Dramatic lighting, nuanced texture, burning colour - each picture in Dutch Flowers, just opened at The National Gallery, is like a whole theatrical performance in itself.
You might think that the show has been cleverly scheduled to coincide with The Year of the Garden here in the UK, but actually it's just coincidence. What's prompted the exhibition is the arrival of several Dutch flower paintings on long-term loan from a private collection; they're combined with ones owned by the gallery, to create a 200-year progression of the art of flower painting.
Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings, Betsy Wieseman, is especially delighted with the picture that kicks off the show (above). "This is an incredibly generous loan," she said, "and very important as it allows us to start from the beginning." By Jan Breughel the Elder in 1608, it carries the essence of the genre: ornate vase, numerous different flowers, a combination of the real (the botanical exactitude) and the ideal (all seasons together in one vase, and not a spotty leaf in sight).
For gardeners, as you've probably already spotted, it's a fascinating display. Around the walls you'll find anemones, primulas, honeysuckle, morning glory, striped canary grass, Spanish Iris, columbine, Narcissus tazetta, Hyacinth, Tulipa gesneriana... I could go on. What makes these paintings so fascinating, though, is that they don't just wow us with their accuracy. "Dutch flower paintings' naturalism and detail resonates down the ages," said Wieseman. "but they are also portraits, given the same importance as human beings." This is what holds our attention.
When flowers were first depicted in their own right, at the turn of the 17th century, this emerging genre was inspired by increasing scientific interest in horticulture. New botanical gardens in The Netherlands provided opportunities for academic study, an international trade in exotic cultivars had sprung up and, by the 1630s, Tulipmania had taken hold. Even though prices for exotic bulbs soon crashed, the Dutch fascination with flower painting continued. Perhaps this isn't surprising when you realise that nearly 200 new species of flowers were introduced to The Netherlands in this century.
As you progress around the walls (the paintings are all in one room), something becomes clear: developing taste, which is all the more fascinating for what it tells us of contemporary society. Early pictures are flat, symmetrical, with everything visible, as befits a picture that wants to display the blooms with botanical accuracy. These are 2D display cases. The flowers glow against a dark background that turns their colours into jewels. Some are blooms that are too precious to be cut, so this was a way to bring them into the house. For some of those commissioning the pictures, it was a way to boast of their prize specimens and the artist would be instructed in what had to be included. One conjectures that some blooms were included more as wishful thinking - with hopes to impress by pretending to own one? "Quite possibly," laughed Wieseman. And just think, with a glowing rendition on the walls of your study, you'd never have to utter the pathetic cover-up, "You should have seen it last week..."
In keeping with fashion (think, contemporaneous Dutch vanitas pictures) earlier flower paintings include a vanitas element - the falling petals and insect damage to remind the viewer of the ephemeral nature of beauty and that we are all mortal. As the decades progress, bouquets take on asymmetry; blooms - even expensive ones - are depicted overlapping with others rather than shown complete, to create a more natural sense of depth. In Jan Davidsz de Heem's Flowers in a Glass Bottle on a Marble Plinth (above) the flowers seem to explode outwards; the glass vase reflects the window. Increasingly Baroque, compositions use curves and strong axes to add depth and movement. Jan van Huysum introduces dramatic lighting which, passing through the bouquet, creates a sense of space. Detail is still meticulous, though; even the mosses are identifiable.
By the end of the 18th century, style has changed again. Backgrounds are lighter, and the bouquet has often been moved, in its ornate vase, out into the garden. Some of the arrangements are impossibly top-heavy. There's an air of fantasy but the Rococo sense of lightness has been replaced by a heavy hint of classicism. The cornucopia includes fruit, dead birds, fish and nests of eggs, not as an injection of vanitas, but as the artists' way of broadening the genre, as Jan Davidsz arguably had a hundred years before by including hops and wheat in his bouquets.
Changing fashions in horticulture are also visible. Tulips, irises and roses are pretty constant, but from 1730s double hyacinths are fashionable and, offering an irresistible horticultural challenge, pineapples enter the scene.
If flower paintings have, till now, seemed a minor strand in art history, this small but exquisite show puts them in a deserved spotlight. Quietly, though, they have always attracted attention. "They're absolutely among the favourite paintings in the Gallery," said Wieseman. "The most requested painting by copyists is Jan van Huysum's Flowers in a Terracotta Vase."
The exhibition is free and runs until 29th August. And by what appears a lovely coincidence, various English Heritage properties have planted up their gardens with contemporaneous tulips.