In the garden of earthly delights: flowers and the melange of ideas, symbols, and aesthetics

Updated: Jan 28

How incredulous would it sound if one proclaimed that the magnificent ‘Yellow Period’ of Vincent van Gogh was nothing more than a side effect of drug toxicity? If there had to be an artist who we’ve seen being scrutinized to his visceral core for all the tragic (mysterious?) elements he left unanswered, it has to be van Gogh. A well-believed notion resulting from all this uncertainty is regarding his treatment under the care of Dr. Paul Gachet during the final months of his life. Notwithstanding the actual care he did (or didn’t) place on his patient, the intrigue is more with the administration of the drug digitalis to treat van Gogh’s epilepsy. You see, it isn’t much about its use, but rather the result of its side-effects that has grasped everyone’s attention. Digitalis has been known to interfere with the enzymes found in the cones of your retina, thereby altering how you perceive color. Sometimes its consumption induces haziness, a yellow tinge to your visibility. Rarer still are dilating effects digitalis has on your pupil. It probably is mere conjecture then that right around when van Gogh was undergoing his treatment with digitalis, a self-portrait of his (the only example) has uneven pupils, or that his paintings exhibit yellow halos and sunflowers of the same color, right?

Maybe; it might just be that he liked the color. What isn’t uncertain though is the evidence people submit to prove their assertion – a foxglove plant that Vincent van Gogh painted beside Dr. Gachet in his famous portrait. Foxglove, from which digitalis is extracted. Foxglove, a flower.

Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890). Image courtesy of Städel Museum, Frankfurt

A hazy seascape to a lifelong pleasure

“…This is why I am really pleased to describe the Orangerie in the Tuileries as the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism,” remarked Andre Masson in his 1952 article Monet le fondateur. What had struck Masson were eight large paintings of Nymphea or Water Lilies that Claude Monet had donated from his collection in honor of the end of World War I. Andre Masson had been enraptured by an endless wave of – no horizon, no shore – but flowers.

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l'Orangerie. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Throughout his life Claude Monet had played with the idea of tinkering with the subject and perspective in his paintings. In fact, Monet’s painting technique of playing with natural light is what defined his work - foremost visible in his painting Impression, Sunrise - which incidentally, also started one of the most prominent art movements in the world, Impressionism.

While today you or I could struggle in drawing a straight line without a ruler, Monet only had the sky as his limit. And yet it were his flowers planted at the large garden at Giverny that gave him the greatest pleasure in painting. To quote his own words: “It took me some time to understand my water lilies. I planted them purely for pleasure … And then, all at once I had the revelation – how wonderful my pond was – and reached for my palette. I’ve hardly had any other subject since that moment” (quoted in Stephan Koja, Claude Monet (exhibition catalogue), Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, 1996, p. 146).

Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. Image courtesy of MoMA on Twitter

Where petals bloomed and ideas flowered

Flowers – often being the most common and ever-present expression of softness, love, and bloom – have found a permanent place in artistic depiction over centuries of withering canvases. Not only capturing the interest of insects, but we have always felt an attraction to what can only be soft, symmetrical, and aesthetic. It isn’t surprising then that every culture, every period of art has found a tiny place for it to blossom.

Upon discovering King Tutankhamun’s effects in his tomb, for example, several necklaces were found adorned with flowers including sunflowers, cornflowers, and poppies. In fact, for the Egyptians, a flower held more than just a visual pleasure – a lotus flower was strongly associated with the idea of rebirth, symbolizing the sun. Nearer home, trinkets found adorned on female figurines at Harappan sites had flowers all over them. Was this a symbol of status, or simply an aesthetic indulgence? We’re yet to decipher.

Floral Collars from Tutankhamun’s Embalming Cache; Image courtesy of the Met Museum (left) and Standing Figure of the Mother Goddess from Mohenjo-Daro; Image courtesy of National Museum, New Delhi (right)

A holy reverence

Christian and Biblical art, on the other hand, has found a perfect symphony of symbolic identity with the representation of flowers. Even when imagery was strictly orthodox without any zeal of flamboyance, lilies and roses found their way scattered all over the ground. Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation brings to light the depiction of lilies as a favorite feature. The white petals are an image to symbolize the purity of the Virgin Mary – called lovingly as Madonna lilies. Quite naturally then, the luscious red and prickly thorns of a rose were eloquent in narrating the sufferings of Christ.

Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation. Image courtesy by Wikimedia Commons. The white lilies can be seen in the bottom right corner.

Broke, and Baroque

Sometimes, it wasn’t what the flower symbolised but rather where it came to be placed – and Dutch painters were very much at the center of showing us what that meant. While the idea of an everlasting beauty might be rooted in Christian representation of a rose or a lily, if the same flowers were composed along with an image of a clock or a skull (a crucifix usually not far behind), the picture was now about the transience of existence, as evinced in Jan Davids de Hem’s painting, Flowers in a glass vase, crucifix, and skull. Other Dutch painters went a step further, creating what came to be known as memento mori – mementos of mortality. What changed, you ask? The flowers were now wilting.

Jan Davids de Hem’s Flowers in a Glass Vase, Crucifix, and Skull; Image courtesy of Arthive (left). Rachel Ruyusch’s Flower Still Life; Image courtesy of Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm (right). One can notice the whole bouquet wilting.

Tryst with iconography, and a lifelong European scrutiny

Speaking of the Dutch, let’s change gears. While Old Masters like Rembrandt were copying Mughal miniatures, the Persian, Safavid, and Mughal courtly cultures were very much imbibing the idea of floral representations. While art was iconographic until their arrival, with Jahangir, now floral depictions were very much based on an idea of beauty and aestheticism. Painters like Mansur and Manohar regularly depicted accurate imagery of flowers, imagery that was made upon careful examination of European prints. Manohar’s work, Jahangir and his Vizier, I’itmad al-Daula, has a beautiful floral border work to showcase. In fact, for the nobility of the subcontinent, a flower depicted all that a nobleman had to imbibe for proper conduct – sophistication and masculinity. The Mirzanamah, a seventeenth-century treatise laid down proper codes on how a noble (mirza) should plant flowers all around his house and garden as an empty bouquet (the garden) is a house without joy.

Manohar’s Jahangir and his Vizier, I’itmad al-Daula. Image courtesy The Met

Dickinson love letters and scandals

In the 1890s Oscar Wilde famously asked his friends and supporters to wear green carnations while going about their business in society. Who would’ve wondered that the flowers were a subtle hint for homosexuality? During the Victorian era, England was dotted with strict norms of etiquette: what would you do if now you couldn’t outright flirt, question, or have a blunt conversation with someone? The answer - floriography. A new mode of communication arose where flowers were not just gifts anymore, but bearers of news – of love (rose), of grief (poppy), or maybe luck (heather).

Victorian-era Christmas and New Year cards. Image courtesy of The Miriam And Ira D. Wallach Division Of Art, Prints and Photographs, L. Prang & Co.

Blooming into the twenty-first century

Takashi Murakami’s Flowers, flowers, flowers. Image courtesy of Artsy

Post-Victorian era certainly left an indelible mark with painters like Monet and van Gogh when it came to flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe’s work made us question the sensuality of nature and our nature. And as one moved to contemporary times, influence of artists like Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami have abstracted the specificity of what a single variant of a single species of a single flower can mean, and we’re left to wonder:

What is a flower, really?

It’ll be worth your while to check out our other post on artists engaging with nature and habitat here!

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