From Watteau to Warhol


The theme of the 36th edition of the San Francisco Fall Art & Antiques Show is FLOWER POWER: Floral Imagery in Art, Antiques & Design. Our inspiration springs from the beauty and romance of blooms and blossoms, and their iconography throughout the ages. Floral imagery has long been part of a rich visual symbolism in art - textiles, furniture, paintings, works on paper, jewelry, ceramics, objets d’art have involved flowers and botanicals on some level, be it mythological, religious or romantic. In fact, there are traces of association of flowers with humans going as far back as the Paleolithic age: a high concentration of flower pollen near grave sites is indicative of the role of flowers in ancient burial rituals.

For painters of the Gothic, Early Renaissance and High Renaissance eras, flowers were part of a rich visual symbolism. Bouquet by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1603) features a mix of tulips (symbolizing wealth, prosperity, commerce, trade), irises (representing Spring, regeneration, replenishment) and lilies (representing purity and virginity) among others. Vase of Flowers with Pocket Watch by Willem van Aelst (1656) offers us a visual metaphor, hinting at the delicate and fleeting nature of time, timelessness and things that are time-intensive - such as painting these captivating still lifes.

Floral design elements in the Baroque and later Rococo periods focus on S-curve lines, embellished scrolls, and large amounts of ornamentation, with the Rococo style designs featuring lighter, happier, more playful colors and forms. Fragonard (left) and Watteau excelled in this playful celebration of romance and youth, which was highly popular in the decorative arts as well.

The Victorian Pre-Raphaelites captured classic notions of beauty romantically. Flowers laden with symbolism figure prominently in much of their work. The orange blossom pinned to John Everett Millais's The Bridesmaid's chest is a symbol of her chastity. In Dante Gabriel Rosetti's Ophelia, the flowers shown floating on the river were chosen to correspond with Shakespeare's description of Ophelia's garland. They also reflect the Victorian interest in the "language of flowers", according to which each flower carries a symbolic meaning. The prominent red poppy—not mentioned by Shakespeare's description of the scene—represents sleep and death.

20th-century Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh is perhaps most famous for the exuberant depiction of his iconic sunflowers, while his peer Claude Monet's garden in Giverny provided him with inspiration for literally hundreds of paintings, including the Water Lilies series.

Later on, in the 1930's and 40's, Georgia O'Keeffe's colorful oversized depictions of flowers were seen as veiled representations of female genitalia, though she herself always resisted this interpretation. Similarly, erotica and botanica collide in Robert Mapplethorpe's sensual flower photographs from the seventies and eighties.

Andy Warhol in the sixties and Takashi Murakami in the nineties depicted the botanical world in a cartoon style and bright color palette.

21st-century artists as varied as Marlene Dumas (left) and Kiki Smith (right) continue to explore flower power in a variety of styles and media.