National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

From Botany to Bouquet: Flowers in Northern Art

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The exhibition also tells the story underlying the origins of flower painting. Thus, it examines a number of botanical treatises, manuscripts, and watercolors by outstanding sixteenth- and seventeenth- century printmakers and draftsmen, including Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533 - 1588), Joris Hoefnagel (1542 - 1600), and Crispijn van de Passe the Younger (c. 1597 -c. 1670). These works belong to three important sixteenth-century pictorial traditions: illusionistic floral illustrations in the borders of religious manuscripts, including prayer books known as Books of Hours; Renaissance naturalism, with theoretical and aesthetic considerations at its base; and botanical illustrations, an essentially scientific development reflecting advances in botany.

 Although these traditions had their own distinctive characters, they were also interrelated, for throughout the sixteenth century artists, botanists, illustrators, and publishers knew each other and drew from each other’s work. For example, Hans Weiditz II (before 1500 - 1536), one of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471 - 1528) best students, helped transform the history of botanical illustrations with the unusually lifelike watercolor plant studies he made for Herbarum Vivae Eicones (Living Portraits of Plants), which was published in 1530 by the German botanist Otto Brunfels. On the other hand, at the end of the sixteenth century the famous botanist Carolus Clusius, who moved to Leiden in 1593 to lay out the university’s botanical garden, inspired the Dutch artist Jacques de Gheyn II (1565 - 1629) to make careful nature studies. Such contacts created the intellectual and artistic climate that stimulated the sudden flourishing of flower painting at the turn of the century.

By the early seventeenth century, flowers, as well as paintings of flowers, had become a central passion in The Netherlands. Spurred on by the influx of exotic species imported from the Balkan peninsula, the Near and Far East, and the New World, botanists and private collectors eagerly sought to acquire unusual flowers, which they cultivated in their gardens. They particularly admired bulbous plants, such as the iris, the narcissus, the scarlet lily, the fritillaria, and, above all, the tulip --species whose bright colors and dramatic forms frequently accent Dutch and Flemish flower paintings.

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