The Flowering Of American Flower Painting

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WHETHER FLOWERS ARE a worthy subject for the painter—a question hat seems almost medieval in its distance from current art theory—was once the concern of the most eminent artists and critics. In the eighteenth century the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds pronounced that still-life painting of any kind was a “lower exercise,” offering no elevating moral lessons. Furthermore, he said, no mature artist should waste his brushwork on that subdivision of the still-life genre—flower painting.

But only fifty years later the critic John Ruskin held that flowers were a most appropriate and neglected subject. He felt that painters shied away from it not because the subject was trivial but because it was too hard. And much as he favored floral subjects, his discouraging opinion was that the beauty of flowers was “wholly inimitable and their sweetest service unrenderable by art.”

Fortunately New World artists were undeterred by Reynolds’s contempt or Ruskin’s warnings. In fact, the period of Ruskin’s greatest influence in England produced a profusion of flower painting in America.

The first images of American flowers were made by European explorers who wanted to illustrate for their countrymen the strange flora of the new country. American botanical artists such as William Bartram soon took up this work. The typical botanical illustration was a straightforward plant portrait—a single flower on an otherwise blank page, a type of visual cataloging. By the middle of the nineteenth century, so-called flower pieces had become very popular with American artists. In this style of still life, cut flowers are carefully arranged in a vase. At the same time, other artists were celebrating flowers that grew wild and naturally. Flower painting in this century tends to be more abstract, more subjective—something with which the artists express their own emotional or intellectual design.

The types of flowers that artists chose to paint changed over the years along with the methods of rendering them. Roses, for instance, were the undeniable favorite of both painters and gardeners during the nineteenth century. But later in the century flower painters became excited about Oriental species—particularly chrysanthemums and orchids. By the twentieth century a whole group of artists was painting calla lilies. The critic Henry McBride has guessed that they were irresistible to such painters as Georgia O’Keeffe simply because the previous generation considered them vulgar.

The following portfolio of American flower paintings has been selected from a major exhibition that opens this March at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The show was organized by Ella Foshay, who is the author of Reflections of Nature: Flowers in American Art , which will be published by the Viking Press and will serve as the exhibit’s catalog.

—B. K.