A Brief History of Flowers in Art

The history of flowers in art is the story of faith, of attitudes to sexuality, and of the thirst for power and knowledge.

In 17th-century Holland, the flower was a symbol of political influence, and of human control over nature. “Flower power” might well have been a Dutch invention.

Bouquet by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Bouquet (1599).

The Dutch preferred imported flowers that were cultivated and cross-bred by human intervention. These new exotics included tulips from Turkey, dahlias from Mexico, and fritillaries from Persia. The spread of Dutch colonies left a kind of “floral map” of their global influence.

Flowers in art have contradictory meanings—on the one hand, they represent an unrestrained sexual impulse, on the other, chastity. This uneasy union perhaps reflects the divisions between Christian morals and much older pagan beliefs.

In religious art, the use of flowers represents guarded attitudes towards sex. The Christian idea of the flower as a symbol of chastity is challenged by the Greco-Roman idea of flowers as emblems of spring, new life, and the impulse to procreate. Botticelli’s Primavera is charged with sexual eroticism, of floral abundance, and alluring female sexuality with scantily clad goddesses.

Primavera by Sandro Boticelli

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera c. 1482.

During the Victorian era, flowers lost their religious significance and became merely mass-produced ornamental decoration—feeding the growing desire for conspicuous consumption.

I like to paint as a bird sings.
—Claude Monet.

Monet transformed flowers in Art away from scenes and objects toward more abstract harmonies of form and color. He used bright colors in dabs, broad strokes, and layered textures. Freeing himself from the constraints of theory, he said, “I like to paint as a bird sings.”

Water Lillies by Monet

Claude Monet, Water Lilies and the Japanese bridge, 1897–99.


ART / Say it with flowers, 1992, Andrew Graham Dixon of The Guardian.

Wikipedia article on Claude Monet.


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