Human Flower Project
Sunday, February 22, 2009
To Paint Two Roses
An artist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sets out on a new subject. With Manet to help him over triviality-block, Nick Read finds flowers “obstinate” and glorious.
Self-portrait, by Nicholas Read
By Nicholas Read
When a friend asked me recently to describe what it was like to paint flowers, I had no ready response. I am a painter, but the subjects I choose do not include flora. Nothing against it, but the question caused me to wonder whether flower painting Is different from painting, say, the Maine shoreline, a pretty young woman, a dog, a horse, a ship, or any of thousands of possible subjects?
This is what I found out.
A trip to Google brought me immediately to “Painting Flowers.” The BBC teamed up with the National Gallery and public galleries across the UK to create this unique online art exhibition of flower paintings. They were joined by the Royal Horticultural Society—“ to explore the vivid theme of flower painting in art.”
The site includes interesting information. For example, flower painting is over 3500 years old: paintings of lilies dating from 1580 BCE were found in a villa in Crete. The figure of Flora in Botticelli’s famous painting in the Uffizi, Primavera, strews identifiable flowers over the garden on which she walks (as discussed, for example, in Levi d’Ancona, Botticelli’s “Primavera”: A Botanical Interpretation, Olschki, 1983).
The intensity of van Gogh’s sunflowers reflects innovation in the fabrication of artists’ pigments, notably the introduction of chrome yellow. (By the late 19th century, the vibrant yellow was one of a series of new and exceptionally vivid colors. Chrome yellow is actually a lead salt, lead chromate (PbCrO4). The pigment is still used today but it has been replaced in many cases by similarly colored, less toxic organic pigments. Unfortunately chrome yellow degrades over time; van Gogh’s once brilliantly glowing sunflowers, for example, now appear to be dry, drab ocher shadows.)