The Flowers that Blossom in Artistic Masterpieces

From Utagawa Hiroshige’s lush prints of cherry blossoms to the sparse botanical drawings of Ellsworth Kelly, flowers have been a perennial motif across art history. But while some petaled species are as common as a garden weed, others would be best described as wallflowers. That’s according to the gardening company Michigan Bulb, which analyzed 30 famous works depicting plants, including paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol, to find the most popular blooms in art.

Roses took the top spot: nine of the works featured the thorny plant, including Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe” and “Young Harlequin,” both from 1905. Also coming up roses were pieces by Salvador Dali, Alex Katz, Edouard Manet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Claude Monet, “Water Lilies” (1919), oil on canvas; 39 3/4 x 78 3/4 inches (via Wikimedia Commons)

Katsushika Hokusai, “Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry (Uso, shidarezakura)” (c. 1834), from an untitled series of flowers and birds, color woodblock print (via the Art Institute of Chicago)

Unsurprisingly to those of us who survived Art History 101, lilies came in second place, appearing in five paintings — two of them from Claude Monet’s ubiquitous Nymphéas series, approximately 250 individual canvases of his very own water lily pond in Giverny, in northern France. Tulips graced three paintings, leaving irises, hibiscus, wheat, and lilac flowers tied for fourth place.

Several works in the running star a variety of flora, such as Ambrosius Bosschaert’s vanitasStill-Life of Flowers” (1614), featuring a pink carnation, a white rose, and a striped tulip delicately arranged next to a flower basket to signal the ephemeral nature of life and beauty. It’s not the only painting in the group with a surprisingly dark theme: John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia” (1851-52) portrays the grisly scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet when Ophelia drowns in a stream, surrounded by forget-me-nots and death-symbolizing poppies.

Ambrosius Bosschaert, “Still-Life of Flowers” (1614), oil on copper, 12 x 15 inches (via Wikimedia Commons)

The study is, admittedly, as non-scientific as they come — the sample size is small and largely restricted to the American and European canons, including only three non-Western artists, Katsushika Hokusai, Kusama, and Hiroshige. And the team at Michigan Bulb, while surely well-versed in questions of biennials versus annuals and how to avoid yard envy, is hardly an authority on art history. (The company has been in the botanical business for 78 years, though, selling flowers via newspaper and radio ads in the early 1940s and now offering direct-mail seasonal bulbs and plants to gardeners across the country.)

John Everett Millais, “Ophelia” (1851-52), oil paint on canvas, 30 x 44 inches (via Wikimedia Commons)

Still, the findings shed some light on artists’ floral preferences as well as the value of these coveted painted blooms in the high-end market. In that competition, the humble foxglove flower is the unlikely winner. More popular among bees and hummingbirds than modernist painters, the bell-shaped stalk ranked among the least frequently depicted, but features prominently on the study’s priciest canvas, Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” (1890). When it fetched $82.5 million at a Christie’s auction in 1990 (~$173M today, adjusted for inflation), it was the most expensive artwork ever sold. The sale eclipsed the previous world record, which was held by yet another flowery Van Gogh: “Irises” (1889), sold by Sotheby’s in 1987 for $53.9 million (~$130 million today.)

As Michigan Bulb notes, however, countless masterpieces of floral art remain undiscovered, hanging inconspicuously on the fridges of parents around the world, unsigned by their young, crayon-wielding authors.

“One of the easiest things we were taught to draw as children were plants, trees, and flowers,” Michigan Bulb says. “Maybe, just maybe, if we kept at it with those paintings, we could have been the next van Gogh or Picasso.”

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