You know how one thing leads to another . . . . . well, last week the auction site The Saleroom contacted me because they knew of a painting of roses that was coming up for auction. They do this because I am an avid collector of rose paintings and rose books so when they are notified of either in a sale they send me an email alert. A super facility – you should try it.
The painting was by Jean-Baptiste Robie (1821-1910), who was born in Brussels but lived in London between 1848 and 1875; it was dated 1864 so of this period. It looked beautiful, a towering arrangement of flowers, mostly roses by the trunk of a tree with a plate of raspberries to one side. The roses were stunning Centifolias, the roses chosen by the Dutch and Flemish artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
I had recently been doing some research into the Centifolia Roses (Provence Roses)so know that they aren’t the ancient variety that so many people mistakenly think they are. I know that they had gradually and slowly evolved from the end of the C16th to the beginning of the C18th when they apparently reached their perfection. I know that we have the Dutch breeders to thank for creating these Roses des Peintres which we are privileged to see in so many wonderful paintings of this period.
The beautiful clear pink ‘Cabbage Rose’ with its ‘hundred leaves’ and rich fragrance nods gracefully on its delicate but prickly stem. It little resembles the cabbage, a label acquired early in its history but is immediately recognisable immortalised in many Old Masters. There are equally beautiful varieties which exist today and are grown in our gardens.
Great painters from the beginning of this enlightened era included Jan Brueghel, Ambrosius Bosschaert, Roelandt Savery and Jacques de Gheyn, great botanical craftsmen who portrayed their flowers with great accuracy towering them symmetrically in a vase with a dark background. There were usually roses featuring prominently together with tulips and other flowers popular at the time. How they were painted so beautifully with the limited paint colours and painting surfaces is difficult to understand. It was wonderful, however, that flowers had finally been freed from supporting portraits or religious scenes and had taken centre stage. The painters had finally the courage to be proud to be painters of flowers.
As time passed the desire for botanical accuracy gave way to sophistication and taste as the patrons wanted the paintings they bought to blend well with their furniture and decor. Painters, as their colours developed and canvas replaced panel and copper, could revel in different sizes, less preparation and greater colour combinations. Painting became less symmetrical and botanical and even more varied and beautiful.
Great painters of the C18th included Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch. Van Huysum has been referred to as the Phoenix of Flower painters with the majority of his work being ‘snapped up’ by aristocracy and royalty. He was one of the greats if not the great in flower painting history and influenced much work that was to come. Rachel Ruysch painted many beautiful works that retained accuracy in their productiion. Not only is Rachel the most distinguished of lady flower painters but among the greatest of all. For some of you it may be interesting to know that she had ten children!
Flower painting in Holland continued into the C19th. A number of painters gravitated to Paris one of whom was Gerard van Spaendonck, equally gifted as an easel painter and botanical draughtsman well known for his tutelage of Pierre-Joseph Redoute. Other great names of this time included Jean-Baptiste Robie, a brilliant artist who is chiefly known for his paintings of fruit and flowers and for occasionally breaking with the tradition of meticulous arrangements. His paintings stand out for their exquisite rendering of texture and colour.
Which brings me back to where I started. Jean-Baptiste Robie’s painting was estimated at £150,000. I do not know the final hammer price as the Dutch auction house chose not to publish it! One can dream . . . . . . .
Much of the detail about the artists in this article has been taken from ‘European Flower Painters’ by Peter Mitchell. (1973).