Good Life

Art & Antiques: Flowers speak volumes in artistic renditions

Tulip botanical print
Tulip botanical print Photo provided

History has produced some famous artists who were also avid gardeners. For instance, Impressionist painter Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) and his colleague, Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1911) tended flower and herb gardens at their famous artist colony of Argenteuil, France, in the early 1870s.

At Monet’s home in Giverny, France, the artist enlisted the aid of fellow gardeners to care for his famous water lily pond, which was the subject for his paintings from the early 1890s until his death in 1926. A few years ago, one of Monet’s famed water lily oil-on-canvas paintings, dated 1917, sold for $24.7 million.

Imogen Cunningham and Georgia O’Keeffe of the famous early modernist art circle active in California and New York both were gardeners who brought their love of flowers and plants into their mature works of art. For instance, Cunningham’s modernist photographs focused on native flowers, leaves, branches, etc. Her famous “Magnolia Blossom: Tower of Jewels” held the record for the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction ($26,400). Throughout her long and illustrious artistic career, O’Keeffe painted desert flowers and other majestic blooms, including cactus flowers, poppies, jack in the pulpits and various types of lilies.

In addition to these famous gardeners, there are many references to flowers in art. Different flowers mean different things when depicted as subjects in works of fine art and antiques throughout the ages.

Flowers often reference the bounty of plants, herbs, flowers, trees, nuts and fruits that were found in the New World. Flowers were highlighted in embroidered and hooked rugs made in New England during the early Colonial period. Likewise, Baltimore album quilts showed an abundance of plants and flowers when the art form peaked in popularity from 1846 to 1852. Some album quilts with embroidered flowers have sold for $40,000 to $50,000.

In the 17th century, Dutch still life paintings of flowers, particularly tulips, were all the rage. The realistic method of painting flowers was important to artists of the period. The artists, so intrigued by the forms of the flowers, that they showed little regard for the season in which a particular flower grew. In these paintings, tulips would be depicted in a Delft vase along with carnations, iris, hibiscus, zinnias, dahlias and roses, even if the various flowers bloomed at different times of the year. Rachel Ruysch, the preeminent female Dutch baroque artist of this brand of still life painting, painted an oil composition of “Honeysuckle and Other Flowers in a Blue Glass Vase” that sold for $690,600 at auction.

The color of particular flowers offer special meaning when found in flower gardens. For instance, lilies, white in color, are associated with the Virgin Mary, purity and chastity. They are the flower of choice at Easter Sunday and on the feast day of the Virgin Mary.

Deep orange, dark red, and gold chrysanthemums were brought from China to Marseilles, France, in 1789 and were hybridized in many forms. In Asia, mums are held in high esteem and associated with long life. One of the best known paintings of these blooms is Edgar Degas’ “Woman with Chrysanthemums” from 1865 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The Dutch were charmed by carnations and often included them in watercolor albums documenting botanical examples. The carnation signified faithful love in marriage. Dutch masters including Rembrandt painted these and other flowers in wedding portraits of brides and grooms. Carnations are also carved into Dutch-style corner linen cupboards of hardwoods. These cupboards were traditional gifts to newlyweds setting up housekeeping. On today’s market, the old master paintings are worth far more than the antique Dutch cupboards.

As flowers speak volumes, you can highlight some of your favorite blossoms by collecting art and antiques with flowers in focus.