National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

From Botany to Bouquet: Flowers in Northern Art

Exhibition Brochure | Brochure Images


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One of the most fascinating questions about seventeenth-century still-life painting is the extent to which artists included flowers and insects for symbolic purposes. Certain flowers, such as the rose, lily, and violet, were traditionally associated with religious symbolism, and it seems probable that ideals of Christian purity, as well as references to the Resurrection and salvation, were occasionally incorporated in flower bouquets. For example, the wheat in Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Vase of Flowers refers to the Resurrection, while the mullioned window reflected in the glass vase subtly suggests the shape of a cross. Other still lifes, particularly those that place flowers together with skulls, refer to the transitoriness of life. Although some artists, like De Heem, were inclined to imbue their works with symbolic meaning, no contemporary evidence clearly indicates how these paintings were meant to be "read."

 Another intriguing question concerns the place of still lifes in the hierarchy of painting. Many still-life painters worked for the upper echelons of society and were among the highest paid and most revered masters of their day. Their success derived largely from their ability to depict the colors, textures, and organic rhythms of flowers in a convincing and lifelike manner. Because of the importance of craftsmanship in their work, however, theorists, who stressed the significance of the imagination for artistic creation, ranked still lifes lower than history paintings, that is, scenes drawn from the Bible or mythology.

These concerns underlie the last painting in the exhibition, an allegory by Michiel van Musscher (1645 - 1705) celebrating the fame of the flower painter Rachel Ruysch (1664 - 1750). Musscher portrays the artist seated in an elegant interior amidst numerous objects -- including a statue of Minerva, patroness of the arts -- that emphasize the importance of still-life painting within a humanistic context. In an image that speaks as well for the achievements of Ruysch’s esteemed predecessors, Musscher depicts the artist practicing the noble art of flower painting with enthusiasm, dignity, and intelligence.

Dutch Cabinet Galleries

Dutch and Flemish artists excelled in creating exquisite, small paintings that were eagerly collected in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century. The primary patrons of the arts at the time were not princes or church leaders, but private citizens who had prospered in business and international trade. They quickly developed an insatiable appetite for pictures, which fueled a flourishing art market. Because their residences were modest in comparison to palaces and churches elsewhere in Europe, these middle-class patrons offered artists few opportunities for grand, decorative commissions. They preferred, instead, works of art that were appropriately sized for their "cabinets," a term that originally designated a type of furniture used to keep small and precious objects, but that referred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to intimately scaled rooms designed to display private collections. Without trying to replicate the interior of such a "cabinet," the galleries of this exhibition allow visitors to view seventeenth-century works of art in a context that recalls the scale of their original setting.


Shell Oil Company Foundation, on behalf of the employees of Shell Oil Company, is proud to make possible this presentation to the American people

Brochure is made possible by Juliet & Lee Folger / Folger Fund

For more information, please see From Botany to Bouquets:Flowers in Northern Art.

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