Henri Fantin-Latour’s 19th century flower paintings have been described as ‘little symphonies’; lively pieces that bring joy, elation and harmony. In his many flower portraits, the vibrancy of the petals is often boosted by a contrasting dark background. The deep, immeasurable space surrounding the arrangements helps generate the illusion of little floating scenes from nature. Yellow chrysanthemums extend their radiant and spidery form across the canvas and the double-flowering rolled florets of multicoloured dahlias bunch together like one giant pompom. It’s true that Fantin-Latour’s compositions suit musical accompaniment, a piano miniature or some other chamber piece. For countless centuries composers have found inspiration in the natural world, writing musical scores in response to the ephemeral and illusive patterns found in the seasons, the weather and in flowers. Flower metaphors in German Romantic poetry have been set to music and there are some moving and witty examples of British and Irish folk songs dedicated to flowers and their symbolic meaning. However, the reference to Fantin-Latour’s symphonic pictures conjures floral imagery with its own sonic quality.

Floral arrangements created for still life painting can give the impression of being staged, with perhaps the most magnificent examples to be found in 17th century Dutch paintings. Those exquisitely rendered works that feature masses of flowers belonging to diverse seasons and conditions, with butterflies and furry caterpillars seen feasting on flowers and foliage that tumbles and falls from an ornate vessel. Such paintings draw us in with their finely animated detail. In contrast, an arrangement of freshly picked flowers painted by Vanessa Bell strikes a different note. Perhaps it is the modest selection of blooms or the domestic interior in which they are placed; set atop a bureau or mantle. Bell’s work with Omega Workshops saw many wonderful design collaborations including the creation of paper flowers with fellow artist Winifred Gill. While there was already a precedent, tiny paper violets for instance, posing as a nosegay or delicate buttonhole bouquets, Bell and Gill’s stylised and modern, hand coloured artificial flowers were everlasting, bold and expressive.

Sōfu Teshigahara 勅使河原 蒼風 (1900-1979) founder and master of the Sōgetsu School of Ikebana Flower Arrangement was a true innovator of the form and style. He inventively paired flowers with a range of other materials to highlight organic shapes found in nature. Sōfu’s dedication to the ritual of placement and his deep knowledge of other art forms such as poetry, music and sculpture inspired a new outlook for the arrangement of flowers. Carnations and pine branches, mimosa and willow are brought together to suggest larger landscapes; carefully aligned with objects and calligraphic script on a hanging scroll.

In his English language treatise, The Book of Tea (1906), Japanese scholar Okakura Kakuzō 岡倉 覚三 describes the moving illusions created when staging a flower arrangement with poetry and painting, he writes:

A solo of flowers is interesting, but in a concerto with painting and sculpture the combination becomes entrancing. Sekishiu once placed some water-plants in a flat receptacle to suggest the vegetation of lakes and marshes, and on the wall above he hung a painting by Soami of wild ducks flying in the air. Shoha, another tea-master, combined a poem on the Beauty of Solitude by the Sea with a bronze incense burner in the form of a fisherman’s hut and some wild flowers of the beach.

Entering a tea-room in late winter, you may see a slender spray of wild cherries in combination with a budding camellia; it is an echo of departing winter coupled with the prophecy of spring.

The image of landscape scenery encapsulated in one single small display is remarkable. Reading the scene requires a refined sense of all art forms and much more. It could be argued that a humble vase of flowers bring as much joy as these ikebana arrangements bring intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

The rhythmic harmony of colour can uplift the spirit on a dull day. Gertrude Jekyll reflected on why a blue garden might hunger ‘for a group of white lilies or for something of the palest lemon-yellow’ warning that to label the one colour garden might be to deprive it of natural complement. Just as a moonlight garden transforms through the varying phases of the moon, so too does a flower arrangement when accompanied by another element. Gather your posy, your bouquet, single flower or branch and listen for the note it might spark.

Words by Olivia Meehan.

Images from top: Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 -1904), Bowl of Roses on a Marble Table, 1885, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy The Clark Art Institute. Enami, Chrysanthemums in a Vase, 1898-1929, glass lantern slide, 82 x 82 mm. Image courtesy of Dulwich Picture Gallery. PAPER EDEN by Megumi Shinozaki, Senecio Flammeus, 2020. Paper, Wire, Stone. Image courtesy of Nonaka-Hill. Katsushika Hokusai葛飾 北斎(1760-1849). Basket of Peonies, 1810 or 1814. Colour woodblock print. Image courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Magazine homepage image: Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 -1904), Dahlias 1866, oil on canvas, 24.5 × 34.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1906, Photo: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Add a comment

All comments are moderated. Published comments will show your name but not your email. We may use your email to contact you regarding your comment.


Dear Anne, So pleased to hear you enjoyed the short article. Your reflection on artists and flowers resonates with me and I was thrilled to read of your own connection with Japan! Tanizaki’s essay is a real inspiration I refer to it often. You may also really enjoy ‘The Beauty of Everyday Things’ by Soetsu Yanagi. With best wishes, Olivia

Olivia 3 years ago

I had great interest reading this article on Toast instagram. It is a well documented article and it gives the motivation of the painters and artists to keep inspiration looking on flowers. I am a french artist. I was leaving in Japan. I studied Sumie and pottery there and I continus to do so in France. Do you know the book “In praise of shadows” written by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki? Best wishes Anne Brigtte

Anne 3 years ago