Friday, 20 May 2016


Dutch flower paintings tend to follow the same strict set of rules yet there are vibrant blooms to be found among them

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Thomas-Blaikie-colour-176‘They’re beautifully painted but very stiff,’ I overheard a lady say of this small exhibition covering two centuries of Dutch flower painting. I’ve often scurried past similar exhibitions myself in other galleries. There always seems to be an awful lot of such pictures and, really, they’re all much the same, aren’t they? Very lovely, but limited.

It’s true that the genre of Dutch flower-painting, which began in the early 17th century, had strict rules. There was always a dark background, with the flowers arranged in a pyramid and of course tulips with those streaky patterns that we don’t see in gardens today.

The artists’ intention – to produce botanically accurate depictions of rare specimens only recently in cultivation – is also a potential turn-off to the modern-day viewer. None of the arrangements could have existed in real life because either the blooms were too precious to be cut or they didn’t in fact flower at the same time.

But this show – arranged in refreshingly straightforward chronological order – starts off with a shock. A small canvas by Jan Brueghel the Elder shows tulips, roses, narcissi and irises in vibrant colour leaning forward from an exquisitely painted glass vase. The composition is dynamic while losing nothing of that Dutch restraint and domestic scale.

After that you’re more inclined to look carefully. How did different artists meet the challenge of this constricted genre? Some, it is true, are ‘very stiff’, as the lady said, but others pushed at the boundaries with astonishing results. Dirck de Bray’s composition of just red and white flowers with a ladybird and a bumblebee (below) is stark and mysterious – so much more than just a flower painting. Also outstanding are two paintings by a woman artist, Rachel Ruysch, who experimented boldly in introducing radical movement into her pictures with tendrils of honeysuckle and grasses.

Moving into the 18th century the genre became more purely decorative although the rigour in accurately depicting flowers remained. It’s intriguing how the selection changed little through two centuries: roses, paeonies, columbines, cherry blossom.

For an intense 30 minutes, free of charge, at least four top-class pictures, as well as a chance to add some less-well-known names to your repertory of artists, I do recommend this show.

Until 29 August at The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2: 020-7747 2885,

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