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.
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.
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.
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.
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.