History of Flowers in Art Essay: Part One


In this essay I will be talking about the history of flowers and plants in art. I will discuss  the difference between flowers that are used for a pattern, and flowers painted as though they were people, each as separate individuals.

Now, we might say that flowers are naturally a sort of art. Think about what flowers are really for, and why they are beautiful – they are to attract bees – they are, in short, art for bees. This may seem a humorous idea, but it is, in fact, true. And so when we see an artistic representation of a plant – if we study the flower or tree – we may often see that it does naturally tend toward a pattern or form. Flowers can be converted into art – into a pattern – simply by accentuating the natural patterns that they are shaped by in your painting/sketch/water-colour/cut-out/woodcut. We can find an example of this in the paintings of flowers in medieval manuscripts.

In the Medieval age, it was common to decorate books, (especially bibles) by painting pictures of plants, often swirling, climbing plants – typically vines, ivy or acanthus – trailing round the letters, and little scenes, many of them involving flowers, in the margins. The flowers painted often symbolized things – they might even sometimes be used to tell the same story as was written is the script in pictures – for instance, the reason for using vines, as well because they were swirly and good for growing around the letters, may have been because vines meant grapes, grapes meant wine, and wine symbolized blood of Christ, therefore vines were a good thing to use in religious books, which were one of the main things that they illustrated with flowers and pictures.

We called the books decorated like this Illuminated Manuscripts, and they were generally done by monks, who were the most – often the only – educated people at that time. They were not only educated in reading and writing, but we the doctors of the time, and knew how to use herbs for healing.

Ms 2617 Emilia in her garden, Plate 22, from 'La Teseida', by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), 1340-41 (vellum)

Here are a few of the meanings of the plants commonly used in medieval manuscripts:

Pinks – Crucifixion (this is because pinks smell like cloves, cloves look like nails, and nails were used in the crucifixion)

Columbine – Holy Ghost (‘columba’ means ‘dove’ in Latin, and the Colombine is sometimes though to look like a flying bird.)

Lily – Mary (the white petals are said to symbolize her purity, the gold stamens the radiance of her soul)

Lily of the Valley Sometimes said to mean return of happiness, but in medieval manuscripts it is generally associated with the Virgin. It is sometimes called ‘Our Lady’s Tears, because it is said to have sprouted where her tears fell at the foot of the Cross. The blooms do look like falling tears.

Vines – Everlasting Life (Everlasting life of course associated with Christ, and Christ with grapes for reason already stated in above paragraph)



The picture shown above is from ‘À Mon Seul Désir’, one of the six early renaissance tapestries of The Lady and the Unicorn. Like many other floral tapestries, it is ‘mille-fleur’, meaning, ‘thousand flowers’. Mille-fleur means that instead of putting behind your figures a realistic landscape with hills and trees, as in paintings of the same time, you put a background decorated with lots and lots of intricate flowers and leaves, so as to give an impression of a meadow. The Lady and the Unicorn is an interesting case because it is different from most of the others in that the mille-fleur in the background does not look as if it is part of the picture – or rather, not part of the scene. In The Three Fates (another mille-fleur tapestry) it looks as if the figures are really standing on flowery grass, and the flowers behind them are just supposed to be in the distance. But in ‘À Mon Seul Désir’, and the other Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the flowers play the part of an abstract pattern behind the figures – they seem to stand on a little island – they are really standing on the flowers under their feet – could they move they would be able to pluck those flowers – but not the flowers behind them. For one thing, the flowers behind are on red, not on green as though they were growing – also, birds fly against the red background as thought it were the sky. The flowers themselves, too, are drawn more as though they were a pattern, and less as though they were really growing.



The Three Fates

Mille – Fleur

In the works of Botticelli, also, we can find this interesting difference between flowers realistically portrayed – painted as you would paint a portrait of a person’s face – and stylised flowers used for a pattern. Flowers play a prominent part in many of Botticelli’s most famous works – especially my favourite of all his paintings, Primavera, or, in English, ‘spring’. An interesting thing about the nature in this painting, is that it seems almost like architecture – the trees above Venus bend into an arch above her, and the bush behind her grows in such a way as to form a halo round her head. And plants do naturally grow in a pattern, and a structure – it may be because of this that the mille-fleur exists, and this may also be the reason why plants seem to curl so naturally round the letters of the manuscripts. Nature seems made to be converted into art.

But to revert to the theme which originally led us on to Botticelli, I will mention the parts of this painting which show the contrast between patterns of flowers and real life flowers – Flora’s dress for instance.


Primavera, by Botticelli. (Notice how the leaves halo the head of Venus, the lady in the middle with a red and white robe)

Zephyrus, the god of the wind (who comes bursting through the trees on the right-hand side of the painting) captures a beautiful nymph called Chloris, and changes her into Flora, the goddess of flowers. You may have wondered who are the two figures, very similar in aspect, (except that one has a plain muslin dress and the other a gown patterned with flowers) standing close together at one side of the picture, Zephyrus holding onto one of them, and the one that he holds on to spilling flowers onto the dress of the other from her mouth. The answer is that these two figures are the same person, but one is Flora, and the other Chloris – one figure is she before she was turned into a goddess, and the other after she is one. But to the point – the real-life flowers spilling out of the mouth of Chloris, change into a pattern on the dress of Flora. Now here is a perfect illustration of what I was saying – the changing of nature to art depicted in art.

Another thing that Botticelli may have been meaning to say, was that before she was transformed, when she was only Chloris, the goddess was mortal – she was solid, touchable – but when she was changed to Flora, the flowers were no longer solid but a pattern on a dress. Flowers in the real world can wilt and die, but once changed into art – art that lives forever – they are immortal. So was Chloris changed from a mortal maiden who could die, to a goddess. This same point is illustrated in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, for in that he talks about ‘nature’s changing course’ – ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’, and in contrast immortalises the beauty of the lady the poem is about by writing about her: ‘thy eternal summer shall not fade…When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.’

Plants also feature as part of the landscapes behind the figures in renaissance paintings. Gradually, the landscape behind the figures became more and more important, until serious landscape painting became common. One of the first do proper landscape paintings was Giorgione. He was born 14, 172, and died August 2, 1788. He – and other landscape painters who came after him (such as Claude Lorrain and Gainsborough) – often included the ruins of classical buildings in their landscapes, and the trees they paint (especially those of Gainsborough) look like clouds. They are very fluffy, with the leaves all blurred together, and in some patches faded and airy, and in others darker. Lakes, fences, and old, crooked, and often lightening-struck-trees are also common themes. Here the artists seem to be linking art (architecture) and nature, but both seem to be the victims of time, unlike Botticelli, in whose paintings art is immortal. But we cannot linger talking about landscape – for there is too much to be said on that subject ever to be covered in one essay – and besides, a lot of it is about sky, hills and lakes, as well as plants. Landscape painting concentrates more on atmosphere than accurateness – for detailed and trustworthy portraits of individual flowers we must look at Durer.


Painting by Giorgione


Paintings by Claude Lorrain


Painting by Gainsborough


Albrecht Dürer was a painter, writer and printmaker in the German Renaissance. He was born in Nuremberg, a place in Germany, on 21 May 147. Dürer visited Italy many times during his life, and was greatly influenced by Italian art. The influence can be seen in his Feast of Rose Garlands.

He did many woodcuts, including Knight, Death, and the Devil, and Saint Jerome in his Study. He also did (and it is mostly these which I am writing about) some lovely oil paintings of flowers and a famous one of grass. Unfortunately, only ten of them survive.


Grass, by Durer

durer colembine

Columbine, by Durer


Cowslips, by Durer


His drawings and paintings of flowers have a special atmosphere to them; they are very detailed – almost photographic – and they capture delicacy and spindliness in flowers very well. They are perfect examples of flowers in art depicted as individuals, not as patterns.  One thing that is interesting in his drawings was that they almost all show the roots of the plants. This was the case with many early illustrations of flowers. This might have been because in those days roots were the bit of plant most used for medical purposes, and so they became to be considered the most important part. His paintings usually depict wild flowers, and are without the slightest trace of luxuriance about them – after all, his most famous painting is of grass. This may be because he was influenced by the reformation, and was interested in the teachings of Martin Luther. Protestants, of course, believed in truth and simplicity, and despised luxuriance, and the faithful representation of the ‘book’ of nature is perhaps similar to a faithful study of the bible. Durer’s religion may have shown in his paintings.

 Now, let us talk about another style of painting, which, though like Durer it is portraits of flowers rather than flower patterns, is very different from him. It is Dutch Still Life.

The Dutch were the master of still life, and there are lots of Dutch paintings of vases of flowers and bowls of fruit.

Rachel Ruysch was a Dutch painter who did still life fruit and flowers. She was born into a wealthy family, (many of members of which were painters), on 3 June 1664. The flowers in her paintings are generally piled into vases, but the flowers hang down so low that nothing but the very bottom of the vase can be seen. All the stems of the flowers bend in different directions, creating a lively affect, and the colors are crisp and bright. The backgrounds are usually dimly lit – often dark to see what is behind. This was common in still life of the time. The quantity of flowers all put into one vase, and the carelessness of their arrangement gives a very luxurious feeling to the paintings. Here is an interesting example of what I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph, about how different from the paintings of Durer are these pictures.

The flower Rachel paints most are red tulips dashed with white – at least one of these can be found in almost every one of her paintings. These tulips are interesting, because they are not wild flowers, but were bred to look red and white together. Humans made them, not nature – it is like they are art even before they are painted – and not only art, for in a way even wild flowers are art, but art made for man, not for bees. Again, we here see the contrast to Durer, whose flowers were usually wild, and never bred.

Paintings by Rachel Ruysuch (note the red and white tulips mentioned)

Another Dutch painter of flowers was Jan van Huysum. He, too, gave a very luxurious feeling to his paintings, even more, perhaps, than Ruysch. In many of his paintings the flowers are not in vases, but piled up in stacks or arranged upon tables. He is a particularly good painter of fruit – you can almost feel the velvet of the peach skin as you look, and it is incredible how he captures the transparent sheen of the red-currants, and how, on black grapes, the shiny dark spots peep out from under the silvery, matt looking film (it is as if they are made of different sorts of silk – the shiny parts are damask, and the other parts fuji silk, suedey instead of slippery). He often – nearly always, in fact – includes something classical next to the fruit and flowers – a vase or table with cherubs and goddess carved into it, or, as in one of the paintings shown below, he places his flowers into some sort of classical arch or cranny – once more we see the linking between flowers and art.

Van Huysum paintings


It is interesting that often the fruits in Dutch still life are rotting, or at least over ripe, and often being eaten by insects, and some of the flowers are wilted or over-blown, with ants crawling over them, as in the pictures below. Here again we see the theme of transitory life of flowers that I talked about when looking at Flora’s dress in Primavera. This concept is ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’, which means ‘art is long, life is short’.



Plants again came into use as symbols in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was started in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and its aim was to revert the style of painting before Raphael – ‘pre-Raphael’. They though he and those who came after him, were interested too much in the outer beauty of their works, and not enough in the inner story it told. They wished to bring back symbolism into art, and so, of course, they had a use for plants. All through the history of art flowers have been used for symbols – they told stories in the medieval manuscripts, they told stories in Primavera. 

The first painting I will talk about in which plants play a main part is Autumn Leaves, by Sir John Everett Millais.


Autumn Leaves

The painting owes almost all of its charm to nature – without those silhouetted trees, through which the warm light of sunset shines, and that glowing pile of leaves, and the apple which the littlest girl holds, the feeling of autumn that hangs about it would not be nearly so strong.

Some think that the dying light in the horizon and the dead leaves, which the girls are gathering up, symbolizes the death of the girls youth – the end of childhood’s summer. If you look closely, the wreaths of smoke seem vaguely to form the ghostly and some-what frightening figure of a bearded man with squinting eyes, which seems to suggest the theme of death and time. This is very dismal way of thinking of the painting – it is disappointing to find that instead of being a happy picture, portraying youth and the warm glow of autumn, it symbolizes death. However, Millias’s own words suggest that he may have painted it with happier themes in mind –

“Is there any sensation more delicious than that awakened by the odour of burning leaves? To me nothing brings back sweeter memories of the days that are gone; it is the incense offered by departing summer to the sky, and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that has gone.”

 These words do suggest the theme of days gone by, but he does not seem to be thinking about that in at all a sorrowful way – he is only pensive – ‘………and it brings one a happy conviction that Time puts a peaceful seal on all that has gone.” So, personally I will continue to think of Autumn Leaves as a happy picture.

Another painting that we will talk about is the famous Ophelia, also by Millias. In atmosphere, it is about as different from Autumn Leaves as two paintings can be from another; the feeling of one dusky, warm and hazy, the other, bright, crisp and fresh. But like Autumn Leaves, it relays on plants to make it beautiful.




The picture is bright and glowing with green things – the willow tree that leans over the water; the rose bush dotted with blooms – the reeds and water-weeds floating in the water, the forget-me-nots that edge the bank – the very substance of the painting is nature. But the whole idea of the Pre-Raphaelites is to bring back the idea of telling a story in the painting, and in Ophelia, the flowers play this part, as well as just making it beautiful. The pansies hang around her neck signify ‘love in vain’ and ‘thought’; the willow tree signifies love, the nettle pain, and the daisy innocence. Another interesting thing is that it is difficult to tell whether the less brightly coloured, brownish flowers and leaves are a pattern on her dress, or simply more picked plants sodden into her skirt, and not painted as brightly. Once more we see the contrast between real life flowers and those made into a pattern, and between life and death.

Another pre-Raphaelite painting that uses flowers for the symbolism is Convent Thoughts, by Charles Allston Collins. The setting is a garden with a pond, and beds on either side of a grass path. The flowers in the bed have symbolic meaning – the lilies, for instance, symbolise the Virgin Mary, (as has been mentioned in the Medieval Manuscripts part, this is because the white petals symbolise her purity, and the stamens her holy radiance). A young nun in a pale green habit has stopped in front of the pond, and, holding an upon bible in one hand, she gazes upon a passion flower that is in the other. Free-Shipping-20-BLUE-CROWN-font-b-PASSION-b-font-font-b-FLOWER-b-font-VINEThe passionflower is interesting, for it is a very good example of how much as if they are waiting to be made into a pattern flowers can sometimes look. Perfect in its symmetry, with its pretty coloured needles, its ring of little black dots, and green stamens branching out from the middle, it seems almost impossible to believe that it is a fruit of nature, and not a work of art. Also, it is associated with Christ, which may be why the nun is gazing on it, and is one of the most complex floral symbols. The filaments represent the crown of thorns, the five sepals and five petals refer to the ten faithful apostles, the three stigma stand for the nails of Christ on the cross, while the five anthers represent his five wounds. The tendrils of the flower look like the whips of the flagellation. Like the pre-Raphaelites, this flower invites us to take symbolism about as far as it could go without becoming too complex ever to be understood.


Convent Thoughts


Eventually, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood split between those who wished to carry on painting realistically – in the naturalistic tradition of the renaissance –  and those who wanted to return to medievalism and turn flowers into patterns.

One of the main people who decided to make patterns was William Morris. He designed tapestries that  went back to the mille fleur tradition, but is now best known for his designs for wallpaper and fabric.

He eventually influenced Art Nouveau, a swirling style of decoration and architecture based on plants. There are a lot of lovely Art Nouveau style glazed tiles, and also stain glass, fabric, wallpaper and architecture.

Art Nouveau Tiles


I will be publishing the second part of this essay (which will be about the impressionists and other moderner artists) soon. 

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