It’s rather curious how some of the most short-lived of living things – flowers – can bring us a great deal of joy and fascination, and indeed hope, when things aren’t exactly hopeful all around us.
Case in point, let’s consider one of Florentine Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli’s (1435-1510) most famous works, “Primavera” (“Spring”) (painted sometime around 1480), which currently hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. It features a procession of figures from mythology, moving through a lush landscape, although the question of to what purpose they are doing so remains something of a subject for debate among art historians, even these many centuries later. Yet as this article published earlier this week in La Vanguardia points out [N.B. just let Google roughly translate it for you if needed] while most of us focus on the figures, there are mind-blowing details regarding the plants that appear in the painting, all of which make Botticelli’s work all the more interesting even if we don’t quite understand it.
For example, it turns out that there are 500 flowers shown in the picture, and all of them happen to grow in Tuscany. The artist may have taken a few liberties here and there, but for the most part the flora in the painting can be identified by botanists; none of them are pure invention. Interestingly, while our eyes are perhaps naturally drawn to Botticelli’s roses, the plants that appear most often throughout the painting are the more humble daisy and violet. There’s also a host of other botanical specimens, from crocus to orange blossom to poppy, and a magnificent iris.
Now as those of you with more of a green thumb know, not all of these things flower at the same time. What’s more, it’s somewhat incongruous to see an orange tree both flowering and fruiting simultaneously, since the former takes place in spring, and the latter in the fall. As a symbolic matter, since this and the other allegorical pieces in the room may well have been created to commemorate a Medici wedding, the profusion of flowers and plants could speak to the hope that the new couple will have a fruitful marriage.
In his depiction of botanical abundance however, it’s very possible that Botticelli was trying to demonstrate his awareness of contemporary Northern European art. Florentine and Venetian painters were fascinated by what Flemish and Dutch artists were doing, particularly with respect to their use of the new medium of oil-based paint. The more traditional tempera paint that Botticelli used in “Primavera” was a stable medium, but at the same time it couldn’t evoke contrasts of light, shadow, and texture the way that oil paint can. Artists such as Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) or Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464) could depict a profusion of flowers and plants in an extremely precise, almost scientific way, which one suspects that Botticelli, with his own very precise lines for both figures and rendering architectural perspective, probably would have appreciated greatly, such as that shown in this example of lilies from Van Eyck’s “Annunciation” (c. 1434-1436) in the National Gallery here in DC.
We may never have a definitive answer as to the question of what “Primavera” represents, but even as we stay cooped up during what I’ve been referring to with family and friends in Spain as this “primavera robada” (“stolen spring”), his careful attention to the flowers and plants of a Tuscan springtime can, at least, give us some sense of joy.
And now, on to some art stories of note from the week or so gone by.
A Year On at Notre Dame
It’s been a year since the devastating fire at the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris last spring. Despite the continued challenges of the tangled mess at the building site, now further complicated by the restrictions imposed as a result of the present pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron is determined to stick to his promised completion date of 2024 for the church’s restoration, even as he apparently continues to be of the view that the spire be rebuilt in some totally inappropriate style. In addition, it appears that the cause of the fire is still not known, despite earlier reports that it had been put down to an electrical short. There is some good news to share, however. Germany has pledged to lend its expertise to the windows aspect of the restoration project, including donating a new set of windows for the clerestory as a gift to France, which is a very gracious thing indeed. And perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the retired General (and very devout Catholic) whom President Macron placed in charge of the project is not going to suffer fools when it comes to getting the work on track, which is a good sign.
Fridays at the Frick
One way that many people are trying to relax and connect these days is by hosting distance happy hours with family and friends by the use of video conferencing apps – I have three of these scheduled for the rest of this week, in fact. The Frick Collection in New York is now doing the same for the public, hosting Friday evening Happy Hours for those who want to learn a bit more about art while sipping a tipple in the safety of their own home. Every Friday at 5pm Eastern, “Cocktails with a Curator” allows visitors to the museum’s website or YouTube channel to watch a live presentation by one of the Frick’s curators on a specific piece in the collection; rather charmingly, the museum provides an appropriate cocktail (and mocktail) recipe to make at home for the virtual get-together. This week, the art is Rembrandt’s magnificent “The Polish Rider” (c. 1650) and a recipe for a Szarlotka – not the pastry, but rather a cocktail flavored like it, albeit made with Polish vodka.
Beatrix’ Bunnies at Doyle
Just in time for spring, this coming Wednesday. April 22nd, Doyle Auctions in New York will be selling a treasure trove of original materials by beloved English artist and author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). As a child, my favorite Potter works – “The Tailor of Gloucester” (1903) and “The Tale of Benjamin Bunny” (1904) – would mesmerize me both with their stories and with their incredibly rich illustrative details. Even today, when I come across a copy of one of Potter’s books, I experience the same sense of wonder as I thumb through the pages. Below, a watercolor on silk that will be up for sale at next week’s auction depicts a scene from “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” (1901), which Potter herself copied sometime between 1901-1905 from the original version that she had painted on paper. The piece carries a pre-sale estimate of $20-30k, but don’t be surprised if it goes for much more than that, even in this uncertain market: this is Beatrix Potter, after all.