Van Huysum’s paintings commanded extraordinary prices during his lifetime and were collected by princes and aristocrats across Europe. With its bright, light palette, this monumental work typifies the decorative shift in van Huysum’s style, which influenced flower painters throughout the 18th century.
The arrangement includes peonies, poppies, blue iris, African marigolds, apple blossom, narcissi, tulips, hyacinths, roses, ranunculi and auriculas, carnations, convolvulus, grapes, peaches and a chaffinch’s nest, in or around a terracotta vase with a relief of putti playing. The unusual shape of the canvas and the perspective of the marble base suggest that it was made to decorate a particular interior space and hung high. It is dated twice, which might indicate the length of time or the different seasons that van Huysum spent working on it.
Miranda Hinkley: The picture includes peonies, poppies, marigolds, tulips and roses – all painted to give the illusion of life. But a closer look reveals the work isn’t as realistic as it seems. To find out more, I visited the New Covent Garden Flower Market with art historian, Richard Stemp. We met Gail Smith there, who creates many of the Gallery’s flower displays. She cast a florist’s eye over the picture and immediately spotted the problem...
Gail Smith: Yeah, I can’t think of any month where we could find all of those at the same time. It’s predominantly May – when I first looked at it, I sort of instantly thought this is kind of May I’m feeling because I think the majority of them are from that kind of season, but certainly no, I wouldn’t see all of those kinds of flowers at the same time.
Miranda Hinkley: So that raises an interesting question about how he actually composed the painting. Richard, how do you think it was done?
Richard Stemp: Well, there are a couple of ways he might have gone about doing it. One is to wait until the flower is in bloom and then paint it as he saw it onto the painting, but that would presuppose that he knew where that flower was going to go in the painting. He must have done a sketch beforehand really, and to leave a space for that flower to be slotted in. What seems more likely is that he gradually builds up a library of different images by doing sketches when the flowers are out and then arranging his sketches in display in the same way that you might arrange a flower display anyway by taking the individual flowers rather than the sketches.
Miranda Hinkley: What do we think about the lighting? I mean, it strikes me that the lighting is almost impossible as well. Lots of the flowers are equally well-lit all the way across and this very kind of luminous section in the middle.
Gail Smith: We quite often, when we do a big display like this, put some light coloured flowers in the middle, recede them into the middle, sort of whites and yellows, so that you get some light in there, but you’d never be able to achieve what this arrangement has achieved of having almost like a ‘light bulb’ inside the painting, glowing out at you. It would normally be very dark in the centre of an arrangement there.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, lots of the flowers look as though they’re at their very peak or just past their peak – these tulips look really overblown, and the way some of these peonies are kind of hanging down, they look as though they’ve just gone past the point at which they’re at their freshest. Richard, do you think that’s part of the point of the painting?
Richard Stemp: I think it probably is, yes, because what we were saying earlier about the fact you wouldn’t get all of these flowers at the same time implies that we have a process going on, from the narcissi coming out in spring, the peonies in May, but of course we’ve also got fruit here... we’ve got grapes, we’ve got peaches, and so it moves onto the autumn as well. And the fact is there is this cycle of life, of things being born, moving onto things dying, and the fruits then have the seeds – we’ve got a walnut down the bottom there – which also imply this sense of life going on. And this is sort of picked up by the things which aren’t part of the floral arrangement really. There’s a sort of bird’s nest at the bottom of the painting with some eggs in it, and also just above that there’s a fly sitting on the base. Now, there’s a couple of things that could be there for. One is that it is a symbol of mortality – flies are often associated with dying, death, being fly-blown. So that’s one thing, the idea of death there, but also, it’s not entirely clear where the fly is standing – it could be standing on the base underneath the vase, but it could actually be standing on the painting itself and casting a shadow. And it’s almost as if van Huysum is playing a game. If he’s painted it well enough, you might try and brush the fly off because the fly thinks it’s real and it’s actually landed there.
But then above that, there are a few of them around and there are butterflies. Now they are another symbol which actually goes beyond death because they start their life as caterpillars which aren’t entirely attractive. And what happens to them is that they appear to die. They form cocoons and they just act dead and they then come out again as something far more glorious. And in terms of the profounder meaning of this painting, the butterfly becomes a symbol of the soul. Here we are alive on earth in our bodies, which we might be quite proud of, but when we die and go to heaven, our souls will be far more beautiful than this gross body which we’re inhabiting now. So he’s picking out that message about not just life, birth and death, but also the afterlife, through the medium really of these flowers which grow and die, but then their seeds grow again and the whole cycle starts off in the spring again.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Richard Stemp, Gail Smith, and all at the New Covent Garden Market.