Spring flowers in Art & Antiques

Scandinavian, Tulip chest with drawer, painted wood, circa 19th Century

Floral forms have long had a prominent place in the fine arts and antiques. The art historical symbolism of flowers from asters to zinnias has intrigued collectors since the Renaissance period. The Italian master, Sandro Botticelli sprinkled 141 different floral varieties beneath the feet of his famous Neo-Platonic figures in the tempera painting on panel from circa 1470-80s. The figures in the painting, which hangs in Florence, Italy’s famous Uffizi Gallery, include Venus the Roman goddess of love and gardens, Cupid, Mercury, Flora and others and it was intended for the master bedroom suite of the Medici Palace.

Flowers in art and antiques offer varied symbolism…love, fidelity, prosperity to name a few. For instance, a rose’s association with pure love comes from the Bible’s description of the Virgin Mary as a “rose without thorns”. The carnation featured in one of Rembrandt van Rijn’s most famous portraits--the portrait of Jan Six with a Pink—speaks to the hope for fidelity or loyalty in a new marriage. When it comes to signs of prosperity, the well-documented tulipomania which took place in the Netherlands during the 1600s resulted in a new group of collectors from the upper and middle classes as well as a host of new hybrid types of tulips like the bearded tulip and the broken or striped tulip for gardeners. It follows that tulips would become a visual symbol of prosperity. The popular tulip and other floral still lifes of the Dutch Baroque age were highly sought after by art collectors and in today’s active art market, Dutch floral still lifes by the masters such as Willem Heda, Rachel Rauysch or Cornelius de Heem are quite expensive.

Hidden meanings are typical when flowers are highlighted in art and antiques. For example, flowers with sitters in paintings suggest their current situation. The appearance of a sprig of rosemary or a forget-me-not clued the viewer into the fact that the sitter shown in a painting was deceased. White flowers meant purity while red flowers referenced passion.

When it comes to antiques, like artwork, flowers have made their mark, too. In the early 1800s, the seeds of a new nation had been planted in America. Decorative arts featured straight lines and geometric elements that reflected a revival of classicism known as the American Federal style. Classical forms and its emphasis on formality did not discount the appearance of flower forms. Buds appeared on Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton furniture in the form of recessed rosettes, leaf sprays, and meandering garlands. From straight carved wooden legs known as spade legs to floral decorated drawer pulls, furniture embellishments were found in the form of leafy scrolls, daisies, roses, mums, and other garden life. Some flowers in art and antiques speak volumes about a particular time period and contemporary taste. This Spring as you consider your plantings and yardwork, remember various floral symbols also had a big impact on the history of artwork.

Dr. Lori Verderame is the award-winning Ph.D. antiques appraiser on History channel’s #1 hit show, The Curse of Oak Island. Dr. Lori presents her Antiques Appraisal Comedy Show to audiences nationwide and conducts video call appraisals via www.DrLoriV.com and www.youtube.com/DrLoriV.