Don’t hate them because they’re beautiful.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibition that opens Saturday (March 21) and runs until June 21 is auspiciously named “Van Gogh, Manet and Matisse: The Art of the Flower.” This bouquet of work features 65 paintings by more than 30 artists spanning some 300 years.
Timed to accompany the first emergence of blooms and their full triumphant declaration of spring, these still lifes are often dramatic interpretations of the form.
I don’t know about you, but until this show, flower paintings didn’t interest me that much. Mitchell Merling, the VMFA’s Paul Mellon curator and head of the department of European Art, and Heather MacDonald, the Lillian and James B. Clark associate curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, have created a show that caused a reassessment of my biases. I mean, one way to win me over is to give me flowers. Especially if they’re by Van Gogh.
But what makes a show about such a specialized form work is seeing for the first time paintings by artists you didn’t know about and learning that artists you might’ve had some passing knowledge of created works — or tried to — in this distinct genre.
MacDonald explains, “We can see that some of the artists are experimenting with technique and trying new approaches that will show up later in other work.” That is, a vase of flowers is not just a vase of flowers.
Take for example, Louis-Leopold Boilly’s Vase of Flowers of 1790-1795. It’s a departure from his usual genre scenes of France during its Revolution and Napoleon’s reign. Boilly studied and collected Dutch and Flemish flower paintings that inspired him to do some of his own. If it’s not enough of a reminder that life is fleeting – these are plucked and arranged flowers, let us not forget — Boilly included a very dead
If you were in the French upper class in the late 19th century, you wanted a flower painting by Henri Fantin-Latour somewhere in your house for people to see. “It meant you’d arrived,” Merling says. “It got to the point where this demand for his work was almost embarrassing.” Popularity has its downfalls.
Merling relates how the influential — and temperamental — director of the city of Lyon’s school of the arts, Antoine Berjon, fell afoul of academic bureaucracy. “He couldn’t follow any of the rules,” he says, with relish. “He was also politically on the outside of the mainstream; he was a Republican in a monarchial time. So he got fired.”
He stayed in his hometown, though, and continued to make art until he died at age 89.
The details make a whole painting about flowers take on a differe
nt attitude. In Berjon’s case, “Fruits and Flowers in a Wicker Basket,” of 1810, painted before leaving Paris to head the school in his native Lyon, we can see his individual touch: a reflection of the basket on the marble ledge and a fallen stem.
Take then for example a work of one of Berjon’s successful students, Jean Marie Reignier. His 1856, Homage to Queen Hortense is dedicated to the mother of Emperor Napoleon III and includes her namesake Hortenisa flower. This piece, pardon the pun, can be accused of gilding the lily, but, it was the fashion and politically correct.
A female painter and proud student is Adéle Richié, whose Flowers with Green and Red Grapes was an 1831 Gold Medal winner at the French Academy exhibition. She was a pupil of Jan Frans van Dael – and declared her pride in her signature – but Merling points out that she was also a horticulturist in one of France’s most important
botanical gardens. This piece is interesting not only for its crisply realized detail, but the jutting stem that is almost ready to bud.
When you say Eugene Delacroix, I think of big historical canvases and Liberty Leading the People. But here’s an 1833 effort that art historians debate whether it’s an experiment or just unfinished, or a sketch. You ask me, it’s a sign that rendering exquisite paintings of flowers is harder than it looks.
And you can try your own hand at it. Midway through the show, the curators have created a salon of sorts. Here you can sit and contemplate what you’ve seen or sketc
h our own version of flowers and put them up. We’ll see what the, “My kid could do that,” crowd does with this offering.
Here, too, is Degas, in 1872 visiting his extended family in New Orleans, and he shows his cousin (and sister-in-law) Estelle, who is pregnant. A discrete reference is made by a pink blossom bowed toward her belly.
And there ‘s a wall of Van Goghs. Five of ’em. Perhaps more than any of the other pieces, and possibly because he’s such a part of the culture, we feel these paintings
more than just observe them. The 1886 Bowl with Zinnias and Other Flowers is layered, textured, the brush is slapped against the canvas. But he acknowledges to his brother that these paintings are also a means for him to study color. A gallerygoer next to me got teary looking at it, but, this happens when I’m in front of Van Gogh, flowers or not. These Van Goghs come from various places – but the Da
isies, Arles, of 1888 is from the VMFA’s collection.
We are sent back into the world via Pierre Bonnard and a painting of 1918, at the end of the first world war. I don’t know if he meant it this way, The Poppies, a vase amid books reflected in a mirror, made me think of the recent World War I memorials with the poppies used for remembrance. The cue was take from Canadian surgeon John McCrae’s 1915 poem In Flanders Field. It’s a fitting one to go out on as this is year two of the European conflict’s 100th anniversary. The war to end all wars, of course, didn’t, and a quick glance at the news feed on your device tells you so. In that context, spending an hour amid the beauty, floral tumult and surprises of the VMFA’s exhibition makes sense.