The Painted Flower

After fruit, flowers may be the most frequent objects depicted in still-life paintings. If you type “still life flowers,” in the Images search engine of Google, you will be rewarded with pages and pages of images from galleries all over the world that are selling paintings of flowers in a vase.

Neil Berger
Neil Berger

The vase is important to the still-life tradition, which includes removing the objects from their natural setting and arranging them them against a built environment. The Italians and later the Dutch brought stunning realism to still-life painting, with the north Europeans darkening the backdrop and bring the focus very much onto the objects themselves.

While medieval still lifes had been dominated by religious symbolism, the Renaissance painters shifted the emphasis to accurately rendering appearances. In the 19th century the Impresssionists completed this transition by abandoning accuracy in color and form and reproducing their own experience of the effects of light on objects. There was no symbolism in the painting at all; it was a record of a sensory experience.

Anyone who has taken studio art has had to produce several still lifes. They are the classic exercise that helps students to master several basic skills and ideas. First, being able to “draw what you see.” This requires combination of hand-eye coordination and mediation by a mind cleared of presumptions. You have seen a piece of fruit or a flower a million times in your life, but when you are going to create an image of it, you must forget what you think you know about its appearance and put the image on your retina down on paper or canvas. At least that is where you start. If you are Georges Braque, you invent Cubism and end up somewhere else.

Rembrandt “vanitas” still life

This Rembrandt “vanitas” includes a lot of the elements of typical 17th century Dutch still life. The skulls, the burning candle and the hourglass are all there to remind us of the fleeting nature of life. The prosperous Dutch apparently had to be constantly reminded that the after-world was more important than this world.

The roses in the lower right hand corner of the composition are not being kept alive even temporarily in a vase. It is not unusually in these paintings to see flowers that are losing their petals, drooping or turning brown. They are reminders of our impending and inevitable death, after which we will be judged. Remember: people would hang these in their homes to keep them from enjoying life too much.

Some darkness remains
Some darkness remains

Although a search through the catalog of Paul Cézanne’s still lifes will find mostly fruit there are flowers there too. In this one you can see respect for the older tradition of the dark backdrop, but the colors are not as realistic as those of the Dutch “masters.” Everything is a little brighter than it likely actually was.

Pierre Auguste Renoir was among the French painters who led Western art away from moralism toward the pure depiction of our experience of this world. He dispensed with the dark backdrop that had been part of the still life tradition since Caravaggio and began to introduce colors that did not exactly imitate those that most people would see when they look at commonplace objects like apples and chrysanthemums.

Color is paramount
Color is paramount

Impressionists like Renoir, but particularly Cézanne dispensed with depiction of “real” color, but also began to breakdown the form of objects in their paintings. This led, as was acknowledged by Picasso and others, to the birth of Modern painting in the latest nineteenth and early 20th centuries. While the medieval and Renaissance painters had removed objects from their natural setting and put them indoors on tables and in vases, still life paintings by Modern painters dispensed with environment altogether, for example, showing a vase of flowers on a blank white canvas. The “flowers” are no longer identifiable to species, let alone retaining anything like their true colors or form. They are now expressions of exuberant life hanging a dimensional void.

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Mum’s the Word

In the late summer people begin to buy mums in pots. They appear at the roadside nurseries, in farmers’ markets, and even out in front of supermarkets, usually about ready to burst into bloom.

Still in the pot

Mums bloom in distinctly autumnal colors. The yellows tend to be burnished with gold. The whites tempered by blushes and the reds muted with earth tones. Even the pinks have a dustiness about them that makes them look elegantly faded like an upholstered chair bleached by the sun after decades next to the same window.
Mums are properly called chrysanthemums (genus Chrysanthemum) and they are members of the aster family (Asteraceae; also called the Compositae) like the daisies, rudbeckias, sunflowers. The wild varieties and early cultivars look like daisies, a form that is now most readily seen in Chinese and Japanese art rather than at your local flower vendor.

The National Chrysantheum Society provides a thumbnail history of the cultivation of this flower. Like so many other civilized endeavors, the Chinese were at it first. There are apparently records of chrysanthemum raising back to the 15th century B.C. It was introduced to Japan in the 5th century and remains popular there to this day as a symbol of the emperor.

Mums were introduced to Europe in the 16th century and received their common and scientific name from Carolus Linnaeus in the mid 18th century. ‘Chrysos’ means ‘golden’ in Greek and ‘anthemon’ means ‘flower.’ This refers to the color of the early cultivars that were brought west.

Pots in the ground
Pots in the ground

Over the years the original genus has been split into several genera (Argyranthemum, Leucanthemopsis, Leucanthemum, Rhodanthemum, and Tanacetum). The genus Chrysanthemum was renamed Dendranthema at some point, but in 1999 the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN) restored the original name. Chrysanthemum indicum, the parent of many cultivated mums, was acknowledged to be a member of the root genus.

Over centuries of breeding the aboriginal daisy-like flower of the mum has been altered to create different forms, several of which obscure the ‘composite’ nature of the blooms. Asters are distinguished by having disk and ray flowers in one florescence; the disk forms are at the center and the rays radiate out around the disks. What appears to be a single flower is actually a cluster of many.

Decorative yellow
Decorative yellow

In most of the cultivated types of mum the ray flowers hide or nearly hide the disk flowers at the center of the bloom. Breeders must clip away some of the central ray flowers to expose the disk flowers in these varieties and thereby allow pollination.

Flower forms that harken back to the wild variety are called ‘daisy,’ ‘anemone’ and ‘spoon.’ The most familiar flower type is probably the ‘decorative,’ followed by the various kinds of ‘incurved,’ ‘reflex’ and ‘pompon,’ as well as more exotics shapes.

Although many people treat mums as perennials, especially if they purchase them in pots and then arrange the pots around their porches for a couple of months before discarding them as they become covered with snow or wither when someone forgets to water them.

Autumnal color

In fact, they do well if plants are put in the ground in the spring in a sunny, well-drained spot, and they will come back year after year. You should ask a grower about which varieties are hardy in your area. Experts recommend divided moving them after three years to avoid disease that is prompted by overcrowding.

Mums are also excellent cut flowers, being among the longest lasting in the vase. If you have planted them in the spring, you can encourage more flowering by pinching off new growth to make the plant bushier. Stop pinching after summer begins so that the plant has enough time to set flowers. When fall arrives you will be able to cut some flowers for indoors and still have some left for the garden.

Making a Meadow

My wife and I have a bed and breakfast in a small upstate New York village. She is trained in horticulture and landscape architecture and decided that we should convert part of our lawn into a “meadow garden.” Part of the motivation was to create a supply of cut flowers for the morning breakfast table through the May to October busy season. We also wanted to create a more interesting landscape on our corner parcel, to bring some of the rural character of the surrounding countryside into the village.

Generally speaking, one is advised to plow up the area one wishes to make into a meadow garden and then plant it extensively with wildflowers, either seeds or ‘plugs.’ The latter are rooted plants that can purchased either online or, if you are lucky, from local growers. We did not follow this advice. We don’t own a rototiller and furthermore, I was curious to see ‘old field succession’ in action.

Planting seed
Planting seed

Most people see this ecological phenomenon on a daily basis. Any vacant lot or abandoned agricultural area will quickly become an example of old field succession. It is one of those ecological phenomena that is illustrated in every basic ecology course with a series of photos or drawings that show the invasion of pioneer species, followed by perennial herbs and then the steady incursion of shrubs, saplings and eventually early succession trees like sumac and aspen. By not taking the area down to bare soil by plowing or tilling it, we changed the pioneer stage, which consists largely of annual plants that scatter enormous amounts of seed each year, by beginning with perennial grasses in place. Two full summers have now passed. New plants have appeared during both summers, with those established in the first summer expanding their presence in the second.

There were some exceptions to this rule. In the first year a large number of Canada and bull thistles appeared. We pulled some of them out because we had heard that they could become invasive and crowd out other species. The weeding seemed to work; there were only two Canada thistles this year. Lesser celandine, an invasive member of the buttercup family, covers large patches of our lawn and had been present in the area that we ‘let go’ to become a meadow. In the second year of succession, however, it seems to have been slightly overwhelmed by taller plants, even though it starts growing in March and flowers in April and May. Eventually, it may be eliminated by succession.

Brown areas where lesser celandine went dormant

The meadow garden includes a wet slope that is marked by natural seeps and is also the location of the dry wells that I dug for the downspouts that come off of our roof. Consequently species associated with moist meadows and marshes are multiplying. A type of sedge that I have not yet identified to species is becoming particularly common, but showier is the clump of joe-pye weed and boneset that survived repeated cropping by the neighborhood deer. The boneset was more heavily browsed and ended up becoming bushier and having even more flowers than it would have unmolested by the deer. This year a clump of sensitive fern came up among the other moisture-loving plants. This was a pleasant surprise, as I have not seen this plant anywhere near here. We had a clump of wood fern near one of our sugar maples, but when we took that down and had the stump ground, the ferns got ground too.

Goldenrod has started to come into its own this year. We seem to have mostly the tall goldenrod with some lancet-leaved goldenrod as well. In and among the gold we will soon have much purple; purple-stemmed aster have appeared in good numbers. The asters may have sprouted from a wildflower seed mix that my wife scattered last year. We bought the mix in Texas four years ago, so the germination rate wasn’t very impressive when we finally got around to sowing the seed. But the asters and a few other species seem to have remained viable. Perennials generally take a year or two to get established and start flowering, so we will really know next year.

Sunflowers that the deer eventually ate.
Sunflowers that the deer eventually ate.

Unfortunately some Maine lupine seeds that we have had for even longer, don’t seem to have come up at all.

My wife rather boldly dug up some ragged robin from the roadside last year and we weren’t sure it had made it.  Last month it surprised us by beginning to flower. Three plants (out of five) survived and seem quite happy.

We have not limited the plantings to wildflowers. We put several hundred daffodil bulbs in last fall (and winter) and they came up nicely this year. We also planted cosmos, which didn’t do as well, because the deer kept nipping them back. In fact the deer will probably be the biggest challenge in the future. Transforming the area into something more resembling their natural habitat seems to be attracting more of them.

Modernism in Bloom

Bloomsbury Square today
Bloomsbury Square today

The Bloomsbury Group, a collective of aesthetes in early 20th century London, got their name from the section of Camden that surrounds Bloomsbury Square. The name is apparently derived from the many gardened squares that dot the neighborhoods. Thomas Wriothesley, the 4th Earl of Southampton, laid out the square in the 1660s. At the time this section of the city was home to the aristocracy, but by the 19th century it had become firmly middle class. The Darling family, in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, lived on Bloomsbury Square. The area is also home to the British Museum, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the University College of London.

Unlike the Darling family, the young artists and intellectuals of the Bloomsbury group were part of an emerging Modernist sensibility that was in many ways a reaction against the prevailing and increasingly suffocating Victorian aesthetic. While the contemporary Arts & Crafts movement looked back to the Middle Ages to find an alternative to the increasingly industrial material culture of the Victorian Era, the Modernists rebelled against the conformity and institutionalism of the mainstream by combining a Romantic embrace of individuality with a scientific evaluation of the self. Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press brought out the first English translations of Freud’s work.

Leonard and Virginia Woolf
Leonard and Virginia Woolf

The members of the Bloomsbury Group were not famous when they began getting together to debate ethics and aesthetics in the first few years of the 20th century. The male members of the group had met at Trinity College, Cambridge, all mutual friends of Thoby Stephen, the brother of writer Virginia and painter Vanessa Stephen, who would later marry critics Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell, respectively. Other notable members included biographer Lytton Strachey, economist John Maynard Keynes and writer E.M. Forster.The artists and writers of Bloomsbury were generally from upper middle-class backgrounds. The Stephen siblings moved to Bloomsbury (Gordon Square, not Bloomsbury Square) from Kensington after the death of their father. It is their residence there and the centrality of Thoby Stephen to the social circle that gave the the group its name.

The Bloomsbury Group epitomized Modernism with its emphasis on individual experience, acute self-consciousness and questioning of establishment mores. The group espoused feminism, pacificism, open-marriage, and Freudian psychology.

The Cambridge alumni were influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica (1903) and A.N. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica (1910-11). Moore coined the term “naturalistic fallacy” to describe philosophical arguments that attempted to prove that “good” could be defined by relating it to one or more natural properties that are already understood. Moore held that “good” is undefinable because it has no intrinsic natural properties. He argued that color is much the same – that saying “egg yolks are yellow” or “the wavelength between 570 and 590 nanometers is yellow” does not define “yellow.”

Lytton Strachey
Lytton Strachey by Vannessa Bell

The Bloomsbury Group was interested in the discussion that began with the proposition that “Your behavior is natural; therefore your behavior is morally acceptable.” They would have none of it. They refused to take good as a natural property and thereby follow a morality based on a false connection between nature and goodness. In a sense their lives were experiments; they meant to find out what was “good” by defying conventional assumptions and trying out behaviors and social arrangements to see they freed the individual to grow and think in new ways. This, they hoped, was the essence of being human.

The naturalistic fallacy is related to the “is-ought” problem, which is the tendency to deduce an “ought” from an “is.” Once one has decided one has defined what good is, one can then describe a morality based on that (false) definition.

It is rather unsurprising that a group filled with homosexuals, bisexuals, post-Impressionist painters, socialists, and every other stripe of anti-establishmentarian would rather bridle at the idea that what was “natural” was “good.”

In 1864 Herbert Spencer gave the world the phrase “survival of the fittest” after reading Darwin’s theory of natural selection (published in 1859). Much of Spencer’s evolutionary thinking was actually based on Lamarckian ideas; unlike Darwin, he believed that life had a purpose and a direction. It was this sort of thinking that would lead to eugenics – and meet with objection in the Bloomsbury Group salons. Whereas Spencer attempted to recast Darwin’s ideas in a Victorian establishment mold, the Modernists, including the Bloomsbury Group, but especially the Huxleys, saw them for what they were: a complete demolition of an age-old idea of what it meant to be human.