Discover the artists who've used the rich symbolism of flowers in their works
Flowers for spring? Groundbreaking. In all seriousness though, blooming blossoms and flowering buds have long signified the end to dark winters and the beginning of fresh spring mornings and greener landscapes.
As well as their environmental significance, creatives and artists have long been drawn to flowers for their more evocative qualities. The rich symbolism, the changing nature of these delicate plants and the diverse color palettes they offer have proved to be a source of inspiration for centuries. Here we take a look at 12 artists who have used flowers as both subject and material.
1. Claude Monet
Claude Monet’s series of water lily paintings have become his most recognizable works. Made up of around 250 oil paintings, Monet’s artworks capture his flower garden in his home in Giverny. Many of the works were painted while the artist suffered from cataracts and became his main focus during the last 30 years of his life.
Painted in the Impressionist style, the colors Monet has used in Water Lilies, are rich and vibrant. This body of work differs from his previous paintings and other Impressionist painters in the way the viewer is immersed in the water lilies. Impressionist landscapes often aimed to depict a whole vista, but Monet makes his lilies the entire focus. Zoom into the painting to get a sense of the artist's energetic brushwork.
2. Vincent Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is the name of two series of still life paintings by the Dutch artist. The first series executed in Paris in 1998 depicts the flowers lying on the ground, while the second set was executed a year later in Arles shows a bouquet of sunflowers in a vase, which you can see below.
The vivid nature of the still lifes were made possible by the introduction of new pigments that Van Gogh was able to use in creating the now famous yellow hues. The floral paintings were used to decorate the so-called Yellow House in Arles. His fellow artist friend Paul Gaugin once depicted Van Gogh painting sunflowers (below), though the artist dismissed the portrait, claiming that despite recognizing himself, he felt Gaugin had “portrayed him as a madman”.
3. Georgia O’Keeffe
As a gardener, artist Georgia O’Keeffe was often inspired to make a dozen or more paintings of a specific flower. It’s said she became interested in the brilliant colors and billowing petals of canna lilies when she visited Lake George, New York in 1918. The Red Canna series began with watercolor depictions of these vibrant flowers but O’Keeffe progressed onto abstract, close-up images in oil, which now epitomize the artist’s Modernist style.
Often described as erotic in tone, O’Keeffe experimented with expressive shades of red, yellow and orange, magnifying the canna lilies textures, sweeping lines and plump shapes. In this oil painting from 1927, the artist focuses on the wild red petals of the flower.
4. Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol’s series Flowers is made up of ten screenprints based on photographs taken by Patricia Caulfield which were featured in the June 1964 issue of Modern Photography magazine. Warhol makes the photographs his own by flattening and cropping the flowers, adding vibrant, contrasting colors to the square prints. Warhol’s treatment of the flowers reduces them to their most basic shape and almost removes their associations to nature with their graphic appearance.
5. Ambrosius Bosschaert
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a still life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, a period in the Netherlands, roughly spanning the 17th century, in which Dutch trade, science, military, and art were among the most acclaimed in the world.
Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on still life painting, and he started a tradition of painting detailed flower bouquets, which typically included tulips and roses. The elaborate bouquets he depicted were symmetrical and scientifically accurate, though still contained symbolic and religious meanings. Thanks to the booming 17th-century Dutch art market, he became highly successful. The artist rarely varied his compositions and three motifs remained common: flowers in a vase, on a table and either in a niche or window sill. He usually signed his works with AB on the border the painted table.
6. Jeff koons
Puppy is a large-scale sculpture by artist Jeff Koons and currently stands guard at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Known for testing the boundaries between popular and elite culture, this piece employs computer modeling to create a work that references 18th-century formal European gardens. Using flowers as decoration, Koons carpets a giant West Highland terrier in bedding plants combining the cute and the sentimental and ultimately enticing the viewer in.
7. Rachel Ruysch
Rachel Ruysch was a still-life painter from the Northern Netherlands. She specialized in flowers, inventing her own style and achieving international fame in her lifetime. Due to a long and successful career that spanned over 6 decades, she became the best documented woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age.
Unlike Bosschaert, Ruysch’s compositions were often asymmetrical with blossoms arranged in pyramid shapes with curving stems adding volume. The artist celebrated color, texture and form in her works with a high level of minute attention to detail even capturing individual grains of pollen inside each open flower, zoom in and see if you can spot the grains.
8. Clementine Hunter
Self-taught folk artist Clementine Hunter is known for her colorful and straightforward scenes culled from her memories of life on a Southern plantation. Hunter first began painting in her 50s, using brushes and paints left by an artist who visited Melrose Plantation, where she then lived and worked. Having worked primarily in the cotton fields and then as a domestic servant, her compositions include scenes of outdoor activity and still lifes of everyday objects.
Varied arrangements of zinnias, a flower that can commonly be found in the South, is a subject to which she continually returned. Zinnias in a Pot captures a freshly cut bunch of blooms in flat perspective against a vibrant yellow background. The flowers confront the viewer with their simple beauty and vibrancy, extending out beyond the edge of their small blue pot.
9. William Morris
William Morris was an English textile designer and was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production. His designs were often based on natural forms, many of which were flowers. In fact out of his nearly 600 designs attributed to the designer, very few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants. This rose design, registered in 1883, demonstrates Morris’ penchant for elaborate repeated patterns and symmetry in palettes of soft hues.
10. Édouard Manet
Impressionist painter Édouard Manet created flower paintings throughout his career, culminating in a group of 20 floral still lifes, most produced in the last year of his life. Near the end of his life, Manet was visited by his closest friends who brought him fresh flowers, which he then painted from his bedside.
In this painting of lilacs from 1882, the flowers have been placed in a crystal vase, and set on a marble tabletop. Despite the artist’s failing health, Manet managed to create a painting of rich brushwork, full of flecks of white that convey the delicate petals of the lilac flower, which you can zoom in on below.
11. Anna Atkins
Anna Atkins was an English botanist and photographer. She is often considered the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images. Atkins adopted the cyanotype process, a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Within a year, she applied the process to algae and other plants and flowers by making cyanotype photograms that were contact printed "by placing the unmounted dried-algae original directly on the cyanotype paper.”
This image of a cypripedium (or orchid) was created in 1854 and captures the translucent outline of the flower. The photograph appears in Atkins’ third self-published book titled Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns.
12. Katsushika Hokusai
Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist, printmaker and ukiyo-e painter of the Edo period. He is best known for his woodblock print series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which led to national and international recognition.
Hokusai produced many other series of works including several bird and flower prints (also known as kachō-ga). Full of detail and beautiful colors, this particular print features peonies and a canary and also contains a short poem about the flower. It reads: “Double-flowered peonies from Yangzhou, the king of flowers in bloom this spring”.