Flowers & Meaning

An essay that explores what flowers signified in historical and contemporary paintings. By Dalia Atteya – MA Painting – Wimbledon College of Arts – University of the Arts London

 

Introduction

 

Aim

 

This essay seeks to explore the meanings and references the flower bore over different time periods. In doing so, the essay will explore several paintings with particular reference to the Renaissance, Dutch Still Life(s) and the 20th-century contemporary art. The essay will also draw a connection to the so-called phenomenon “tulip-mania” during the 15th century  (1636-37).

 

Method

 

The essay should arrive at a conclusion by discussing the following works:

•      “The Annunciation” (circa 1472 – 1475) by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio.

•      Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1736-7), by Jan Van Huysum

•      Poppies (1891) by Henri Fantin-Latour

•      Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit 1(865) by Henri Fantin-Latour

•      Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) - by Georgia O'Keeffe

•      Horse's Skull with Pink Rose (1931) – by Georgia O'Keeffe

•      A Casa Azul (2001) - by Beatriz Mihaze

•      Absolute Red (2017) – by Dalia Atteya

•      Two Petals (2017) – by Dalia Atteya

 

Context

Flowers have more than one meaning, and the meaning of the flower has changed over periods of time. For example, in the Renaissance paintings, flowers –especially the Lily – were sometimes used as a symbol of Virgin Mary's purity and chastity and in other times Jesus Christ himself. Whereas, during the 15th and 16th century, flowers meant wealth and opulence. Moving further to the 20th and 21st centuries, the flowers were re-produced and became the meanings became more complex and mixed.

To understand how flowers function and what do they signify, first, we will need to understand the idea of semiotics.

Ferdinand De Saussure (1857-1913) and Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914), both had slightly different theories around semiotics, although both arrived at the same conclusion. According to De Saussure, a sign is a dyadic relationship of two elements, the signifier (the object itself) and the signified (the meaning it represents). Whereas, Pierce described semiotics as a triadic relationship between the sign vehicle (the physical form of the sign), the sign object (the aspect of the world that the sign represents) and the interpretant (the meaning of the sign as understood by the interpreter). He also concluded that the sign consists of three categories: an icon, an index and a symbol (MARCEL DANESI, Paul Perron, 1999). The two theories are correlated and intertwined and therefore, will not discuss each in detail, but will rather focus on the main idea.

First, let’s define the sign; the sign is a stimulus that links individual experiences to particular meanings. For example, an image of a flower whether in a book or on a wallpaper stimulates the image of a flower in the real world or the scent of the flower or maybe romance. But the matter is more complicated since Pierce has categorised signs into three different types: an icon, an index and a symbol – which are the signifiers.

The three categories are defined as follows:

 

An icon is an obvious and precise image of something that directly triggers certain memories or feelings. For example, a picture of a face, is an icon of that person, a picture of man drilling, is an icon that triggers – in the human mind – the meaning that there are some works in that site and therefore we should re-route to avoid incidents.

On the other hand, an index is featured by some sensory quality, for example, a flower smell may indicate that there is a garden nearby; a vision of smoke in the air indicates - or is an index that – there is fire. A symbol, on the other hand, gives rise to meanings; and the connection between the symbol and what it represents is learned by time through cultures and practices. In semiotics, the viewer completes the cycle and therefore, it is important to understand the surrounding environment; religious, political or otherwise. The following diagrams show how the theories operate:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                    A diagram showing the difference and correlation between Saussure and Pierce’s theories of semiotics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                           The difference between an icon, an index and a symbol

 

 

In the following sections, the essay will look at various works to explore and understand what flowers represented over several periods of time.

 

Flowers of the Renaissance (1400 – 1700)

 

The renaissance of Europe was not just in fine art; it included literature, science and astronomy. Fine artists at the time immersed themselves in science, such as Leonardo da Vinci who occupied himself in human anatomy, astronomy among other things.  Also, at that time people started to free from the church and illiteracy rates were high [around only 70-80% of the European population were illiterate (source: (ROSER, Max, 2017)].  Therefore the church commissioned artists like Da Vinci to paint biblical images since this was the easiest way for people at that time (the viewer) to read.

The renaissance artists (around 1400-1700) depicted biblical images of flowers and botanical life in general, especially when they became increasingly interested in the realistic depiction of objects, which is an interesting paradox to depict spiritual meanings in such a realistic way. Which supports the fact that those works were made for people to learn the Bible.  A classical example is the series of the “Annunciation” paintings made by various artists when the Virgin was being told she would give birth to Jesus Christ. The following image is “The Annunciation” (circa 1472 – 1475) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his master Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Annunciation (circa 1472 – 1475) by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio

Oil and tempera on panel – 98 x 217 cm

 

In this image, the Angel Gabriel is kneeling on one knee handing Virgin Mary white lilies, which were common to appear in the Annunciation works, in the background you can see a garden with a long pathway that meets the horizon at the far end, which was said to be the Garden of Eden. As for the white lilies, according to (FISHER, Celia, 2011), they are supposed to symbolise the purity and chastity of Virgin Mary. However, others like Benjamin Keach (KEACH, Benjamin, 1980) found evidence from the bible that supports the idea that the lilies referred to Jesus himself:

‘And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour’ [Ephesians 5:2]

While another researcher (FULTON, Rachel, 2004) supports Fisher’s argument that lilies referred to the purity and chastity of Virgin Mary.

In their beauty and simplicity, the flowers signify Mary's virtues, her virginity, fertility, purity and piety. They may also, however, signify Mary herself. (FULTON, Rachel, 2004)

Either opinion is valid since the flowers in this example were used as symbols (signifiers) to invoke spiritual feelings and bring to the mind particular biblical images (the signified).

 

Dutch Flower Painting and the Tulip-Mania

 

Still life painting and especially flowers was a popular genre in the Netherlands that boomed around the 15th till the end of the 16th centuries, and that is mainly attributed to a number of factors. First, this is the time when the Netherlands gained independence from Spain after an eighty-year war, and flowers probably represented for the Dutch people (the viewer) the emergence from darkness into light and prosperity. Second, the influence of the antiquities since artists started borrowing motifs from ancient works. Other reasons include the scientific interest in botany and horticulture, the establishment of botanical gardens for academic study and the growing international trade in exotic plants. According to Paul Taylor (TAYLOR, Paul, 1995),

Flowers were objects rich in association in Golden Age Dutch culture, and it would be misleading to suggest that their only connotation was one of opulence. They could also act as reminders of the inevitability of death, or as bearers of Divine messages.

However, (TAYLOR, Paul, 1995) further in his book (Dutch Flower Paintings) states that flower paintings were sold for relatively high prices, that only middle to upper class could afford.  In conjunction with that, many flowers and especially those imported from the east were costly amongst which are the tulips. The Dutch people’s love for tulips contributed to the emergence of the so-called phenomenon “tulip-mania” which will be discussed later in the essay.

Artists at that time invested heavily in training and materials and depicted flowers so realistically in their works, only because they knew it would sell for handsome prices. Some painters dedicated themselves to kitchenware paintings and added flowers only to please the buyers (TAYLOR, Paul, 1995). An example of Dutch still life artists is Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749). Huysum was a distinguished still life painter in the Netherlands and was active during the late 17th and early 18th century.  One of his notable flower paintings (Flowers in a Terracotta Vase – 1736-7), like most works of the time, in this painting, the viewer can see flowers spot lit, against a fade composition and the flowers are realistically painted. There are also other elements associated with the flowers such as fruits and a butterfly. Associating insects and consumables along with the flower arrangement was also very common at that time. Which supports Taylor’s argument that flowers could act as reminders of the inevitability of death and the perishability of life (TAYLOR, Paul, 1995).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1736-7), by Jan Van Huysum, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 91.5 cm

 

It is interesting that the realistic depiction of flowers in these works, make it an icon, and the use itself was so materialistic to generate income. Yet,  in the paintings, the flowers bore far more complex and contradicting meanings of wealth, life and death.

 

Tulip Mania

The phenomenon reached its peak in 1636 to 1637. According to history, tulips were originally Turkish-based flowers; it is believed that the Roman Ambassador Ogier Busbecque sent the first tulip bulbs to Vienna from the Ottoman Sultan. The tulips attracted attention due to their intense colours and fire-like shades which were not common in Europe at the time. The Flower grew during April and May, and the bulbs were dormant from June until September and could be uprooted and moved about. Throughout the rest of the year and due to its beauty, scarcity and popularity; tulips became a luxury commodity, and Netherland merchants started to trade in the tulip bulbs in the auction market (now known as the stock exchange). The Netherlands merchants started a futures market for tulip bulbs, where traders can buy “long” (buying without getting hold of the physical commodity), and selling short (selling without physically having the commodity at hand). Traders bought long and sold short without ever seeing the bulbs. After the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Haarlem (the place where bulbs were traded), traders stopped appearing and the market, which had risen so fast, collapsed. This example shows us that the flowers with their heavenly connotations and poetic meanings in the 13th and 14th centuries could be – and were - transformed into commodities and that a man’s perception/behaviour can change so rapidly. That was another example where flowers were a symbol of income, wealth, leisure and high social class.

 

France - Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904)

 

Still life painting continued to boom following from the Dutch Still life(s) till the late 19th century, and the trend moved geographically to France, where a group of Impressionists used flowers as a subject. Like Dutch painters, French painters invested in training, time and material, because of the high value they would sell it for.

Fantin-Latour particularly was well recognised for his first flower painting, which was sold for a handsome price, and so he painted more. His works (Poppies – 1891) and (Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit – 1865), both support the notion that his interest in flowers was nothing more than an investment. In (Poppies – 1891), we see a bouquet of white flowers in a vase with one flower fallen or carefully placed on the table; the whole bouquet casts a shadow on the fade background pushing it further away. On the other hand (Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit – 1865), there is a vase of flowers placed with consumables such as fruits and wine. Both images tell us that flowers are like life fragile and fallible and were created for us to consume and enjoy like other consumables. The aforementioned is not far from the traditional still life painting that was popular in the Netherlands. There are also other works for Fantin-Latour similar to this one, for example, Flowers and Fruit – from the name - you can see flowers, fruit in addition to a teapot.

People at that time (the viewer) were concerned with money and estate, and the aristocrat social class had started to emerge, commissioning and buying paintings was one sign of being wealthy, just like buying expensive cars nowadays. The same contradiction in Dutch Flowers appears in this example; that painting, selling and buying flowers was viewed as (symbol) of money and being wealthy. Whereas, The flowers themselves in the paintings carried meanings far more than the material purpose for which the paintings were made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poppies by Henri Fantin-Latour (1891)

Oil on Canvas 62 x 53 cm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still Life with a Carafe, Flowers and Fruit – 1865 – Henri Fantin-Latour

Oil on canvas – 59.1 x 51.5 cm

 

 

 

20th Century Art

 

Moving towards the 20th century, the pace of life became faster, and the world became more complex and connected with the advancement in technology. People behaviours are similar almost everywhere, and there is no easy way of predicting how one would read a painting. Various artists depicted flowers in their works, and no matter which connotations they were trying to give it, the spectators put their own projections and ideas on the works. A famous example is Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) whose abstract works were interpreted in a way that she never meant it to be. The spectators gave her works sexual connotations, and so she moved to flowers painting where there is not much room for interpretation, but alas, it did not work.

 

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 – 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986
Oil paint on canvas
48 x 40 inches appx 122 x 100 cm

 

"Jimson Weed" is one of O'Keeffe's most famous paintings, and although it seems simple at first glance, as you look closer, you see a number of characteristics. First, the colour:  the petals are coloured with gradations of white to green towards the core, and the core itself is painted in bright green. Inside the core, there are buds painted in light purple with one yellow bud.  The petals are surrounded by green leaves, which are graded between lighter to darker green, almost black. Another important characteristic is the background, there is a light blue shade, which also comes in gradations of lighter and darker blue, however, almost unnoticeable. It is a close-up and a top view of the flower that captures and engages the viewer with the paintings.

 

Since this is a top view, and if O'Keeffe was just copying the view, the background should have been dark brown (colour of the soil) and not blue. This suggests that the painting was not informed by reality, but maybe the artist wanted to envelop the flower by a poetic mood.

Seeing one of the still life flower paintings of Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) inspired O'Keeffe to start painting her gigantic flowers.

Although she was inspired by Fantin-Latour, it is interesting the different connotations each one of them gave to flowers. For Fantin-Latour flower painting was a realistic representation of still life, while O'Keeffe gave her flowers a mysterious, sublime feel. At that time flower painting was not common and especially in this size, but O'Keeffe wanted the busy New Yorkers (the viewer) to see what she saw in the flower and painted many of them.

There is also another interesting contrast in O’Keeffe’s practice, as between the 1930 and 1950 she wrote letters to William Millikan –director at the Cleveland Art Museum- talking about her flower works:

“I know I cannot paint a flower. I cannot paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning, but maybe in terms of paint colour I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”

(LISLE, Laurie, 1986)

Worth to note that there was no literature or quotes passed on from O'Keeffe that tell us what exactly was her experience of the flower or what exactly did she see. She also said:

"I realised that were I to paint the same flowers so small; no one would look at them … so I thought, I'll make them big like the huge buildings going up."

(RUBIN, Susan Goldman, 2010)

It is interesting to see the artist thinking about how the viewer would perceive her works if they were made in certain style and therefore she made a decision to do her works in line with the overall mood of the city “big like the buildings going up”.

While in the period between 1970 and 1986 she had a different opinion about flowers:

“I hate flowers — I paint them because they're cheaper than models and they don't move!”

(LISLE, Laurie, 1986)

It is hard to understand why O'Keeffe changed her point of view regarding flowers, probably because she moved to New Mexico, where life is much slower, there were no big buildings and therefore the way she sees flowers had changed.

At that time (the period from 1970-86) O'Keeffe had shifted practice into skulls associated with flowers, and O'Keeffe viewed skulls as a beautiful form of life, they did not mean death to her (RUBIN, Susan Goldman, 2010). There is no guarantee though that this is how people read her work; if anything, associating a flower with a skull creates this shocking contrast between life and death, which brings to mind the Dutch Flower paintings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horse's Skull with Pink Rose (1931) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Oil on canvas -101.6 x 76.2 cm

 

In this example, the flower signified or was a symbol of the beauty in the world surrounding us, but the spectators associated sexual meanings to it.

 

Beatriz Milhazes (1960)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Casa Azul, 2001 – by Beatriz Milhazes

Acrylic on canvas

280 x 270 cm

 

 

Influenced by her Brazilian roots, Milhazes paints decorative flowers in celebratory colours; her works are abstract and rooted in the Brazillian culture in which she was raised. An example of her works is “A Casa Azul”, 2001, where you can see flowers in various colours; the vertical pink bands with the roundness of the flowers create this energy and tension like dancing music. Although her works emerge from her culture, Milhazes offers her works to the entire world, unlike the renaissance or Dutch works that were offered to a limited audience at the time (Europeans at the widest). Today’s technology allows works to be seen by many people of different cultures and backgrounds. Her works look like dancing music, or wallpapers, one cannot determine. However, each one of us can put their own projections on the works we see. Milhazes work is an example of works that symbolise life and happiness, but due to the complicated network we live in, there is no guarantee that this is how the spectators will view it. Another interesting contrast that worth mentioning is the fact that O'Keeffe influences Milhazes yet the latter’s works bore totally different meanings.

 

My practice

 

My practice is about flowers while colour is an underlying theme. The flowers in my works never resemble the actual flowers you see in life but should tell the audience something about flowers, the things that interest me in a flower, such as the core of the flower, the meeting and separation points of flower petals or simply the way petals are arranged side by side. My primary influence comes from O'Keeffe's works and I also paint one big flower in each painting, I believe that in its place the flower has its own experiences and this is also another thing that I try to communicate. There was an interesting quote in Derrida’s book “Writing and Difference”:

“You think that it is the bird who is free. You are deceived, it is the flower . . .”

(DERRIDA, Jacques, 1967)

Two examples are "Absolute Red" and "Two Petals"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Absolute Red 2017 – by Dalia Atteya

Oil on canvas – 122 x 122 cm

                                                                                     

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Petals (1) 2017 – by Dalia Atteya - Oil on board – 15 x 30 cm

 

I have not sharpened my ideas around the reasons I paint flowers, but some of my works give poetic meaning to the experiences we encounter in our daily life. For example, we meet and part just like two petals of a flower they meet at a certain point and then part again, each for its destination. Another example is “Absolute Red” a flower standing firm and strong like we sometimes need to stand strong in the face of difficulties.

My works symbolise common meanings in life, but I cannot guarantee that people will see my flowers the way I do.

 

Analysis and Conclusion

 

In the following section, the essay will compare and analyse the various meanings flowers had signified, in terms of viewer perception and meanings.

 

Viewers’ Perception / Mood

 

We have seen through the essay that as time goes by, the surrounding environment changes and life becomes more rapidly paced, the overall mood changes because of the political and religious backdrops. For example, during the renaissance (1400 – 1700) the society was starting to free from church, but religion was still rooted within; most people were illiterate, and therefore the Church commissioned paintings of biblical images to artists like Da Vinci. 

Moving forward to the 16th and 17th centuries (Dutch Flowers), it becomes more complicated. As the political life casts its shadows on the overall mood, the Netherlands is blossoming, and the flower planting becomes a trade. Flowers in that context were appreciated for their monetary value rather than the intangible value they may bear; hence, the tulip-mania.

Further down the 20th century where overall religious and political landscape had changed dramatically, World War I and World War II, the rapid city life and the advancement of technology all made the overall mood more gloomy. Symbolism faded and people do not read beyond what they see, or even spend time reading into the paintings but rather put their own ideas and projections on what they see.

 

Meanings

 

The gardens of Eden that we saw in the Renaissance painting by da Vinci – as well as many others could be the first trigger and the reason artists painted flowers over and over rendering it different connotations. Maybe in hope to compensate for the life man would have otherwise lived.

The Renaissance artists were the first to give the flower a profound spiritual meaning, and the flower became a symbol of Virgin Mary and/or the Christ. Whereas moving to the in the 16th century when flower paintings boomed in the Netherlands and the movement motivated the French painters to follow the trend. Flowers as plants and as paintings became a symbol of wealth and opulence and maybe life and death; despite that flowers were depicted as icons in those particular paintings.

 

The 20th-century art is more complicated than before; one cannot claim that there is a common trend for flower painting or a common perception. Each artist renders the flower his own connotation. For example, O'Keeffe – who was influenced by Fantin-Latour, gave the flower a mysterious, sublime meaning, yet the spectators gave it a sexual connotation and became a symbol of sexuality. On the other hand, Milhazes who was influenced by O'Keeffe gave flowers a celebratory connotation making, but it is hard to tell how the spectators viewed her works. My flowers on the other hand, and as I see them, have their own experiences and thrive to tell us something, but I am not sure what it is.

 

Conclusion

 

It is never a clear cut what the flower signifies; it is more complex and messy than one may think. The flower signifies different things depending on the time period in which they are, and the overall mood.

 

 

 

 

 

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