As an educator on the In Bloom exhibition team at the Denver Art Museum, I often returned to a simple question as we developed the exhibition: Why flowers? The reasons that artists of the 1800s gravitated toward the subject weren’t immediately clear as we looked over the initial checklist of works that were slated to be in the show. As I browsed bouquet after bouquet, quickly becoming seduced by color, detail, and other visual aspects of the works, it wasn’t until the personal stories, creative experiments, and interesting anecdotes revealed themselves through further research that I found myself fully swept off my feet. From using paper flowers to a love of gardening, artists’ varying relationships with the flower as a subject for painting across time began to spark both my eyes and my imagination.
So…why flowers? How did our In Bloom artists relate to the subject – personally, creatively, or even practically?
Creative Experimentation & Problem-Solving
Vincent van Gogh found in flowers a relatively inexpensive model, which he used to experiment with color after his 1886 arrival in Paris. The dark palette that he brought with him from his native Netherlands quickly gave way to strong juxtapositions of bold complementary colors. In an 1887 letter to his sister Willemien, he wrote: “Last year I painted almost nothing but flowers to accustom myself to a color other than gray, that’s to say pink, soft or bright green, light blue, violet, yellow, orange, fine red.”
Paul Cézanne painted rather slowly so needed to creatively problem-solve the delicate nature of cut flowers for his process. He would often use paper flowers as his models, which didn’t wilt like the real thing. He supposedly declared “I’m giving up flowers. They wither too quickly. Fruits are more reliable.”
An Eye for Botany
Pierre-Joseph Redouté, admiringly called the “Raphael of flowers” and the “Rembrandt of roses” by his contemporaries, was a successful botanical illustrator of the early 1800s. In addition to illustrating flowers from the gardens of Queen Marie-Antoinette and Empress Josephine, he also taught botanical illustration. Many of his artful depictions of floral specimens made their way into scientific books as well as collectors’ editions for patrons with learned and fashionable tastes. Two of his botanical illustrations and a painting are on view in the exhibition, as is one of my favorite murals in the gallery, an image of him instructing young women of the French elite in the art of drawing flowers.
For Henri Fantin-Latour, an established still life painter working in Paris, flowers took a personal turn in the form of an engagement gift to his future wife and fellow artist, Victoria Dubourg. The two met in 1866 while sketching in the Louvre, and she picked out this work of art to commemorate their engagement. They married seven years later. You’ve heard that a diamond is forever, but I’ve got to give Fantin-Latour credit for this impressively enduring engagement gift!
For Édouard Manet, the small-scale canvases that he painted in the early 1880s, like the one at the top of this page, were among his last. His health was failing, and he painted the bouquets that friends brought him during their visits to his home. For me, these works are perhaps among the most intimate in the exhibition.
A Love of Gardens
We can’t forget about our avid gardeners in this bunch of flower-loving artists. Gustave Caillebotte and Claude Monet had green thumbs, immersing themselves in their gardens and finding inspiration in their outdoor floral surroundings. Bouquets by both artists are on view in the gallery.
Whatever your relationship to flowers – an avid gardener, a giver or receiver of a bouquet, or someone with a creative eye, we hope you'll enjoy the flowers on display and their interesting stories in In Bloom and throughout the museum during the DAM’s summer of flowers.
Image credit top: Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), Vase of White Lilacs and Roses, 1883. Oil on canvas, 22 × 18 1⁄8 in. (55.9 × 46 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection, 1985.R.34.