The roots of our current obsession for artwork portraying lush blooms against dark backgrounds – the artistic inspiration for Fleurs de Villes - come from the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
Still life paintings in the 1600s by artists such as Jan van Huysum, Ambrosius Bosschaert and Rachel Ruysch depicted an exaggerated explosion of flowers, fruits, insects and other symbolic “vanitas” items including books, shells and skulls. The addition of a “vanitas” (moral message) such as a skull, for example, pointed to the brevity of life. A butterfly was a symbol of resurrection. The most expensive rare blooms (such as a prized variegated tulip) were always placed at the top of the arrangement.
These lush still-lifes showcased the artist’s skill in portraying light, texture, and contrasting tone with a sharp eye for realistic detail – all against a dark background for maximum impact. These weren’t accurate depictions of an existing arrangement – the flowers wouldn’t bloom naturally all at the same time - but the exquisite imagination of the artist.
Many of these 17th century artworks that are still sought after today – and reproduced in everything from wallpaper murals to greeting cards – were commissioned by private collectors to replace actual flowers. Bulbs themselves were prized and prohibitively expensive that a painting, even one commissioned by a noted artist, was a more economical decorative choice.
In the mid 1600s, the Netherlands became the world’s largest importer of exotic plants and flowers from around the globe. Tulips, imported from Turkey, were a status symbol and coveted, due to their scarcity and time to grow from seed. The passion for the tulip created “tulip mania”, a phrase you may hear today describing economic speculation. A bulb could be sold for the equivalent of a fine house or ship. While the mania collapsed in 1637, tulips are one of the most popular flowers grown in the region today.
Although created centuries ago, these masterpieces are still incredibly relevant today. They have been featured in films such as “Girl With A Pearl Earring” (2003), used as inspiration for modern artwork, and even recreated by contemporary florists for weddings and other events. This enduring popularity is due in part to their timeless beauty—these works continue to captivate viewers by depicting flowers not only as beautiful objects but also as symbols representing life, death, love and loss. In this way, they remind us that art and flowers have always been—and will always be—a powerful form of communication.