At the turn of the seventeenth century, Dutch painters such as Jan Brueghel the Elder, Ambrosius Bosschaert and Roelandt Savery were among the first artists to produce paintings that exclusively depicted flowers. The sudden emergence of this genre is largely due to the development of scientific interest in botany and horticulture at the close of the sixteenth century. At this time, botanical gardens first gained popularity in the Netherlands, and there was a booming international trade in exotic cultivars. By the 1630s, speculative prices for the most coveted bulbs and flowering plants had reached spectacular heights; the so-called ‘Tulipmania’ of the era. Although prices inevitably crashed, the Dutch love affair with flowers in all their forms endured.
The earliest flower paintings feature flat, symmetrical arrangements comprising flowers from different seasons. Over the course of the seventeenth century, bouquets become more relaxed, with asymmetrical rhythms and a willingness to overlap even the most costly flowers to create a more natural sense of depth. By the end of the eighteenth century, flower paintings were considered largely decorative, with a lighter palette more in keeping with ‘modern’ tastes. Throughout the period, many artists favoured smooth copper or wood panel supports that enhanced the perfection of their brushwork. If you’re visiting the Chelsea and Hampton Court Flower Shows this summer, this exhibition will give you a unique opportunity to compare and contrast these flower paintings with modern day horticulture.