A profusion of summer flowers has been packed tightly into an almost invisible vase. In the centre and to the right, deep blue delphiniums stand tall above the crowd of blossom, and are mirrored by the larkspur on the left. Pink begonias are tucked in among several varieties of rose, while two dahlias – one red, one yellow – nestle in at the top of the arrangement. The brilliant white of the phlox, radiant against the palest pink of the surrounding roses, sets off the kaleidoscope of colours around it.
Fantin-Latour lived in Paris, but this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1898. It’s possible that he made it while visiting his lifelong friends and patrons, Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards, in Richmond. The couple not only bought his pictures but acted as his agents in England, where his academic style, with almost invisible brushstrokes and a smooth finish, was very popular.
A profusion of summer flowers has been packed tightly into an almost invisible vase. The bouquet seems to hang in space against a distinctive mottled background, suspended from the three blue spires – delphiniums in the centre and on the right, a larkspur on the left – that emerge from the crowd of blossom. The larkspur was chosen to counterpoint the deeper blue of the delphiniums but also to demonstrate Fantin-Latour’s extensive knowledge of the flowers he painted.
On the left, pink begonias are tucked among several varieties of rose, and one of the flower heads has drifted down on to the table. A strong diagonal line leads up to belladonna lilies, their pale pink trumpets streaked with cerise. Two dahlias – one red, one yellow – nestle in at the top of the arrangement, but it’s the brilliant white of the phlox, radiant against the palest pink of the surrounding roses, that sets off the kaleidoscope of colours around it.
Fantin-Latour lived in Paris, but this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1898. It’s possible that he produced it while visiting his lifelong friends and patrons, Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards, in Richmond. The couple not only bought his pictures but acted as his agents in England, and were instrumental in making him rich and successful in the country; perhaps surprisingly, his paintings sold very little in France. The double portrait that the couple commissioned from him is also in the National Gallery, on loan from Tate, to whom it was bequeathed by Mrs Edwards.
The Edwards were part of the opulent, sophisticated world of Victorian society in London, but Fantin-Latour chose to remain in Paris in a quite different atmosphere. His friends and acquaintances there were Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists – yet he never adopted their style of painting. His was more academic, with almost invisible brushstrokes and a smooth finish, much preferred in Victorian drawing rooms. But in Paris, as he wrote, ‘if one never sells anything, yet one has perfect liberty to paint what one likes'.
Fantin-Latour was influenced by the work of earlier flower painters, particularly seventeenth-century Dutch artists. In this picture he has perhaps been looking at the later paintings of Jan van Huysum – whose Flowers in a Terracotta Vase is also in the National Gallery’s collection – using his light, plain background and asymmetric, crowded arrangement. But the drowsy haze of summer and the sudden sparkle made by the pear-drop-shaped foot of the vase are Fantin-Latour’s own assured touches, making such a picture of great appeal to discerning collectors.
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