VMFA’s “Art of the Flower” exhibit: A beautiful way to kick winter to the curb

This blog is courtesy of RVANews‘ Ross Catrow.

“See the young flower designer looking to the history painter for inspiration, breadth of treatment, artistic feeling and approach, which he will adopt to his own art to imbue it with an ideal he would never find in the mere study of plants.” —Adrien de Gasparin, 1832

Two things begin this weekend: the VMFA’s new and gorgeous exhibit of (largely) 19th century paintings of flowers AND the season we have all been desperately willing to begin!

Neither of the above descriptions do either of those things justice. Spring in Richmond is a breathtaking feast for the senses and a psychological boost out of the grey, wet, and boring doldrums of post-holiday winter.

Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower” has been six years in the making, and transcends far beyond whatever tame parade of floral still lives you’re picturing in your head. These paintings–which also include works by Monet, Delacroix, Degas, Fantin-Latour, and many others–span more than 100 years of flower painting, from traditional, highly detailed still lifes to Impressionism to the beginnings of modernism.

Mitchell Merling1 (who spearheaded the exhibit along with Heather MacDonald2) took an interest in this particular topic, region (mainly French), and time period when he realized that this kind of art didn’t revolve around “Dead people, dying people, people getting killed…it was about sunlight and flowers and modern life and people walking in the streets in the sun.”

Merling and MacDonald (whose home base, the Dallas Museum of Art, was the first stop on this exhibit’s three-point tour) shopped the idea to members of FRAME, the French Regional American Museum Exchange, anchoring the concept with six paintings MacDonald had as part of Dallas’s permanent collection that she felt should get more attention than they currently did. Luckily, museums like the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay were on board, and the flower exhibit began to sprout.

The plant metaphor count for this piece is: 1

Even if you don’t care about any of that stuff and don’t feel any academic need to watch art evolve in a timeline format, you should just go see these paintings because they’re damn good.

I learned that I am really, really into floral still life paintings from the late 18th century, and not so much into floral paintings that are modern. To be honest, I didn’t know I would be into flowers at all, but something about the way the light is painted on them makes me want to look at this art all day.

Then I rounded the corner and saw this beauty, and now it’s all I can think about.


Henri Fantin-Latour, "White and Purple Stock"
Henri Fantin-Latour, “White and Purple Stock”

Midway through the exhibit, prepare for the sketching room. A gorgeous arrangement of flowers hangs out in the middle of the room, and clipboards full of paper keep their cool on the walls, right next to an assortment of colored pencils. Using some books lying around as a guide…OR just winging it like the rest of us…you can sketch out the flower arrangement and hang it on the wall!

Here are your tools.
Here are your tools.

Here is your subject.
Here is your subject.

Here is the result from someone who cannot draw.
Here is the result from someone who cannot draw.

So what is it about beautiful renditions of a nature’s most simply stunning product? One could speculate: winter just sucks. We want life and beauty back, and being surrounded by all this springtime, depicted by people who really got spring, breathes some life into us.

You’re highly encouraged to go check this exhibit out and get some life breathed into you too. The exhibit begins on Saturday, March 21st, and all attendees are encouraged explore this breath of life concept. You have until June 21st to see much of the exhibit. Tickets are $15 for adults, members get in free. Members are smart.

  1. Paul Mellon Curator and head of the Department of European Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  2. The Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art