Say it with flowers

Politics, death and wonder. And you thought they were just Dutch flower paintings. By Andrew Graham-Dixon

It is difficult to know just what was on Ambrosius Bosschaert's mind when he painted Flowers in a Rummer, circa 1614. Perhaps he resented the sheer sweat of pictorial fidelity to the striped tulip, with its irregular sawtooth edge; to the crumpled old rose; to the drooping fritillary; to the ragged scarlet-and-white carnation; to the butterfly with spotted, fine-veined wings. Perhaps he felt the joys of spring. Then again, he could have been thinking of the Book of Isaiah: "All flesh is grass, and the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field; the grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it." Bosschaert's painting is a mixed bouquet in which observation and moralisation, pleasure and morbidity are uncertainly intertwined.

Flowers in a Rummer is one of the earliest pictures in "Dutch Flower Painting 1600-1750", at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It is, therefore, one of the earliest paintings of flowers and nothing but in Western art. Before the start of the 17th century, flowers in European painting were almost always confined to supporting roles. They were saint's attributes. They were colourful (and usually symbolic) embellishments of landscapes in which momentous events unfolded.

Then, in early 17th-century Holland, a small revolution took place. Artists began to paint flowers and only flowers. Bosschaert painted them crammed, superabundantly, into gleaming pewter vases. Balthasar van der Ast painted them writhing in splendour. Anthony Claesz painted them wilted, in melancholy shade, on mahogany tabletop or chipped marble slab. Dutch flower painting is portentous and mysterious at the same time. In the dark grey galleries of Dulwich the silence deafens as secret histories bloom and fade.

The earliest practitioners of what would fast develop into one of the most triumphantly secular and bourgeois of genres seem characterised by a touching uncertainty. It is as if they were slightly unsure that flowers, observed and depicted, could truly stand alone as fit subjects for art. In the paintings of Bosschaert, Jan Bruegel and Roelandt de Savery, the bouquet is almost always placed at the centre of the canvas. Every flower is in perfect condition and the blossoms are arranged in such a way that each shows its full face to the viewer. The painting of floral detail is myopically achieved. But the fact that each flower is a perfect type of its species, exhibited with a heraldic clarity, indicates that the habit of seeing and painting nature as a lexicon of signs or emblems died hard. Albeit enlarged and isolated, these flowers still have the feel of stage props in sacred mises-en-scenes.

The effect of such works is one of subtle otherworldiness - of an art caught between a new intensity of empirical observation and old idealities of symbolic thought. Bosschaert is now the most highly-regarded of all Dutch still-life painters, although he is not the greatest virtuoso. Could this be part of the reason why? A trembling residue of sanctity seems to hover, like an invisible penumbra, somewhere in the darkness around his flowers.

There is always a tension in the Dutch flower piece between humility and hubris. Every flower painting is potentially a vanitas, a fact that some painters are keener than others to reinforce. Christoffel van den Berghe's furled pink roses, which are the colour of blushing or tumescent flesh, share a table with those grim mementoes of the Dutch emblem book, the skull (Death) and the pipe (Transience). Painting nature with the utmost care and attention may well be the expression of a humble, Calvinistic devotion to the splendour of God's creation, each work a bright epiphany declaring His immanence in the world He made. But to paint the flower is also, Prometheus-like, to steal the flame of its beauty - and to keep it alight, in defiance of nature, forever.

Willem van Aelst, a painter working in the 1660s and 1670s, did away with the humble Calvinist interior implied by the first flower painters, with their plain tables and plain glass vases. Instead, his flowers are displayed in a finely wrought silver vase poised on a slice of bevelled marble. The flowers themselves are clearly pretexts for the artist's own compositional flourish, falling down the face of the painting in a sprawling, irregular, diagonal sweep, like Rubens' rebel angels tumbling into hell. Van Aelst was a very considerable as well as a very confident painter. Yet a much smaller work, in which three sad, fat roses and a pair of carnations are dying on a slab, shows that he was also capable of an intense, self- effacing morbidity. Deathliness, albeit only the deathliness of flowers, has been given its own profundity here. A Spray of Floers on a Marble Table is a crucifixion painted by other means.

Painting flowers was among other things a way of symbolising Dutch power and Dutch prosperity. The bouquet containing dahlias from Mexico and fritillaries from Persia, impossibly blooming at the same time, was a colourfully proud boast: a floral mapping of Dutch overseas influence. The national obsession with rare and exotic blooms was taken to extreme lengths. At the height of the tulipomania that famously seized Holland in the 1630s, it is said that a single bulb of the most prized of all tulips, the red-and-white striped "Semper Augustus," changed hands for 260,000 stuivers. For the same price, it would have been possible to purchase approximately 14 Ambrosius Bosschaerts.

Artists knew that the flowers that they were painting were far more valuable than their own depictions. This may explain the intense, marvelling quality of the depiction in so much 17th-century Dutch flower painting. Balthasar van der Ast's art is characterised by a realism so charged with awe that it has become a kind of hyperrealism or surrealism. This was not only because the flowers were valuable; it was because they were wonderful - were, indeed, wonders.

The gaping tulips that Van der Ast saw were not flowers at all, as we know them. They were messages from another world, unimaginably unfamiliar, full of mystery and exoticism. On the tabletops beside the flowers in one of his finest works, Van der Ast placed a clutter of seashells. The spiked conch, the furled razor-shell, the unicorn horn were (like the heavy tulip and the extravagant iris with its blue jaws) trophies of the strangeness that lurked in the unfamiliar places of the world. To look at Vase of Flowers with Shells is to see man poised, in fascination, before a nature yet untaxonomised. The artist is profoundly observant but unscientifically enchanted by the weirdness and splendour of it all.

Van der Ast's pictures are a reminder of how much of the human capacity for wonder has been lost in the acquisition of knowledge. The emotions that produced this species of fidelity no longer exist (which is, of course, the truest of all reasons to value the art of the early Dutch flower painters - not as botanical record, but as the record of a rare phase in human sensibility when empiricism and enchantment coexisted). Paul Taylor, who has written a highly erudite short catalogue to accompany this exhibition, makes the interesting and original suggestion that Vermeer studied under Van der Ast. Whether it is to be accounted for by influence or affinity, there is certainly a strand linking the two painters: an ability to invest perceived reality with a sense of solemn magic.

The art of Jan van Huysum brings this exhibition to a close and brings Dutch flower painting into the 18th century. His pictures are masterpieces of swaggering decoration. The awe-struck illusionism of his predecessors has become a thing of the past. Van Huysum's flowers coil impossibly high, unsupported, from the vases that contain them. Their profusion is almost indecent. Their colours riot and clash, each picture an orgy of shape and hue.

Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, loaned by the National Gallery, is one of his most intoxicating works. The grapes richly clustered at the base of the terracotta urn, each one a perfect green marble of juicy light, are emblems of the drunken, Bacchanalian flourish of Van Huysum's art. The spirit of a new age is upon us. These blooms are to flower painting what Boucher's airborne nymphs, suspended in clouds of cotton wool, would be to painting of the nude: decorative, unashamed, ruddy, wanton.

Those of a Calvinistic disposition will disapprove of what Van Huysum did to the stilled world of 17th-century Dutch flower painting. His work does, perhaps, mark a fall of a kind. Implicit in Van Huysum's work is a certain loss of wonder in the face of nature - which the painter treats, not as a source of marvels, but as a sourcebook of flamboyant decorative effect. But his art has its own beauty. How splendid, exhilarating and sexy the arrogance of a painter can be.

n To 29 Sept at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Arts and Entertainment
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn