Youth and Beauty: Floral Reflections

There are so many themes and ways to enjoy Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties. We asked two floral experts from the Womens Council to reflect on some of the ways flowers are represented in this guest blog.

Point of Entry

In the first few rooms, we particularly enjoyed The Birth of Venus by Joseph Stella. This large, joyful, painting has Venus rising from a lotus flower with a large sculptural shell underneath. She is surrounded by colorful and stylized images of adoring fish with flowers floating in the sea and the sky. The flowers floating in the sky are very reminiscent of those in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. Venus is the Roman God of Love and Beauty – this Venus seems more pure than sensual. ‘Stella Maris’ means ‘Star of the Sea’; the artist’s name is Stella – is this where his seed of an idea started? This is such a happy painting!

We love the two juxtaposed wood sculptures – Plant Form by Robert Laurent and Red Seed by Noguchi. The beauty of form and the fluidity are what appeal in Plant Form. The massive size of Noguchi’s Red Seed reminds us of what strength there is in what starts out as a small seed and then pushes its sprout, persevering through the earth to form, ultimately, a beautiful plant or a towering tree.

Farther Along

Peter Blum’s Flower and Torso is very sensual and beautifully painted. The Stargazer hybrid lily is similar to this one in the painting. It is used frequently in floral arrangements and is long-lasting and very fragrant.

There is a sadness in the haunting painting Summer by Bernard Karfiol, with each member of this family lost in their own thoughts. These pensive children seem to be extremely bored and wishing they were elsewhere. The sprig of nasturtium has maybe just been picked from the garden outside. It gives a contrasting glimmer of cheer to the mood of the painting.

The wall of paintings and photos of lilies has them portrayed in very different styles.

Apart from the sexual connotations, the calla lily can also symbolize magnificence and beauty, purity, and youth. We often use this lily (the botanical name is ‘Zantedeschia’) when making floral arrangements which require a 1920’s/art deco theme.

Still Life by Preston Dickinson is painted in a slightly cubist, edgy style – a challenge to paint such an elegant, fluid form as the calla in such a way. As floral lovers and arrangers we immediately notice the flowers and strelitzia leaves which are drooping in the vase, and want to rush to refresh the poor things with some more water! There is an air of neglect in the painting, from the sad flowers to the very dog-eared leather bound book with watermark stains on the cover.

Considerations Continued …

Georgia O’Keeffe’s provocative flower paintings have been well discussed. The fluidity and movement in this painting – Two Calla Lilies on Pink - remain very beautiful, and Imogen Cunningham’s photo – Two Callas evokes the same beauty. The calla lily is one of our favorite flowers, and all these adjectives describe the flower every time we see it – beauty, simplicity, fluidity, softness, and strength. The calla lily can surely stand on its own as an example of perfection in nature.

Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928. Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). Oil on canvas; 101.6 x 76.2 cm (40 x 30 in.). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987.

The photograph of The Mariposa Lily by Laura Gilpin is very simple and elegant, portrayed more like a botanical drawing.

California Data by Henrietta Shore is an interesting, colorful, light, and lively painting, with a cactus emerging from a calla lily, more lilies sprouting from the cactus, and stylized birds flying around - altogether a zany and enjoyable painting, apart from any deeper connotations.

Marsden Hartley’s Still-life – Calla Lilies – also has many meanings relating to his own life-style, as described in the exhibition. It has great strength as a painting, with rather more angular lilies and leaves, set off beautifully by the deep purple background. The center placement of the carnation (or camellia?) and the vase do give it more of a suggestion of a ‘portrait’. In one of our reference books the meaning of a red variegated camellia is “love line”.

Dead Chestnut by Ross Braught. This large painting of a dead tree is so strong. The branches are all intertwined and we love the subtle colors of the dappled shade and sun in the form of the trunk and branches and the background landscape. The chestnut was one of the most important lumber trees in the U.S. until a blight wiped out most of them, and there is no known cure. Even in death this tree conveys great strength and power.

-- Cathy Miller and Annie Wainwright
Womens Council


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