This summer, the Denver Art Museum is showcasing flower-inspired art in "arrangements" around the museum and in In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism. Flowers have served as symbols for centuries, but during the 1800s (the time of the impressionists) “floriography,” or the language of flowers, really became popular. In England, continental Europe, and the United States, modesty and restraint were emphasized, and flowers became a way to express secret romantic feelings and flirtations without breaking society’s rules. People consulted books–think “flower dictionaries”–which listed the symbolic meanings of flowers to share their feelings.
Many of these meanings we still recognize today. A red rose, for instance, represents beauty and the intensity of romantic love. A yellow rose signifies friendship, and a white rose means virtue and chastity. The black rose in western cultures has long had a connection to death and dark magic.
Some flowers had conflicting meanings, so depending on the other flowers they were arranged with, you could be wishing one good or ill. Depending on how you held the flowers, there could be a conscious acceptance of a suitor, expressed by holding the flowers to your heart, or rejection, holding the flowers upside down.
Today, while we don’t follow the stringent rules of 1800s etiquette, we still use flowers to communicate how we feel. The symbolism of flowers is a romantic reminder of a subtle long-lost language.
Check out the following language-of-flower books to build your own floral vocabulary:
Language of Flowers (early 1900s)
The Floral Offering (1853)
Learn more about the language of flowers. From single blooms to lush bouquets, come see how the flowers at the DAM speak to you.
Image credit: Simon Saint-Jean (French, 1808–1860), The Gardener (La Jardinière) (detail), 1837. Oil on canvas; 63 × 46-1/2 in. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, deposit of Centre nationale des arts plastiques (France) (FNAC PFH-8116) © MBA Lyon, photo Basset