National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

From Botany to Bouquet: Flowers in Northern Art


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 The visual appeal of these recently imported species helped inspire the sudden flourishing of flower painting. Although flowers had always had multiple associations -- ranging from love and purity, to the richness of nature’s bounty, the fragility of man’s existence on earth, and the sense of smell -- the idea that they were desirable primarily for their beauty and rarity, rather than for their utilitarian and medicinal purposes, only developed at the end of the sixteenth century.

Flower specialists seem to have followed different working procedures in creating their paintings. Some artists, among them Ambrosius Bosschaert and Balthasar van der Ast (1593/1594 - 1657), composed their bouquets with the aid of drawings of individual blossoms, which they often reused in differing combinations. Others apparently painted certain flowers from life. For example, Jan Brueghel and Jan van Huysum wrote about the necessity of traveling to view and record unique blossoms for their paintings.

 The rarity and great expense of exotic flowers prohibited artists from having easy and regular access to them. Tulips, in particular, were exceedingly expensive, so much so that during the tulipmania of the mid-1630s houses were actually traded for bulbs. Because of this great fascination with tulips, stemming from the unpredictability of their colors and shapes, artists such as Jacob Marrel (1614 - 1681) produced "tulip books" to provide images for prospective buyers. Sheets from such a book, in which each exotic tulip is carefully depicted and its name recorded, are included in this exhibition

Partly because of the value attached to individual blossoms, gardeners spaced flowers at discrete intervals to give them prominence. A number of garden owners and horticulturists commissioned artists, among them Pieter Withoos (1654 - 1693) and Herman Saftleven (1609 - 1685), to make watercolor drawings of their prized blossoms. These sumptuous drawings on vellum were often compiled in florilegia, manuscripts devoted to depictions of flowers.

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