A Brief History of Flowers in Western Art | Artsy (2023)


Sarah Gottesman

Jul 1, 2017 12:00PM

In nature, flowers have a simple purpose: reproduction. With bright petals and beautiful scents, they lure insects to their pollen-filled centers to facilitate the plant’s fertilization and survival. Over millions of years, flowering plants have evolved into around 400,000 species, producing blooms of different shapes and colors that compete with one another for the attention of butterflies, ants, and bees.

The draw for insects is clear, but why do humans find flowers pleasing to the eye? Some scientists argue that people developed a liking for flowers because they signal proximity to fruit. Others, like the physicist David Deutsch, suggest that blossoms contain a type of objective beauty, attracting humans with their harmonious colors, soft curves, and symmetrical forms. Whether driven by nutrition, aesthetics, or something else, people have long imbued flowers with personal, cultural, and religious significance.

And creatives have been drawn to them for their evocative qualities, too. Over the centuries, artists have captured the rich symbolism of flowers, tracing the changing meanings of roses, irises, tulips, carnations, and more. Depending on the context, a single flower can represent reproduction or decay, purity or promiscuity, love or hardship—or nothing more than a pile of petals. From white lilies representing the Virgin Mary to Jeff Koons’s flower puppy, here are the botanical highlights of Western art.

White lilies and red carnations for the Virgin Mary

Lorenzo Lotto, Madonna with HI> Hieronymus and Niccolas di Tolentino, 1521. National Gallery, London.

Bernardino LuiniThe Madonna of the Carnation, ca. 1515National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.Permanent collection


One of the most popular subjects of Christian art, the Annunciation captures the moment the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will conceive the son of God. If you take a closer look, you will find that these scenes almost always feature white lilies. Sometimes called Madonna lilies, these blooms represent the chastity and purity of the Virgin, with their golden anthers signifying God’s heavenly light. Their use marked a sharp turn in the symbolism of the flower, which had once been most closely associated with the fertility and eroticism of the Greek goddess Hera.

On the other hand, Christian artists often adorned scenes of the Madonna and Child with a red carnation, signifying the Virgin’s love of Christ and as foreshadowing of his crucifixion. Red roses also symbolized Christ’s sacrifice, with each of their five petals representing one of Christ’s wounds from the cross. While these red flowers stood for mortality in Christian art, they carried meanings of earthly love and devotion in wedding portraits of the same period.

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Wilting flowers to capture the fleeting nature of human life

Adriaen van Utrecht, Vanitas - Still Life with Bouquet and Skull.

Rachel RuyschFlower Still LifeHallwyl Museum, Stockholm

Still life painting flourished in 17th-century Holland, at a time when global trade had cultivated a desire for exotic personal possessions, such as glass goblets and tulip bulbs. Amid these riches, Dutch artists created moralizing still lifes that reminded viewers of the fleeting nature of material wealth. These artworks, often called momento mori (“mementos of mortality”) or vanitas (“emptiness”), featured skulls to signify death, hourglasses to indicate the passing of time, and wilting flowers to symbolize the ephemeral.

Meanwhile, the Dutch also painted bouquets of fresh flowers to highlight the power of Holland and the glory of nature. Though rendered realistically, these arrangements were almost always artistic fantasies, showing flowers together that would never have been in bloom during the same season. While vanitas scenes signaled the transient nature of all living things, these bursting bouquets demonstrated art’s ability to freeze time and grant flowers eternal life.

The boom in botanical illustrations

Erica massoni L.f., 1796-1803.

Francis Masson, Stapelia gemmiflora Masson, 1796.

Botanical illustration dates back to the 1st century B.C., when the Greek physician Krateus began depicting herbal plants with scientific precision. This practice continued through the Medieval era and the Renaissance, but reached its height between 1750 and 1850. Considered the golden age for botanical illustration, the period saw explorers like Sir Joseph Banks and Pierre Joseph Redouté traveling across the globe to chronicle every type of bloom. At the same time, advances in printmaking allowed their findings of never-before-seen buds to be studied and enjoyed back home.

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Botanical illustrators portrayed the ideal version of every plant, erasing any leaf holes or petal folds. To do so, they studied example after example of the same floral species, before combining their findings together into one archetypal drawing. Afterwards, they would dissect the flowers, exposing their inner networks of petals, pistils, and stamens under the microscope. These explorations informed both art and science—in fact, the botanical illustrator Franz Bauer is even credited with the first description of a cell nucleus in his study of orchids from 1802.

The secret messages of flowers in the Victorian Era

Lawrence Alma-TademaThe Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888Belvedere Museum

Under the reign of Queen Victoria, new standards of etiquette limited communication across England’s upper class, so many began sending secret messages by way of flowers. In turn, books about floriography—or the language of flowers—became popular, outlining the types of flowers that signaled flirtation, friendship, embarrassment, or disdain. For example, you might find that red roses indicated love, darker roses suggested shame, and pink roses sent the message that your love should be kept a secret.

In this period of floral fever, the British Pre-Raphaelite artists filled their paintings with hidden botanical symbolism. For example, in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema rendered the tragic tale of Emperor Heliogabalus watching his guests suffocate under a shower of rose petals. While the original story specified violets as the nefarious flower, Alma-Tadema chose roses for his rendition, choosing the species specifically for its association with corruption and death. Meanwhile, the Pre-Raphaelite designer William Morris brought the Victorian fascination with flowers into the home, producing colorful wallpapers patterned with poppies, vines, chrysanthemums, and sunflowers.

“The sunflower is mine”—van Gogh

Vincent van GoghSunflowers, 1889Van Gogh Museum
Édouard ManetFlowers in a Crystal Vase, ca. 1882National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.Permanent collection

Until the 19th century, florals existed somewhere toward the bottom of the painting hierarchy. With grand history paintings regarded as the most prestigious of all art genres, landscapes and still lifes were viewed as lesser subjects. These distinctions dissipated with the French Realists and Impressionists, who embraced everyday scenes and objects as subjects worthy of art.

The French painter Édouard Manet was a leader in this effort and dedicated a remarkable one-fifth of his artistic output to still lifes, boldly claiming that the still life is “the touchstone of painting.” In 1880, nearing the end of his life, Manet focused especially on flowers. He created a series of 16 small canvases that chronicled the bouquets his friends had given him on his sickbed, and even decorated his private letters with watercolors of roses and irises.

Like Manet, many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists painted flowers that were personally meaningful to them, as opposed to choosing subjects for their cultural or religious symbolism. Vincent van Gogh began painting sunflowers for the first time in the summer of 1886, but returned to the subject two years later after inviting the French artist Paul Gauguin to stay with him in his yellow house in Arles. Van Gogh created a series of bright yellow sunflower paintings to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom, which may have been a welcoming gesture or a competitive ploy to show off his artistic talents.

Though originally made for Gauguin, van Gogh later took the sunflower as his own personal artistic signature, telling his brother Theo in a letter in 1889 that “the sunflower is mine.”

Georgia O’Keeffe and flowers as modernist form

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Georgia O’KeeffeWhite Iris , 1930"Georgia O'Keeffe" at Tate Modern, London

Imogen Cunningham

Magnolia Blossom, 1925

Gallery 270

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said. “I want to give that world to someone else.” Often considered the mother of Modernism, O’Keeffe transformed the still life painting into a radical event. Her close-up views of flowers bordered on abstraction, and challenged viewers to slow down and enjoy the process of careful observation.

In 1919, the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who later became O’Keeffe’s husband, first put forward the idea that these floral paintings were actually representations of vaginas. This reading has both dominated and limited discussions of O’Keeffe’s work for decades, and the artist herself always maintained that her floral paintings had nothing to do with the female body or sexuality, but were close studies in the forms of plant life.

But O’Keeffe was not the only artist to take a closer look at flowers in the 1920s and ’30s. In California, photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham all turned their lenses on nature, creating large-scale compositions that captured flowers, fruits, and landscapes in sharp detail. Cunningham, in particular, became famous for her black-and-white series of magnolias and calla lilies, which tightly focused on the core forms of each flower.

Not surprisingly, many critics also interpreted Cunningham’s flowers as symbols of sensuality, though the photographer has asserted that her images stem purely from a deep curiosity in nature.

The technicolor, pop flowers of Andy Warhol

Takashi Murakami

Field of Smiling Flowers, 2010

MSP Modern

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Andy Warhol

Flowers, 1964

michael lisi / contemporary art

Instead of observing flowers in nature, the pop artist Andy Warhol found his botanical inspiration in a 1964 issue of Modern Photography. There, he discovered a photograph of hibiscus blossoms, which he transformed into a technicolor series of silkscreens that he titled, simply, “Flowers.” (The author of the original photograph, Patricia Caulfield, sued Warhol two years later for the unauthorized use of her image.)

Warhol’s version was so abstracted that critics had a hard time identifying exactly what kind of flowers they depicted. The New York Herald Tribune called them anemones, the Village Voice identified them as nasturtiums, and ARTNews saw them as pansies. Some art historians have interpreted these ambiguous florals as symbols of mourning, as the artist created the series after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Contemporary pop artist Takashi Murakami—sometimes called the Japanese Andy Warhol—follows in this tradition, painting flowers that cannot be pinned down to a particular species. Murakami’s series of “Smiling Flowers” are blooms of his own invention, featuring 12 rounded petals and a joyous cartoon face at the center. While these flowers are undeniably cute (or kawaii, in Japanese), they also contain a certain darkness for Murakami, too, as symbols of the defeated culture of post-war Japan.

Harkening back to Dutch vanitas paintings, Murakami also paints these smiling flowers side by side with black skulls to remind viewers of the fragility of life and nationhood.

Real flowers as artistic material

herman de vriesrosa damascena (detail), 1984-present56th Venice Biennale

Flowers have recently entered art history books as an artistic medium in their own right. In the 1970s, the medical-student-cum-artist Wolfgang Laib began creating installations made entirely of pollen, which he hand-picked from the flowers around his home and studio. Laib’s largest installation, Pollen from Hazelnut (2013), enlivened the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art with an 18-by-21-foot square surface of bright yellow pollen. It took the artist 27 years to accumulate the powder, as hazelnut buds only flower for four to six weeks each spring. Explaining his dedication to the material, Laib says, “pollen is the beginning of life.”

In 1992, the American artist Jeff Koons debuted Puppy, a 43-foot-tall sculpture of a West Highland Terrier covered in a colorful carpet of over 60,000 flowering plants. “It’s such a pleasant experience to give up control,” Koons explained, “to let nature take its course.” Now based at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the giant sculpture continues to grow, with marigolds, begonias, impatiens, lobelia, and petunias all sprouting from its surface.

Despite Koons’s allusion to the natural process, the relatively manicured topiary terrier counters the organic and the metaphor for mortality contained therein, suggesting a more eternal bloom that is maintained by a complex internal irrigation system, pumping water and plant food to its coat of flowers.

Sarah Gottesman


What do flowers represent in art history? ›

Either as a background detail or as the focal point, flowers can represent a multitude of emotions and feelings: from love, passion and desire to purity, innocence or even death.

What is the history of flowers? ›

Paleobotanists have more recently uncovered tiny herb-like flower fossils dating back 120 million years. Flowering plants, called angiosperms by scientists, were believed to be already diverse and found in most locations by the middle of the Cretaceous period… 146 million years ago.

What is the concept of art in Western? ›

'Western Art' is the portrayal, in two or three dimensions, of the history, people, landscape and wildlife of the area confined to the western regions of North America, in a highly realistic or realistic impressionist style and is inextricably linked to the culture of the American West.

What was the main theme of Western paintings? ›

Western painting is in general distinguished by its concentration on the representation of the human figure, whether in the heroic context of antiquity or the religious context of the early Christian and medieval world.

What elements of art is flowers? ›

Five elements or building blocks of a good flower arrangement:
  • Colour. This is probably the most important element of flower arrangements. ...
  • Line. This is the way the eye gets drawn through a flower arrangement. ...
  • Form. This is the overall shape of the flower arrangement. ...
  • Texture. ...
  • Space.
Nov 24, 2015

What do flowers usually symbolize? ›

What Does a Flower Symbolize? With their colorful and beautiful blooms, flowers are often seen as symbols of joy and pleasure. However, different types and colors of flowers bring unique meanings. Some flowers are seen as symbols of friendship and purity, while others are tied to forgiveness and death.

What are 3 facts about flowers? ›

Interesting Facts about Flowers
  • Flowers did not always exist; they first appeared 140 million years ago. ...
  • Several centuries ago in Holland, tulips were more valuable than gold.
  • Broccoli is actually a flower.
  • Some plants such as orchids do not need soil to grow-they get all of their nutrients from the air.

What are 5 facts about flowers? ›

Weird Facts About Flowers
  • Some flowers are carnivorous and trap insects to digest them.
  • Flowers can hear buzzing bees.
  • Some flowers are used as natural insecticides. ...
  • Flowers are thermogenic and can generate heat to attract pollinators.
  • There are over 300,000 different species of flowering plants in the world!
Dec 29, 2022

What was the first flower called? ›

But when did flowers first evolve? Researchers have found an ancient plant in Liaoning, Archaefructus, that has very small, simple flowers and could be one of the first flowering plants. Archaefructus lived around 130 million years ago and probably grew in or near the water.

What influenced Western art? ›

The antecedents of most European arts lie in the artistic production of ancient Greece and Rome. These bases were developed and spread throughout the continent with the advent of Christianity.

What makes Western art unique? ›

Aesthetic Differences

Realistic depiction of the human body has been important in Western art for centuries. The illusion of three-dimensional space being created on a two-dimensional painting is also a central part of Western art. Non-Western art may or may not focus on the human form, however.

Why is Western art so important? ›

During the middle ages, western art reflected a lot of religious sentiments and symbols. Western art is great for becoming more knowledgeable about world history, important figures, technological advancements, and more.

What are common themes in westerns? ›

Common themes within Western Film include: the conquest of the wild west, the cultural separation of the East and the West, the West's resistance to modern change, the conflict between Cowboys and Indians, outlaws, and treasure/gold hunting.

What is the foundation of Western art? ›

The Western identity is partly based on the art and architectural styles of the Greeks and the Romans, who had their monumental temples with columns and beautiful statues of gods and goddesses who were idealized in a realistically rendered style.

What was classical Western art inspired by? ›

Classical art, or Classicism, refers to artwork that draws inspiration from ancient Roman or ancient Greek culture, architecture, literature, and art. Classicism was most popular in Western art during the Renaissance period and often depicted scenes from mythology through painting, sculpture, and printmaking.

What is the art of flowers called? ›

Ikebana (生け花, 活け花, "arranging flowers" or "making flowers alive") is the Japanese art of flower arrangement. It is also known as kadō (華道, "way of flowers"). The tradition dates back to Heian period, when floral offerings were made at altars.

What function of art is flower? ›

Flowers are universal symbols of beauty. They also symbolize comfort, love and affection.

What is the art of drawing flowers called? ›

Botanical Illustration: The Scientific Art of Drawing Flowers.

Why are flowers important in our culture? ›

According to Dr. Chandra Shekhar Gupta, botanist, plant pathologist, and self-declared nature-loving person, "flowers represent the country's unity in the form of diversity, liveliness, and generosity, providing it a rich cultural fragrance and values.

What do flowers symbolize in culture? ›

For example, a lotus blossom is thought to bestow peace and harmony at home, while orchids represent weather and prosperity. When choosing the color of flowers, red is often well received as it is believed to bring good fortune. In Russia, a common birthday gift is one single flower, or an unwrapped bouquet.

What flowers represent change? ›

The dahlia had religious meaning in Europe during the Victorian era, but today it's more secular in its symbolism. Dahlia now represents change and transition and a departure from the norm. Dahlia is the perfect floral gift for someone with a bit of a wild side or someone who is going through a big life change.

What is the oldest flower? ›

Detailed analyses of more than a thousand plant fossils suggest that Montsechia vidalii, a freshwater species identified over 100 years ago in Spain, may be the oldest flowering plant in the world, snatching the title from Archaefructus sinensis, discovered from 125 million year old fossils collected in the Chinese ...

What do 3 flowers represent? ›

A bouquet of three roses means “I love You” and is the traditional one-month anniversary gift.

What are the 4 types of flowers? ›

There are three primary kinds of flowers: Annuals, Perennials, and Biennials. In addition, there is the fourth type of flower that behaves both annuals and perennials like a hybrid. Also there are two more kinds of flowers namely shrub flowers and tree flowers.

Why is it called a flower? ›

Flower is from the Middle English flour, which referred to both the ground grain and the reproductive structure in plants, before splitting off in the 17th century. It comes originally from the Latin name of the Italian goddess of flowers, Flora.

Why do flowers have 2 names? ›

To make the naming of plants more precise and universal, an international system of naming plants is used by scientists and plant professionals. Known as the “International Code of Botanical Nomenclature,” the code is based on a two-name (binomial) system developed by the famous botanist Linnaeus.

What are the four things about flower? ›

There are commonly four distinct whorls of flower parts: (1) an outer calyx consisting of sepals; within it lies (2) the corolla, consisting of petals; (3) the androecium, or group of stamens; and in the centre is (4) the gynoecium, consisting of the pistils.

What color was the first flower? ›

In a new study released in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, a team of biologists shared a depiction of what they believe the first flowering plant looked like: dainty and white, with curved petals arranged in threes.

When did flower symbolism start? ›

In Victorian culture, flowers were the language of love. Learning the special symbolism of flowers became a popular pastime during the 1800s when each flower was assigned a particular meaning. Feelings that could not be proclaimed publicly could be expressed through flowers.

Where did the flowers originate? ›

Origins of flowers traced back to fossilized plants from 126 million years ago. NANJING, China — Charles Darwin described it as an “abominable mystery” as to when flowers first appeared on Earth. Now their origins have been traced back to fossilized plants from 126 million years ago.

What is the biggest influence of Western culture? ›

Western culture is most strongly influenced by Greco-Roman culture, Germanic culture, and Christian culture.

Who started Western art? ›

Ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, the Etruscans, and the Romans were some of the first to create the earliest naturalistic images of human beings. Realistic sculptures and busts became one of the most praised forms of artwork of the time.

Where did Western art have its root? ›

By the mid-20th century, a standard narrative for “Western art” was established that traced its development from the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Mediterranean to modern Europe and the United States.

What are two important values of Western culture? ›

Some of the central characteristics of Western culture include: Democracy. Rational thinking. Individualism.

What are the different elements of arts in Western place? ›

The elements of art are color, form, line, shape, space, and texture.

What are the 7 major arts in Western civilization? ›

The traditional subdivision of the arts, being Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Literature, Music, Performing, and Film.

What is the function of flower in arts? ›

Flowers are universal symbols of beauty. They also symbolize comfort, love and affection.

What did the flower symbolize in the Renaissance? ›

A red Carnation was a symbol of love and pink carnations, symbol of marriage, a white Lily was the flower used as the emblem of the Virgin, Orchids represented jealousy and deceit, Rose symbolized the Virgin Mary, the meaning of Tulips was wealth and prosperity, a Lily represented purity, virginity, the Iris ...

What flower is a symbol of creativity? ›

Marigold. Known as "the herb of the sun", Marigolds symbolize passion and creativity.

Is flower considered an art? ›

Floral Design is both a decorative craft and a creative art form. In this section we explore advanced floral design as art. While there is no single definition of “art”, to be considered floral art, floral design ideas must be highly creative, original and emotionally link the designer and the viewer.

How were flowers used in the Renaissance? ›

Prior to the Renaissance, flower arrangements were primarily used in churches for important religious ceremonies. The rebirth and change of the Renaissance brought a passion for gardens in the Italian Renaissance (1400 – 1600). People brought cut flowers into their homes to celebrate occasions.

What did the Renaissance contribute to floral design? ›

Renaissance Period (1400-1600).

They featured fruits and foliage in creating harmonious floral designs. This led to the creation of now well-known Christmas wreaths. Renaissance artists were also keen on using flowers en masse in their floral arrangements. Baroque (Flemish) Period (1600-1775).

What does the rose symbolize in Renaissance art? ›

Another favored flower during the Renaissance was rose, which symbolized love, honor, faith, passion, beauty and much more in paintings. Religiously, the rose was associated with the blood of Christ. It also represented the Virgin Mary. The rose is thus another traditional symbolic flower of Italy.


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