The Dallas Museum of Art is playing two concurrent exhibitions off of each other.
At one end of the first floor is the challenging retrospective by hard-to-parse Isa Genzken, while closer to the main entrance is the newest exhibition, “Bouquets: French Still Life Painting From Chardin to Matisse.”
“Genzken” is an exhibition of contemporary sculptures that the artist makes with concrete blocks, cast-off clothing and what appear to be architectural models made of street sweepings. “Bouquets” is 19th-century paintings of flowers that range from fastidiously-painted botanical illustrations to impressionist works by some of the greats.
It seems as if “Bouquets” is a peace offering for mounting “Genzken.” One is difficult, the other easy. One is disquieting, the other hums a happy tune. Accept it for what it is, a collection of glorious paintings, many of which you have seen before on calendars and note cards, but wonderful nonetheless.
Floral still lifes reached an apogee in Europe in the 19th century. This would be after tulip-mania in the 1600s, when people in Holland lost fortunes on tulip futures, and a century after the French and English went off the rails finding portentous meaning in flowers.
By the 1800s, spending time in botanic gardens and greenhouses had become a popular pastime, and flowers were the subject of serious scientific study and botanic illustration.
French artists were happy to oblige, providing the visual record.
Some of the finest French painters like Pierre-Joseph Redoutè also became the best botanical illustrators. While few of his oil paintings remain in existence, there is an exacting Redoutè in the first gallery with the works of other artists such as Anne Vallayer-Coster — who took great pride in getting every stamen, leaf striation and petal correct on enormous canvases to be entered in the yearly Salon competitions.
The Salon was a place to show off, and the floral artists used elaborate bouquets in fine vases perched on marble-top credenzas to attract new business. These paintings often included the ants, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds as if they were brought in with the blossoms, straight from the garden. They are impressive in their size and detail.
The grand paintings were laden with flowers bearing symbolic messages, and none was more overwrought than the floral tribute Homage to Queen Hortense, by Jean Marie Reignier, 1856. It is an extreme example of a floral still life being used to curry favor with deep-pocketed benefactors, says Heather MacDonald, the DMA’s curator of European painting.
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Hortense was the daughter of Josephine, married off at age 19 to Napoleon’s brother. The couple became the king and queen of Holland, and when their son Napoleon III became president, then dictator and finally, emperor, this was painted to honor his mother, Queen Hortense.
There are tulips to represent Holland, hydrangeas becasue they were cultivated by Josephine in her gardens at Malmaison, plus a laurel crown representing the emperor. At the top of the floral pile is an imperial eagle, and a scroll of paper bearing the number of votes by which the plebiscite of 1852 ushered in his reign as emperor.
After all the grandstanding, painters scaled way back and tried imbuing the still lifes with a natural narrative. Small handfuls of flowers were used in humble vases surrounded by coffee cups and fruit bowls, or the flowers were scattered about, carelessly abandoned on a table next to the vase.
Floral still lifes became a vehicle for new painting techniques, as they were easily read no matter the brush stroke or color. They became, as DMA director Max Anderson says, “an important vehicle for the examination of nature and culture and a potent source for painterly meditation.” They were also a benign subject matter.
In Still Life With Vase of Hawthorn, Bowl of Cherries, Japanese Bowl, and Cup and Saucer, by Henri Theodore Fantin-Latour, chosen by his fiancee from all his paintings as her engagement present, he positions a sprig of hawthorn quite askew, and this seeming naturalness illustrates the next round of floral flexing. The bouquets are more familiar in their modest sizes and setting, the painterly strokes have become quicker and the flowers more suggestive than detailed.
A group of floral still lifes by Edouard Manet are quite touching as they were painted near the end of his life, and these were flowers brought to him by friends who were calling on him for perhaps the last time.
One painting in particular, Flowers in a Crystal Vase, c. 1882, is exquisite in its brevity. A few dabs of blue and a couple of dashes of white and swaths of unpainted canvas are all that Manet used to indicate the crystal vase. Another one of his final florals, Vase of White Lilacs and Roses, from 1883, must have been painted just before he died, as these are spring flowers and he died in April of that year.
The artists often gave paintings of flowers as gifts. There is a luscious group of red peonies painted by Paul Gauguin inscribed to Edgar Degas, and it even includes a painting of Degas’ in the background, although Gauguin never gave it to Degas. His attempt at honoring a painter he admired was secondary to his desire to keep Still Life With Peonies for himself.
As it is one of the most sensual still lifes in the exhibit; some might find it easy to understand this particular instance of Gauguin’s bad behavior.
Daisies in a basket by Vincent van Gogh, iris and oranges by Cezanne and daubs of paint that morph from background to vase with color bursts for flowers from Henri Matisse end the timeline of floral perfection to mere suggestion.
There are 68 floral still lifes in the exhibition — eight of which belong to the DMA — and one of these, Gustave Caillebotte’s Yellow Roses in a Vase, 1882, has not been on display since the artist’s death in 1894. While the wide range of exploration in “Bouquets” is insightful, it also offers works rarely seen.
Suspecting that visitors might be inspired by the floral art works, the museum has made a sketching gallery and provided art supplies and a floral display to sketch. Visitors are encouraged to leave them on the large display board. Seemingly, many have been as inclined to show off as 19th-century French artists, since the board is filling.
After closing in Dallas on Feb. 8, “Bouquets” will travel to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Va., and after that, the Denver Art Museum. “Bouquets” was organized by the DMA and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.