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The Hymn to Flowers-Five Masterpieces at the Orsay Museum

The romantic poet Novalis once wrote that “the world of flowers is a distant infinity”.

Flowers, the gift of nature, have been appreciated and endowed with meanings and feelings throughout the ages.

In the nineteeth century, the era of realism and impressionism, painters no longer relied on historical, religious or mythological subjects and began to gradually focus their attention on theirs surroundings, which was closest to our daily life, and still life painting, especially flowers, became increasingly popular.

Step inside the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the treasure trove of modern Western art, and listen to the hymn to flowers.


He acknowledges that the call for introspection and the change of mood are in an atmosphere of hesitation between reverie and fantasy.¹”

Gustave Courbet
Branche de pommier en fleurs
En 1872
Huile sur toile
H. 32,2 ; L. 41,0 cm.
Donation Kaganovitch, 1973
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Gustave Courbet(1819-1877)the leader of French realism, is an untamed color in the history of Western art. Loyal to what he sees with his own eyes, refusing to whitewash it, he uses his brush with a critical eye to point out the reality of society.

During the Franco-Prussian war, his radical character pushed him to join the Paris Commune, but the movement quickly failed, his political ambitions were thwarted and he was imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie in September 1871.

The period of imprisonment was mundane and miserable, and he lost the inspiration on which the artist’s life depended. After adopting the advice from his family, Courbet began to devote himself to the world of the still life painting. Fruits and flowers were perhaps the only sweetness and aroma of this lightless period.

Six months later, he regained his freedom and returned to Ornans in spring, his haunted homeland, when the apple blossoms were in full bloom.

The Apple Blossom Branch is in keeping with his usual painting style, with a dark, mottled background and a sober, solemn palette, brightened by a few clusters of ivory-white blossoms, sometimes rich, sometimes faded green leaves and red fruits dotted around, enhancing the overall sense of layering.

Indeed, Courbet had already done about twenty still life paintings in 1862-1863, when his style was still Second Empire decorative. As he reached the end of his life, his flowers reflect a new state of mind. The inscription “St. Pelagie” in the lower right corner the name of the prison in which he was imprisoned, and the deliberately early date² – in the manner of Vanitas and Memento mori, allude to his insistence on the Commune in his inner world.

The apple blossom, which becomes whiter in the darkness, may also be the embodiment of Courbet’s conviction.

1:L.C., citation in Gustave Courbet [exposition,]
2:peint en 1872 et antidaté 1871.


“I make flowers. I have to enjoy the moment and this year I find them even more beautiful than ever.”

Henri Fantin-Latour
Chrysanthèmes dans un vase
En 1873
Huile sur toile
H. 62,7 ; L. 54,0 cm.
/ DR

Henri Fantin-Latour(1836-1904)a 19th-century French artist who specialized in floral painting and portraiture. After an initial period of realism, Fantin’s work gradually took on a symbolic dimension, with 1873 marking a turning point.

After a series of portraits was disfavored by the Salon, he embarked on a new phase, devoting himself to the purer form – the still life painting. Throughout the summer, he spent his time in his studio arranging various bouquets and vases and depicting them.

Looking at this painting, we see that while the form remains classical and the tone subdued, there is a hint of symbolism in the brushwork. The combination of beautiful purple, bright yellow, and solid white floral arrangements results in a staggered composition, with depicting the Chrysanthemum petals bent and stretched in meticulous detail; but the blue and white porcelain vases that are about to fade into the background, and the overall gray-brown tones that add to the hazy atmosphere to the entire work.

It is as if we could see Fantin’s back, painting flowers in the corner of his studio, and the phonograph next to him playing a delicate melody, which is a calm and fragrant time.


Apart from painting and gardening, I am not good at anything. My most beautiful masterpiece is my garden.”

Claude Monet
Nymphéas bleus
Entre 1916 et 1919
Huile sur toile
H. 204,0 ; L. 200,0 cm.
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

In 1890, in Giverny, Claude Monet(1840-1926) bought a villa and the land around it and planted rows of water lilies, myosotis, tuberoses, roses… He completed his dream garden. The most extraordinary of them was the basin with an area of almost 3,000 square meters, in which water lilies were gently growing.

In his last years, Monet was content in his world, from spring to winter, from sunrise to sunset, capturing the fleeting traces of light and shadow on the water lilies and capturing them for eternity on canvas.

When something is studied to the extreme, one can always sense what lies beneath the surface. Cézanne painted Mont Saint-Victor year after year, the mountains on the canvas were progressively deconstructed and broken into geometric pieces, while Monet represented the water lilies day after day, and the game of light and shadow was developed to the extreme, abstaining from the figurative.

This blue water lily focuses on a partial pond, the reflection of the weeping willow and the horizontal floating lotus leaves are vaguely recognizable as a classical vertical and horizontal composition, a few dots of pink and white flowers enliven the canvas, but the deep blue hue like the sea and the irregular white space at the edges give a sense of infinity and limitlessness.

Like being inspired, the painter’s brushstrokes are so short and unadorned, just like the images that flashes through our brains.

Standing in front of this two-meter-high painting, combine and process the colors in front of you, reconstitute them in your mind, magnify them to infinity and enter the world of Monet.


 “The more I think about it, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than loving people.”

                                                                                                                                                              ——Lettre à Théo

Vincent Van Gogh
Fritillaires couronne impériale dans un vase de cuivre
En 1887
Huile sur toile
H. 73,3 ; L. 60,0 cm.
Legs du comte Isaac de Camondo, 1911
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

In the year of 1886, Vincent van Gogh(1853-1890) arrived in Paris. He was deeply attracted to this festive city, where the most avant-garde art of the time was born and where the most famous artists gathered. Influenced by the colors of the Impressionists and the theories of emerging techniques, Van Gogh’s palette shifted from gray and dark to bright and vivid, and he produced nearly two hundred paintings in just two years in Paris.

Imperial Crown Fritillaries in a Copper Vase, was Van Gogh’s courtship gift to the lady(Segatori) of an Italian Café owner (Le Tambourin). Penniless, the young man took out his most cherished paintings and his warm heart to romantically “planted immortal flowers” in her Café, decorating Le Tambourin with other painted bouquets to create an artificial garden.

In this painting, Van Gogh practices the rules of Neo-Impressionism, with the contrasting colors of blue and orange, the wooden table and wall pattern applying the techniques of Pointillism; the bronze of the vase adds texture to the whole work, reflecting on the bright yellow petals, the brown wooden table and the glittering blue and green wallpaper. Perhaps in this painting we can already glimpse some traces of the starry moon night and the sunflowers.


“I cover the walls of a dining room with flowers, dream flowers, imaginary wildlife.”

Odilon Redon
Frise de fleurs et baies,Frise de fleurs, marguerite rose
En 1901
Huile, détrempe, fusain et pastel sur toile
H. 35,3 ; L. 163,7 cm.
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmid

Odilon Redon(1840-1916)was a talented symbolist artist of the late 19th century who used various medium to perfect his works, such as charcoal, lithographs, pastels and oil paintings.

Baron Robert de Domecy (1867-1946) was one of his main patrons from 1893, and between 1899 and 1901, at his request, Redon created a set of fifteen decorative panels for the castle he had just built in Yonne.

Redon created an unrealistic naturalist space: vine branches grow randomly, fantastic flowers roam on the canvas, and the palette is harmonious and elegant; the mixture of oil, tempera, charcoal and pastel, with colors that are sometimes soft, sometimes shimmering, reinforces the symbolism.

In a trance, the flowers are blinking and the plants are breathing softly.



-Lemoine, Serge. La Peinture Au Musée D’Orsay. Paris: La Martinière Musée D’Orsay, 2004. Print.

-Des Cars, Font-Réaulx, Tinterow, Font-Réaulx Dominique De, and Tinterow Gary. Gustave Courbet [exposition,] Galeries Nationales Du Grand Palais, Paris, 13 Octobre 2007 – 28 Janvier 2008, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 27 Février – 18 Mai 2008, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 14 Juin – 28 Septembre 2008. Paris: Réunion Des Musées Nationaux, 2007. Print.P417-421

-LAURE D., Fantin-Latour à Fleur De Peau [exposition, Paris, Musée Du Luxembourg (Sénat), 14 Septembre 2016-12 Février 2017, Grenoble, Musée De Grenoble, 18 Mars-18 Juin 2017]. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, 2016. P40-43, P130-131

-Bourniquel, Camille. Van Gogh. Paris: Hachette, 1968. Print. Génies Et Réalités.


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