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Some History on
Flowers in Art

By Artist, Victoria Chick

Although a painted arrangement of flowers is not unusual today, flowers as a subject in art began as a minor decorative addition to other subjects.

The earliest flower found in ancient sites is the lotus. It appeared on wall paintings in Egyptian tombs and in low relief sculpture from the earliest dynasties. The lotus blossom was also a motif used in Egyptian jewelry and was the inspiration for the shape of the capital at the top of Egyptian columns.

In the remains of the buried Roman city of Pompeii, covered with volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D, have been found fresco paintings of a garden which included some flowers, as well as shrubs, and trees.

During the Gothic era from about 1200-1400 AD, depiction of flowers in paintings became more specific because they were used as symbols of the personality or importance of particular people.

For example, paintings of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary would have a lily representing purity somewhere in the painting. Roses came to symbolize the blood of Christian martyrs in medieval painting. The word carnation comes from the Greek incarnacyon meaning “God becoming flesh”, in other words, Christ assuming human form. This carnation variety was pink (flesh) and was often included in Nativity pictures.

By the time of the Renaissance, there was a revived interest in Ancient mythology and this was sometimes mixed in with Christianity. Botticelli’s 15th century paintings are an example where flowers are used to amplify mythological subjects.

In none of these examples though, were flowers the prime subject and this secondary role continued until the 17th century when flower paintings began to be produced by the Dutch. For some history on why this happened see:

But even in the Dutch floral paintings there was symbolism.

We see the paintings as beautiful, meticulously rendered, floral arrangements sometimes including tulips, a specialty of Dutch growers and hybridizers.  But, to the people of the time, flowers represented much more than beauty.  Some paintings showed flowers in various stages from just budding, to full bloom, to losing petals. For the Dutch, this was a metaphor for the stages of human life. On close examination, one can often see tiny insects chewing on flowers or leaves. These symbolized decay and death. Butterflies on the flowers are a metaphor of Christ’s resurrection.

In France, during the 17th and into the 18th century, a few artists began doing still life paintings of flowers.  In their studios, French artists painted flowers in vases with aesthetic ideas in mind. Symbolism did not concern them as it did the Dutch painters.

The 19th century French Impressionists, being interested in the optical theories of light, spent their time painting outdoors recording their impressions of the effects of light at various times of day and under varying weather conditions. Gardens, flowery meadows, and street vendors selling flowers were images that were often

subjects of Impressionist painters. Their brushwork was loose and the small color patches interwoven by the brush, rather than being physically mixed, are best understood by standing far enough away from the painting that the concept of “Optical Mixing” works.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio and received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. visit her website at

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Shapes, and large areas of color used expressively rather than naturalistically, preoccupied the Post Impressionists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse.  The famous paintings of sunflowers and irises by Van Gogh are admired for their boldness and simplicity in marked contrast to the detail and delicacy of the Dutch flower painting 200 years earlier.

From the beginning of the 20th century to the present, flower paintings have tended to be greatly influenced by work of earlier artists. Notable exceptions are the close-up, abstract flowers done by modernist Georgia O’Keefe, the innovative work explored by many American watercolor artists, and the color woodcut floral prints of Margaret Jordan Patterson.

Images in player in order
1. Drawing of a painted Egyptian relief carving showing Papyrus and Lotus.

2. Lilie's symbolizing the purity of Mary in a Gothic Altarpiece by Simone Martini.

3. Sandro Botticelli was a Renaissance painter who did mythological and allegorical scenes. This is a detail from his "Primavera", depicting an allegory of Springtime.

4. 17th Century Dutch flower painting by Rachel Ruysch.

5. Dutch flower painting with butterflies by Otto van Schrieck.

6. French 18th century painting," Narcissus in Vase", by Henri Fantin-LaTour.

7. French Impressionist garden painting of the 19th century by Claude Monet.

8. One of Van Gogh's Iris paintings now in the Getty Museum.

9. Margaret Jordan Patterson's American color woodcut from the early 20th century. Each color is added in a separate printing stage.

10. Georgia O'Keefe, mid 20th century American Modernist, did this abstract flower. O'Keefe usually did views that focused intensely on the interior aspects of iris and lilies making the viewer consider them from an new aspect.