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Flora: The Beauty of Botanicals in Art

May 9­July 27, 2003

 

Flora: The Beauty of Botanicals in Art is on display at Rockford Art Museum to July 27, 2003. This exhibit traces the use of floral imagery by artists over two centuries and illuminates the recurring themes involving floral images that appear in diverse eras and cultures. Included in the exhibition are over 45 historical and contemporary works of local and national interest that utilize flowers to evoke the transient nature of life, to explore the subjects of sexuality and romance, and to celebrate the beauty within the myriad of colors, shapes and textures to be found among various depicted species.

Noteworthy artists in this exhibition include Georgia O'Keeffe, Milton Avery, John James Audubon, Brett Weston, and Laura Gilpin. Alongside the internationally recognized artists in this exhibition, acclaimed local artists exhibit their depictions of flora in various media; local artists include Tom Heflin, Barbara Elam, Deb Karash, Steve Pitkin, Ingrid Dohm, Jim Julin, and Christy Andres. (right: Milton Avery, Leaves, oil on canvas, 1957, courtesy of Art Enterprises and Thomas McCormick Gallery)

The flower has been a significant image in art throughout history. Associated with religious and mythological figures in early painting, contemporary works in Flora still draw influence from biblical stories such as the Garden of Eden. Specific flowers have symbolic meanings in Christian art; i.e., the white lily representing the Virgin Mary. Flowers embody the beauty of nature along with the more human states of love, romance, heroism, or remembrance. Versions of paradise, romance, and beauty are incomplete without images of flowers. Flowers are symbolic of emotions and virtue in art as well, which may give the viewer insight into meaning. While Cupid's rose petals have an obvious meaning, one may have to think more carefully about the modesty of the violet, or the earthiness of the daisy.

Prior to the advent of photography, scientists and scholars relied on illustrators to render detailed images of plants and flowers that they might never have had the opportunity to view firsthand. Despite the utilitarian purpose behind such scientific illustration, the resulting botanical images are anything but dry. Vivid and colorful etchings and drawings that focused starkly on the subject matter, floral illustration reflects fine, delicate technical skills that merge scientific precision and facts with the beauty of its form. One can imagine the viewers' sense of wonder and beauty, in the time before television and photographs, on seeing the exotic flowers from the farthest reaches of the world.

Botanical illustrations would prove to be valuable to many artists who relied on the illustrations as basis for floral elements in their own works. Dr. Robert Thornton (1768-1837) was an early illustrator who showed remarkable modernity in his rendering of plants and flowers. A hundred years later, primitivist Henri Rousseau would create The Dream, 1910, depicting a reclining nude on a velvet sofa, contrasted by jungle plants and large pink flowers virtually identical to those in Thornton's earlier illustrations.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) is considered one of the greatest natural science illustrators of all time. Although spontaneous and lifelike drawings of birds and mammals are the focus of his work, he depicts various flowers and plants rendered in equivalent quality. Audubon embodies the balance between art and science; on the one hand, compulsive precision in gathering accurate visual data, while on the other hand, expressing complexity and organic beauty.

In more recent art, the flower has remained popular due to its beauty of form and color as well as its many associations. In more practical considerations, flowers are an excellent subject as they are abundant, natural, and portable, allowing them to be brought into the artist's space for closer scrutiny. Many Impressionists explored their interest in atmosphere and light through the variegated forms of flowers. Claude Monet's extensive studies of water lilies for his famous paintings resulted in cool, rich images that seem to have the motion of a plant in rippling water. Vincent van Gogh strikingly captured mood through flowers, as seen in his handling of different variations of sunflowers - some are bright yellow and gold, full of intensity and energy in their wild forms, while others are a murky, uncertain green.

During the twentieth century, Georgia O'Keeffe created many paintings of flowers with a new and unique perspective. From a very close vantage point, she invites the viewer into the flower itself to experience its realistically painted abstract features. In her 1927 oil, Dark Iris No. 1, O'Keeffe depicts a strong and vivid image, a monument of a flower, that is at the same time soft and undulating.

Whether as a symbol of virtue or simply for visual appeal, flowers and botanicals remain some of the most enduring images in art. We invite you to view Flora: The Beauty of Botanicals in Art and enjoy the many activities that will take place during the summer related to this exhibition.

 

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