Every culture had its own unique flower ‘language’, with plants carrying various symbolic qualities. These were often related to their uses or places of origin, and have worked their way into myths and legends and been immortalised in religious texts to the extent that they have completely transformed the way we see and appreciate flowers today.
Floral and botanical imagery consequently has a long history of being included in figure painting to enhance the symbolic meanings available to viewers. Gaining particular popularity from the fifteenth-century flower language was used to hint at the identity or attributes of the sitter, and when reading in this way many paintings whose floral attributes you may have only glanced over can be appreciated in a completely fresh way. In some art there is guesswork, where the flowers are highly stylized or artistic licence has been taken, and in others, the flowers used are purely incidental and not intended to add to the meaning of the work. But I would like to walk you through a reading of four famous paintings through the lens of their flower language, to reveal what new meanings can be derived.
Frida Kahlo – Dedicated to Dr Eloesser
Kahlo’s bright and colourful art invariably contains flowers or some form of plant life. Her fellow surrealist’s liked to paint flowers almost to the point of complete abstraction, but Kahlo took a much more naturalistic approach, although there is a brightness and vivacity to her blooms that seem exaggerated. She favoured flowers that connoted fecundity and fertility as part of a celebration of Mexican culture. Of the flowers I could identify here, roses, jasmine, daisies and marigolds adorn her hair like a crown. Both jasmine and roses have a multi-cultural association with love and romance, as well as the latter being strongly associated with beauty and faith. Interestingly though, marigolds are traditionally symbolic of grief and despair in Mexico, further contributing to one of Kahlo’s more enigmatic self-portraits.
Eishi Hosoda – Sotoori hime
Princess Sotoori was the Concubine of Emperor Ingyo in the 5th century, and the subject of many woodblock prints a millennium later focused on her famed beauty. She was also an author, and later venerated as one of the Gods of poetry. This print depicts Princess Sotoori using a fan to catch a spider, and adorning her dress are what I believe may be water lilies, with Irises in her hair. In Japan, Irises traditionally give protection from evil spirits and were used to decorate royal palaces during the Festival of the Fifth Month. Lillies meanwhile are symbolic of purity, innocence and dignity.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Sancta Lilias
Despite what the name might suggest, the floral foci of this painting are actually yellow irises, part of the lily family. Lilies carry a long-held association with mourning and Christian theology, often offered at funerals and associated with the Virgin Mary in their connotations of purity and chastity. Sancta Lilias makes reference to this whilst also evoking the symbols of classical antiquity. The painting memorialises Rossetti’s wife and fellow artist Lizzie Siddal, who died not long before this was painted. Rossetti would later immortalise his wife through a verse in the poem The Blessed Damozel (1875-8) and on canvas with Sanctus Lillias.
In classical Greek mythology, the goddess Iris patronised the rainbow that bridged earth and heaven, and scholars have thus suggested that the painting similarly represents the connection between Rossetti and his late wife. Passion is another of their symbolic meanings. Strange then that it is not Lizzie Siddal’s features depicted here, but the model Alexa Wildings.
Gustav Klimt – The Kiss
Hugely iconic for its romance and drama, The Kiss is also brimming with flowers. Klimt’s artistic influences range from Byzantine mosaics to ancient Egyptian mythology and the sculpture of Auguste Rodin, and these colourful flowers are similarly eclectic. The blooms are highly stylized and seem to act mainly as further adornment for the passionate couple, but their symbolic meanings do give a nice additional resonance to the work. Tulips for example (red and purple) represent happiness and passion respectively, while the pasque flowers’ Christian symbolism associates them with rebirth and grace, and in Greek mythology cast them as the tears of Aphrodite turned into blooms at the death of her lover. Finally, the meaning behind the forget me not littering Klimt’s grass is fairly self-explanatory, perhaps suggesting the never-ending nature of their love. Appropriately, their kiss is now forever immortalised on canvas.