flowers we should be reminded of our own mortality. Mignon’s work takes us through the stages of life. Look at the objects around the painting. The nest, with eggs, represents birth. The fruit is ripe and full, as we are in our prime. Old age can be seen in the decaying tree stump. The fish, and that one poor lizard represent our mortality. Mignon’s work also contains religious references. The strands of wheat, and grapes allude to the Last Supper, and Christ.
The Cycle of Salvation and Rebirth
Now, look at “Still Life with Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls,” by Osias Beert. A modern audience would
be forgiven if they looked at these bowls of fruit and did not think of the devil looking to feed on the souls of
unsuspecting mortals. The bowls of cherries, and strawberries represent humans, they were considered to be the fruits of paradise. The dragonfly is a creature of the devil. If you look closely at the knife on the table, you will also see a butterfly. That is another image that is a reference to Christ, salvation, and rebirth. You will find butterflies, and dragonflies in many Dutch flower paintings.
How the Detailed Study of Flowers Begins
Proficiency, and realism were still important to the artists, and patrons. Still life painters would spend a lot of time studying the various species of plants, and flowers they portrayed. They relied on the latest scientific advances to help them. Groundbreaking concepts, that would lead Galileo to invent to the microscope, were developed by Dutch pioneers in the 1500s. Dutch ships brought back plants, and flowers from their journeys abroad The first Dutch botanical gardens were developed just as the flower painting genre took off. The small botanical garden at Leiden was
started as a medical garden, and housed more than 100 species of plants. If an artist did not have access to a botanical garden, they could purchase watercolors, and paintings from other artists who created detailed studies of
various flower species.
The Bosschaert Dynasty
Ambrosius Bosschaert III, or Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was an early artist who specialized in flower paintings. He taught his sons, and his step son Balthasar van der Ast the genre. His family is sometimes referred to as the Bosschaert Dynasty. They first lived in Middleburg, an international trading city that housed a beautiful botanical garden. Bosschaert was known for very symmetrical paintings. Here he even created symmetry of color. Look how the yellow and pink is repeated at the top in the iris and tulip, then lower in the pink and yellow roses. The inscription translates to, “This is the angelic hand of the great painter of Flora, Ambrosius, renowned even to the banks of the Moré.” This compilation of flowers would be impossible to pull off with an actual bouquet, because they don’t bloom at the same time. We are looking at an artist’s fantasy, that is the case in almost all of the flower paintings.
Top Artist of His Time: Jan Davidsz de Heem
Jan Davidsz de Heem lived and studied in Leiden for four years in the late 1620s. He was immensely popular during his lifetime, and his paintings could sell for more than a Rembrandt, at the time. De Heem used more subdued colors than the artists before him. He also created works that were asymmetrical. In this work, all the flowers strain to break free of the vase. The flowers take on a life of their own, some droop like the that red poppy that rests on the table. Now look at the white poppy at the top of the painting. The eye is drawn there. The stem reaches up, and the white stands out against the dark background. De Heem chose to paint this key flower facing backwards.
Most Succsful Woman Artists: Rachel Ruysch
Rachel Ruysch was the most successful of the female artists. For several years, she was a court painter in
Düsseldorf, for Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine of Bavaria. Ruysch’s husband Juriaen Pool was also an artist.
They had ten children, Ruysch did not let that slow her painting down. She continued to paint well into her eighties, and she began to add her age to her signature on her later paintings. When we look at Ruysch’s art we are met with a mix of vibrant colors which have now come back in vogue. We also see the asymmetry made popular by the previous generation of artists. We are looking at a newly cut mix of flowers. Like the paintings in vases, this is a work of fantasy. It is a composition developed by Ruysch, and not an actual handful of flowers
Leading Into the Rococo: Jan van Huysum
Like many of the artists of the day Jan van Huysum’s father was also an artist, and he probably learned much from him. Van Huysum was known to be very secretive about his painting techniques, he would not even allow family members into his studio. In addition to painting flowers, Van Huysum was an accomplished landscape painter. While the other artists we have looked at are considered Baroque, Van Huysum is more in the vein of the Rococo artists. This vase if filled to abundance. There is no way for us to even take in everything that is going on in the microcosm Van Huysum has created. It is unruly, abundant, and wild. It is life. With Van Huysum, critics finally see the genre as
something more than a still life.
Dutch flower paintings, are a rich landscape to lose yourself in. They are beautiful works of art, that hold great meaning. Though we no longer understand all the subtle nuances hidden with in these paintings we can still admire them.