Dutch Artists' Flower Power: Exhibit Shows Its Blossoming in 17th-Century Paintings

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Dutch Artists' Flower Power: Exhibit Shows Its Blossoming in 17th-Century Paintings


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The small painting of a bouquet in a translucent black vase dominates the exhibit room. It is shimmering with a white rose, red-and-white striped anemone, lily of the valley, yellow-red tulip, pansy, columbine and yellow crocus.

We can almost smell the flowers, and we certainly want to touch the blossoms. There also are the curling snail, fluttering butterfly and pearllike dewdrop.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder painted this tiny gem in 1612. Titled "Still Life With Flowers," it is the crown of the National Gallery of Art's show, "From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art."

The exhibition is the latest in the gallery's superlative series devoted to Dutch 17th-century art. The "Johannes Vermeer" blockbuster of 1995 drew the largest crowds, but the retrospectives of Frans Hals and Jan Steen also were first-rate. This is the first of these exhibits to concentrate on plants and flowers.

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., exhibit organizer and National Gallery curator of northern Baroque paintings, emphasizes that flowers, and the painting of flowers, became an all-consuming passion for many painters in the 17th century.

The sunflower was imported from Peru and the tulip from Turkey. The artists liked bulbous plants, such as the narcissus, iris and tulip. The Dutch prized them for their dramatic, curving silhouettes and spectacular colors.

The tulip, which means "turban" in Persian, had the greatest attraction. Prized for both its rarity and its beauty, a single bulb brought the equivalent of several thousand dollars.

The Dutch also loved tulips for their unpredictable flowerings. They could be striped with pointed petals one season and one color and drooping the next. When a shopper wished to purchase a bulb, he wanted to know what he was getting. Jacob Marrel was one of many artists who produced "tulip books," which functioned as marketing guides for buyers. Marrel made careful studies of the different types of tulips and several sheets from his "Tulpenboek" enliven this exhibit.

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer had begun the tradition of painting directly from nature, and noted flower specialists such as Bosschaert, Balthasar van der Ast, Jan Bruegel the Elder, Jan van Huysum and Jan Davidsz. de Heem continued his careful attention to how plants looked and grew.

Durer painted two flowered stalks thrusting from a support of massed leaves in his deservedly famous "Tuft of Cowslips" (1526). He caught every line of the multiveined, transparent leaves and each stamen of the primroselike flowers. This miniature watercolor-on-vellum painting is, in itself, worth a trip to the show.

By the next century, painters such as Bosschaert and his nephew, van der Ast, were combining Durer's scientific naturalism with Italian three-dimensional illusionism. The Dutchmen painted tight masses of small-scaled flowers, carefully centering them on wooden panel or copper supports. Later, the bouquets become larger, almost as if the artist had tossed them across the painting.

But the artists had, literally, a higher calling. Flowers, while associated with materialism and wealth, also represented the glories of God's creations on Earth. …

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