High Museum of Art
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High Museum of Art

Get Creative at Home: Painting Fresh Flowers

Learn about depictions of flowers in European art and learn how to create your own permanent floral display.

By Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs, High Museum of Art

Why buy flowers when you can have a painting of them? Hundreds of years ago, flowers were a symbol of wealth, and it was cheaper to have a painting of flowers than to keep buying fresh ones! For centuries, different types of flowers symbolized different emotions or ideas (such as a rose signifying love).

In the seventeenth century, flowers were sometimes used as painted garlands around religious images, like we see in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Holy Family with a Garland of Flowers. How many kinds of flowers can you find in Brueghel’s painting? Can you find the red roses, symbolizing love? What about the white lilies, representing purity?

Painting of a floral garland on a black background encircling a religious scene.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568–1625), Holy Family with a Garland of Flowers, ca. 1620

Jan van Kessel studied with Brueghel, who was his grandfather! Kessel painted Butterflies, Caterpillars, Other Insects, and Flowers and Butterflies, Other Insects, and Flowers after studying nature and looking at scientific books about plants and animals. These paintings were bought by wealthy collectors across Europe and were prized because of their small size and level of detail. Collectors would often place his paintings on the outside of cabinets that held precious or natural objects.

Have you ever seen insects and flowers like the ones Kessel painted? These were all bugs and plants that were found in Northern Europe — you might have different ones near you. If you were to create a painting of the bugs and plants near your home, what would you include?

Painting of a bouquet of flowers on a black background.
Painting of a bouquet of chrysanthemums on a brown background.
Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (French, ca. 1636–1699), Flowers in a Basket, ca. 1695; Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836–1904), Grand bouquet de chrysanthèmes, 1882

Artists continued to paint flowers, influenced by more formal, staged still life paintings. Look closely at these two works of art, painted almost two hundred years apart. How are they different? How are they similar?

Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer painted his flowers in Flowers in a Basket in a very realistic manner — we can see every petal clearly, outlines are crisp, and the brushstrokes blend to make the painting almost seem like a photograph. Henri Fantin-Latour, on the other hand, painted Grand bouquet de chrysanthèmes in shorter strokes of color, influenced by his artist friends who were part of the Impressionist movement, where artists used thick strokes of paint to capture the simple idea of an object instead of all its details.

Get Creative at Home

Paint or draw your own plants or flowers!

Go outside and find flowers, leaves, or other natural items (but make sure not to bring any bugs inside)!

Painting of a bouquet of white and pink flowers against a sky blue background.
Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), Bouquet of Flowers (Bouquet de Fleurs), ca. 1873

Artists like Kessel arranged their compositions, or planned their paintings, very carefully, making sure that each item had its own space; others like Camille Pissarro painted what they would have seen naturally, with petals and leaves fallen on the table.

You can choose to carefully place your objects or draw them in their natural state.

On a piece of paper, begin by sketching just one of your objects, starting with basic shapes and adding more detail after.

Consider the shapes of each object. Are the petals on your flower shaped like an oval, a triangle, or a circle? Draw the outline of your object, and then add details with your pencil. Finally, use colored pencils or paint to add color to your drawing!

We’d love to see your creations! Share your artworks with us on Instagram and tag #HighMuseumatHome.

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