Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art, “Flora Symbolica – Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art” by Debra N. Mancoff

January 27, 2010

The Pre-Raphaelite Movement was launched in 1848 by seven men, writes Debra N. Mancoff, Associate Adjunct Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Scholar in Residence at the Newberry Library in her book, “Flora Symbolica – Flowers in Pre-Raphaelite Art”.  The artists were:  Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother, William Michael Rosetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Frederick Stevens, Thomas Woolner and James Collinson.

John Ruskin, an art critic who influenced this group of artists, wrote “truth is to be found in nature.” Ruskin’s, “Truth to Nature” writes Ms. Mancoff, mirrored the “widening audience for floral culture” in the Victorian era as cited with the following publications:  “Flora Historica”, Henry Phillips (1824), “Flowers and Their Associations”, Anna Pratt (1840), “The Ladies’ Flower Garden of Ornamental Annuals”, Mrs. Loudon (1849).  Then followed a common feature in floral books, a lexicon of flowers and their meaning explains Ms. Mancoff.  “Florigraphy,” explained the “encoded messages of colors, positions, combinations and blooms.”  The Victorians’ fascination with flowers  can be seen in Hamlet’s Ophelia written by Shakespeare and painted by  John Everett Millais.  Ms. Mancoff writes that Millais’ “fidelity to botanical detail was an essential feature in the interpretation of Ophelia’s tragedy.” While her drowning took place offstage, “every plant Gertrude mentioned- the willow, the nettle, the daisy – is clearly rendered and their meanings  – mourning, pain and innocence – express a course of lament.”

Other chapters in this lovely book include,”Within Garden Walls,” “The Purest Flower”, “The Queen of Flowers”, “Fatal Bouquets” and “Say It with Flowers.”  One chapter entitled “The Fashionable Flower”, features the sunflower, a flower which gained popularity during the Victorian era “transplanted from the back corner of the garden to the center of the stylish drawing room,” explains Ms. Mancoff.  William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, followers of the Pre-Rapaelite Artists, used the sunflower in their decorative work.


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