Ellis Rowan

Attitudes about Flower Painting by Jeannine Cook

I have always been interested to listen to the "intonations" with which people speak or write about flower paintings.  Floral art has often had a difficult time ascending high on the ladder of art appreciation, in circles of art officialdom.

Despite flower painting having illustrious beginnings from the 16th century onwards, with Northern Renaissance Dutch and Flemish artists, flower painting has historically been associated with amateur lady painters who pursued art as a pleasant, genteel past time.  Very few male artists have painted flowers as their main subjects - Manet, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh and other 19th century artists did some wonderful paintings of flowers, very much as still life. This painting done in 1883 by Edouard Manet is a perfect example.

Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase,  Edouard Manet, 1882, (image courtesy of the Musee d'Orsay).

Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, Edouard Manet, 1882, (image courtesy of the Musee d'Orsay).

Henri Fatin-Latourwas one of the most amazingly passionate painter of flowers, again as still life. These artists did however observe the flowers carefully and closely, and knew how these plants grew.

H. Fatin-Latour,  White Roses,  1875, (Image courtesy of York Art Gallery, York, UK)

H. Fatin-Latour, White Roses, 1875, (Image courtesy of York Art Gallery, York, UK)

Other later male artists, from Picasso to Matisse and beyond, occasionally painted or drew flowers, but often, the results were more generic.

Matisse,  Flowers , 1945

Matisse, Flowers, 1945

Meanwhile, women artists were creating beautiful "portraits" of plants and flowers, many using the botanical approach as their springboard.

Ellis Rowan was travelling through Australia and South East Asia in her quest to paint brilliant and exotic flora.  Perhaps the conscious or unconscious links between gardening and flower paintings in British circles helped foster the interest in such art in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as Great Britain.

Carolina Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, Ellis Rowan

Carolina Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, Ellis Rowan

Another wonderful result of celebrating a garden was the art Childe Hassam created in Celia Thaxter's garden on the Isle of Shoals, Maine. This is one such painting Hassam did in 1890, now in the Metropolitan Museum.

Celia Thaxter's Garden, Childe Hassam, 1890, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Celia Thaxter's Garden, Childe Hassam, 1890, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Despite all these - and many, many other - instances of superb floral paintings, I cannot help being aware of a certain tone when such art is talked to in today's art world.  Almost a sneer, not quite?  As if paintings about flowers are, really, not quite "up to snuff".  Despite a huge renaissance of botanical art (mostly done, need  I say, by women artists), despite the trail blazed so memorably by Georgia O'Keeffe with her sensual, strong interpretations of  flowers, there is still a je ne sais quoi in the air on the subject of floral art.

G. O'Keeffe,  Two Calla Lilies, 1928 (Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

G. O'Keeffe, Two Calla Lilies,1928 (Image courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

This attitude fascinates me because, as I struggle to draw or paint flowers, I realise, repeatedly, that tackling flowers as a subject is very complex.  In fact, just as challenging a subject as nudes, landscapes or anything else that are considered more "serious".  By the time that an artist has mastered the intricacies of plants, their flowers and leaves, he or she is pretty capable of tackling any other type of art subject imaginable, and in any medium..

Maybe the decades when drawing was considered unnecessary contributed to the dismissal of flower-based art.  Perhaps today's emphasis on conceptual art also is a factor, with the overtones of floral paintings lacking "gravitas" and deeper meanings.  It is however ironic that part of the art world is so dismissive of floral painting, because another, large part of the art-loving world is very happy to embrace it.

Just as well, I conclude.  Think what complexities and delights artists would miss if they never looked closely at a flower!.

Google and an Art Inheritance by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I was fortunate enough to inherit a painting I had always loved in my family home. A coastal scene with a wonderful foreground frieze of golden gorse, it had always delighted me with its luminously expansive feel.  I had been told that it was painted from the veranda of my family's home in Albany, Western Australia, but that was all I knew.

One day, I decided to start investigating to see what I could learn about the work.  I copied onto paper the almost illegible signature, and eventually started working on Google, trying out whatever I could decipher. Google came up trumps - which, in a way, is less and less of a surprise as time and the reach of Google have taught us all.  The signature was of an Australian woman artist, Ellis Rowan,who was active, and prominent, in the late 19th and early 20th century.  As I learned a little more about her intriguing, adventurous life, and her skills at self promotion as she developed her career as a "flower painter", I was filled with admiration.  I was also delighted to find that she had connections with my redoutable great grandmother, Ethel Clifton Hassell - another very strong character by all accounts. Pushing all sorts of boundaries as a woman, Marian Ellis Rowan seemed to make no concessions in her pursuit of flowers to paint and places that might be of interest.

Ellis Rowan travelled several times to Western Australia, following in the footsteps of her much admired flower painter role model, Marianne North, who travelled the world to paint flower species during the 19th century, finally endowing Kew Gardens with a gallery for her wonderful works.  It was thus natural for Ellis Rowan to meet my great grandmother, a community leader in Western Australia and a flower lover.  They possibly got on well and I can imagine the scene of Ellis Rowan settling down on the veranda at Hillside, the Hassell home in Albany, to paint the view out to King George Sound.  Her skill in painting was considerable, especially given that she often used gouache, which is quick drying and often difficult as a medium. She also used watercolours and oils.

Birds and flowers, of preference tropical, colourful and exotic, were Ellis Rowan's favourite subject matter, and many of her paintings in the National Library in Australia show her skills.  She was prolific, and consequently, there is a marvellous diversity in her work.  These are but a tiny sample of her flower paintings.

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Wild Cornflowers, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Fringed Violet, watercolour and gouache, 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Norfolk Island Hibiscus, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Swamp Banksia, watercolour and gouache, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)

Black Wattle, gouache and watercolour, c. 1900, Marian Ellis Rowan, (Image courtesy of Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences)