Art from the Garden / by Jeannine Cook


It is enough to make one feel guilty!  Spending hours in the bright sunlight in the midst of winter, while practically everyone one knows is suffering extreme cold or torrential rains or both in rapid succession in Northern countries.  Winter in the Mediterranean has definite charms.

One of the most delightful of these charms is a part of the garden fragrant with a carpet of violets blooming.  Every time I pick these lovely flowers, I remember the steep banks of Tanzanian mountain terraces bound with violets where I spent hours as a child picking huge perfumed bunches  while my mother worked among the flowers in the terrace beds.  So it was natural that when I moved to Paris, I was delighted to find there were still ladies selling bunches of flowers on street corners and especially posies of Parma violets, the most fragrant of all violets, said to be from Toulouse.
Thomas Waterman Wood, (American), Spring Violets, 1868
And then I discovered the paintings and drawings of flowers that told of other people’s delight with violets down the ages as I spent hour upon hour in the French museums.

The love of violets showed up early, not surprisingly, in the wonderful margin illuminations in medieval manuscripts, where flowers are woven in with birds, insects and glorious arabesques and curliques.  Since violets symbolize purity, modesty and pure love and are associated with the Virgin Mary, it was normal to include these spring flowers in Books of Hours and other religious works.  Books of Hours were created from the 13thcentury onwards, often in France, and are still treasured works that remain jewel-like.  Nonetheless, violets had come into the Christian lexicon from far earlier:  the Greeks had  esteemed them and used them in sleeping draughts, health-giving tisanes, as sweetening for food, as well as loving their beauty.  The Romans of course followed suit, and made wine from violets, used them in salads and as conserves.  Violet tinctures and elixirs, perfumes and cosmetics helped restore health and well being.  Later the Anglo Saxons believed in the curative powers of violets for wounds, and followed ancient practices of using violets to help restore the respiratory tract after colds and bronchitis.  So it was not surprising that violets very so frequently illustrated in early holy books.

Book of Hours page, c. 1470, France
Book of Hours, Bruges, 1494, vellum, (Image courtesy of National Library of the Netherlands)
Book of Hours, 15th century, (Image courtesy of Raner Library, Dartmouth College)

Individual early artists who celebrated violets, members of the Viola family, are Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci.

Study of Violets, Leonardo da Vinci
Study of Flowers, (including violets),  Leonardo da Vinci
Bouquet of Violets, Albrecht Dürer, 1505,body colour and watercolour on parchment, (Image courtesy of Graphische Sammlung Albertina)
Then came a long period when violets, and other flowers for that matter, were mostly painted by Dutch still life artists in the 16thand early 17th century.  It was really not surprising that the Dutch artists should celebrate flowers but they became masters of combining flowers, in one painting, that actually bloomed at entirely different times. Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1583-1621) was one such master, painting on panels or on copper, works that glow.
Flower Still Life, (with violets), Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1614, oil on copper (Image courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum)
Still Life of Roses, Marigolds, Aquilega, Violets, Convolvulus, Hollyhocks..., oil on oak panel, 1600-1605, Ambrosium Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

A little earlier,  French writer, traveller and artist, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues had teamed up with the French Huguenots who unsuccessfully attempted to establish a colony in Florida in 1564, recording much of the flora and fauna he saw there.  He also later worked London and produced some beautiful botanical studies, considered the finest in the 16thcentury.  He included violets in his repertoire.

Flowers, Butterflies, Insects, Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, late 16th century, (Image courtesy of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington)

The French heritage of botanical studies continued into the 18th and 19thcentury, as is demonstrated by Pierre Jean François Turpin, considered one of the best botanical and floral artists of the Napoleonic era and beyond.  Another Frenchman who painted violets in a less rigourously botanical fashion was Paul de Longpre (1855-1911): he was very much into the Victorian era spirit of depicting flowers.  Nonetheless, he know how to paint violets in a way that allows one almost to smell their perfume.

Wood Violet, Pierre Jean François Turpin, (1775-1840), (Image courtesy of Musee National d'Histoire Naturelle)
Viola pedata (Birdsfoot Violet), engraving, 1837, Pierre Jean François Turpin
Violets, Paul De Longpré, 1896, watercolour
Violets, Paul De Longpré, 1905
Anemones and Violets in Blue Bowl, G. Pellerier, late 19th-early 20th century

Indeed, the 19th century brought more attention to the humble violet, mainly as a prop in portraits of young ladies, as in Théodore Chasseriau’s and James Tissot’s cases.  Edouard Manet obviously got enticed by bouquets of violets, for in the same year, 1872, he painted two pictures, on a study of a bunch of violets, the other a portrait of Berthe Morisot with a bunch of the same flowers.

Mademoiselle de Cabarrus, Theodore Chassériau, 1848

Jenue Femme en Verte, James Tissot, 1864, (Image courtesy of Musee d'Orsay)


Bouquet de violettes, Edouard Manet, 1872, Private Collection
Berthe Morisot au Chaopeau Noir et au Bouquet de Violettes, Edouard Manet, 1872, (Image courtesy of Musee d'Orsay)

The Victoria era brought a surge of interest to flower painting and the violet was one of the favoured flowers to paint, with its symbolism, fragrance and, I suspect, availability as Viola odorata varieties grow beautifully in well-watered, moderate to mild climates.  The French and British artists seem to have been  the most keen on painting violets, but in the United States,  in the early 20th century Lila Cabot Perry used violets in a couple of her paintings. Elbridge Ayer Burbank and Thomas Waterman Wood were other American artists who loved violets, as was the Tiffany artist, Alice Gouvy.
Violets, 1904, Henry Maynell Rheam, British, 1859-1920
Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Clark Drew, 1903-04, Lila Cabot Perry, Private Collection

Lady with a Bowl of Violets, 1910, Lila Cabot Perry, (Image courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts)
Violets, c. 1917, Elbridge Ayer Burbank, American, 1858-1949
Violets, Alice Gouvy, American

Today, artists still turn to the violet family in delight.  One only has to look on the Net at the many, many images, mostly photographs, of these lovely flowers.  But perhaps, in anticipation of 14thFebruary at the end of this week, this should be the last image about one of my most favourite flowers.  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!