In Search of Perfection

Yekaterina Selezneva

Magazine issue: 
#4 2008 (21)

“Russia is a big meadow - a green one with flowers breaking into bloom”
Andrei Bely[1]

Flowers accompany us throughout our lives. They have long been a focus of scholarly interest: botanists describe and collect them to form herbariums, while medical researchers study the useful and salutary properties of these exceptionally diverse plants. Nearly all nations of the world have traditions, dating back over history, to greet guests and see them off on special occasions with flowers, and to use flowers for decoration. But apart from their aesthetic properties and practical use, flowers also became symbols and tokens of sentiments; their meaning often varies from one nation or period to another.

The Bible, for one, has many instances of floral symbolism. Paradise is imaged as a secret and mystical, forever blossoming garden. One of the biblical fables tells about a lily which grew from the tears of Eve driven out from the Garden of Eden. In many paintings treating the subject of the Annunciation the Angel approaches Mary holding in his hands this marvelous flower — one of the most ancient cultivated in Libya, Palestine and Syria kind of flora. The white lily was a symbol of purity to the Jewish people. In Europe the white lily became a symbol of purity, chastity, and aristocratic origin. According to another Christian legend, lilies of the valley are called “tears of the Mother of God” — the tears shed by the Virgin upon the Holy Cross turned into these tender little bells. The elegant lilies of the valley, are usually presented [to women] in Western Europe on Mother’s Day. The old Russian legend about the Novgorod merchant Sadko tells us that lilies of the valley grew out of tears of a sea queen he had rejected. According to another legend, lilies of the valley — remember their scarlet round berries with seeds — were the result of a metamorphosis of blood drops spilled by St. George when he fought the dragon.

The symbolic and semantic parallels of these stories are obvious. Many flowers have long-standing attributed meanings and properties: the red rose — for passionate love, the fleur d’orange — for the bride’s virginity, the forget-me-not — for loyalty, and the like. People attribute mystical qualities to flowers — take for instance the magic fire-flower of the fern that blooms only once, on the eve of Ivan Kupala Day, illuminating everything around it with a dazzling light and fulfilling the dearest wishes of those who pick the flower. Narcissus and hyacinth became spectacular symbols of ancient Greek allegories.

Flowers, garlands and wreaths were symbols of strong power: they formed the royal decorum of ceremonial and festive processions, and of fabulous feasts of Cleopatra and Neron, Louis XIV, France’s Sun King and Catherine II.

The Soviet authorities indeed were fond of flowers. It is astonishing to read a January 5 1918 entry in Zinaida Gippius’ diary describing the election of the chairman of the constituent assembly: “And Lenin, they say, is seated there in his ‘royal’ pew, beaming like a child on his birthday party, flowers all around!”[2]. Just remember Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “I know the city will come about, I know the garden will blossom...”[3]. Sometimes flowers became bearers of political, and statehood-related meaning. In Communist Russia, “the flower of blood”,[4] the red carnation, quickly became one of the symbols of the Bolshevik revolution. And indeed, the “companion of troubles” has been linked to many bloody events.

The Greek myth about the origin of the carnation was no exception: once Diana, returning home after an unsuccessful hunt, saw a beautiful young shepherd playing cheerful tunes. Seeing that the loud sounds of the reed had scared away her game, the infuriated goddess assaulted the poor lad and pulled out his eyes. When Diana recollected that event herself, she became horrified by the evil thing she had done and was overwhelmed by remorse. The little shepherd’s gentle eyes haunted her everywhere. She threw them on the ground, and two red carnations grew out of that as an eternal reminder about the unnecessarily spilled blood. Scarlet carnations symbolize the sufferings of Christ, and are featured in some images of the Madonna and the Child. In France this flower played a very important role. Napoleon Bonaparte chose the colour of the scarlet carnation for an order which was to become the top state award of the French Republic. And it was only after a while that the red “little flower of carnation” turned into the “rosette” of the Order of the Legion of Honour. Comtesse de Genlis[5], famous for her “Literary and Historical Botany” (La botanique historique et litteraire) and interpretations of the meanings of flowers, tried to “bleach” the carnation. The writer represented the carnation as an emblem of profound and genuine sentiment. However, this did not help: today in France people do not normally present carnations to relatives or friends — it is believed that these flowers bring misfortune. However, if you buy a bouquet for yourself, you can, indeed would be very well advised to buy these beautiful and variegated plants — they will bring good fortune.

Meanwhile, a twig of yellow mimosa became one of the Soviet emblems of the “International Women’s Day the 8th of March”, as, incidentally, did tulips, which, having naturalized in Russia very well, emblematize many things too. As Vadim Sadkov noted, in the 17th century “the Dutch not just saw this flower [the tulip] as a symbol of quickly fading beauty — many even believed that cultivating it was one of the most futile occupations.”[6] The French romantic writer Aloysius Bertrand[7] maligned tulips through one of his characters: “among flowers, the tulip is what the peacock is among birds. One is without fragrance, the other is without voice. One is proud of its robe, the other of its tail.” Bertrand claims that the tulip, “the symbol of man’s pride and lust ... produced Luther’s ... odious heresies!” But soon the tulip became so popular that the price of the bulbs was set at a special tulip exchange. Much time would pass before this splendid flower became “the face” of the Dutch kingdom. What a difference from the chrysanthemum, the flower of the sun, which from times immemorial had been an emblem of the Japanese imperial family.

Yet we think of flowers above all as the embodiment of the essence of natural beauty, the epitome of the fine art of florists, which has evolved and developed together with human civilization. In 1844 an enthusiastic orchardist and writer Alphonse Karr[8] in his introduction to J.J. Grandville’s book “Flowers Personified” (Les Fleurs animees)[9] wrote with irony: “We may love flowers in several ways. The naturalist flattens and dries them. He then inters them in a sort of cemetery, called a herbarium, and then underneath them writes pompous epitaphs in a barbarous language. Amateurs love only rare flowers ... But there are others of a happier turn, who love all those flowers ... Such derive from flowers their purest and most unfailing enjoyments.. Happy they who love flowers! Happy, indeed, if they love flowers alone!”[10]

Thanks to poets, musicians and of course painters, flowers have a different and perhaps the fullest, longest and most beautiful life, eternal life, in art.

In art flowers do not fade, and all the traits of their real-life examples — beauty, symbolism, and ornamentality — only intensify. Live flowers appear to be a reflection of the genius of the Creator of Nature, and when they are represented by a painter, they become an embodiment of “art for art’s sake”, becoming doubly artistic. The word “creator” is most appropriate for this sort of imagery: the Creator had made flowers, and the artist created a still-life or a landscape...

Not every Russian artist painted flowers. “For the first time in my life I regretted that I can paint neither flowers nor fruit.,” wrote Alexander Ivanov to Karl Rabus in 1829.[11] Karl Briullov did not paint flowers either. The “Peredvizhniki” (Wanderers) artists did not pursue such opportunities either. And yet “the flower theme” reflects quite well the history of Russian art. Icons and frescoes in churches already had images of flowers and floral ornaments. The visions of the pastures of Heaven are impressive and diverse in the icons centered around themes such as “In Thee Rejoiceth”, “Abraham’s Bosom”, “The Penitent Thief Rakh in Paradise”, “The Mother of God Enclosed Garden”.

The rose, which came to Russia in the 16th century, became the Mother of God’s flower for Russian Christians as well. One legend tells about a red rose which grew from the drops of blood of the crucified Jesus Christ, the rose’s colour forever reminding people about the Saviour’s atonement for their sins and His blood spilled for them: such is the icon “Eutropius Mother of God”. Interestingly, Russia’s most important icons such as Simon Ushakov’s “The Tree of the Moscow State” features Metropolitan Pyotr and Prince Ivan Kalita planting a huge wide-branched mystical rose shrub-tree which produces marvelous red roses. The image of the Mother of God of Vladimir (Vladimirskaya), in the centre of the composition, is surrounded with large flowers. Over time, the theme of the “Mother of God the Fadeless Blossom” gained circulation. This theme most likely originated in the 17th century on Mount Athos, inspired by the Byzantine Akathistos hymns.

Roses gained a prominent place in secular art as well, over the years figuring more and more prominently in still-lifes. During the three centuries that the Russian school of secular art existed, flowers often became the main, or at least equal, character in different works. In the age of the “Europeanisation” of Russian pictorial art flowers often became one of the attributes of portraiture. One example of this is a portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna by Georg Caspar Prenner. Looking at it, one is tempted to quote the above-mentioned M-me Genlis, who, through one of her characters, advised an artist beginning their career: “A garland of flowers sometimes can help explain the content of a picture, and even the persons. this would be more valuable than captions.” Elaborating on this idea, the adviser proposed to create pictures “consisting of flowers alone, which would replace ‘different sentimental phrases, fanciful slogans and even beautiful verse’.”[12] Here one is reminded of the superb works of the remarkable still-life painter Ivan Khrutsky and the “brilliant dilettante”[13] Fyodor Tolstoy. Both artists shared Goethe’s belief that the “simple imitation of easily perceived objects — like flowers and fruits — can be brought to the utmost perfection . The craftsman will become more talented and outstanding if he adds to his talent the education of a botanist.”[14]

At first glance, the flower images by the renowned masters of the Russian art school, such as Isaac Levitan, Ivan Kramskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Viktor Vasnetsov, seem almost botanical. But these painters’ intimate, “low-key” still-lifes and sketches speak more about feelings than representation. The small-size picture “Galilean Anemone” (1883) by Polenov provokes essentially the same feelings as the red roses or carnations in the iconography of Christ. Whereas the origin of Ivan Kramskoy’s “Phloxes” (1884) is linked by some researchers to his work on the picture “Inconsolable Grief” (1884) [15].

Such “flower art” truly came to blossom at the turn of the 20th century, a time that saw the rise of special symbolic plants which sometimes surpassed their natural counterparts. In pictorial art, artificial flowers were on an equal level with their real-life equivalents and became a part of the “World of Art”. The “Scarlet Rose” gave way to its “blue” counterpart, which for a while remained the key flower in that artistic mindset. What an unbelievable “medley of grasses” was created by Viktor Borisov-Musatov, Nikolai Sapunov, Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Korovin, Nikolai Kuznetsov, and Martiros Saryan! However, the “floral” landscape of Russian pictorial art would not be complete without lilac, which began to be cultivated in Russia in the last quarter of the 18th century. Lilac, or “syringa", was at first a modest extra in the melancholy realistic pictures from everyday life such as “Everything in the Past” or “Grandmother’s Garden”, but later, thanks to Mikhail Vrubel, it occupied a major role.

As Osip Mandelshtam poetically formulated it, its “lilac fit of faintness” enthralled, thrilled, and cast a spell. It became a favourite pictorial object for many artists. Lilac was pictured by Mikhail Larionov, Natalya Goncharova, and Pyotr Konchalovsky. The “Knaves of Diamonds” of course drew inspiration from other plants too — the artists seemed to be eager to decouple flowers from their botanical nature and relocated them into the “colourings” of Modernism. Their flowers are nothing like the famous Russian poet Valery Bryusov, “Miserable little flower of the northern spring, You are redolent of the meekness of peaceful silence!”

Such artists were strongly drawn to this rich, bright, alluring, and lively “flowery” colour; probably it is no accident that the words “colour” and “flowers” in the Russian language are cognates. According to the memoir of one of his students, “Mashkov mostly made himself the paints he used. He loved that diversity of madder lakes, translucent and tenderly-pink, the purest cadmiums, the bluest ultramarines, the splendiferous ‘veroneses’, the golden and translucent ochres, the ivory, the shining white, which, with a subdued hiss, were creeping out on the polished surface of the huge nut-tree palette.”[16] All these precious “colour” riches imbue his best still-lifes with a splendid unique colouring, his trademark.

The avant-garde created its own flowers, born from Mikhail Vrubel’s crystalline structures, and they become incorporated into a different world in Cubist and abstract pieces by Aristarkh Lentulov, Natalya Goncharova and Vera Popova.

In the Soviet era the still-life with flowers was seized upon by some artists as a chance to make “art for art’s sake”, to work for their own enjoyment, without a feigned pathos and pretention, to tackle “formal” painterly problems; to other artists it offered a chance to decorate (or add a few decorative touches to) life, for “flowers” are always in demand with lovers of interior decor and collectors. Contradictory artistic tendencies of the 1950-s — 1980-s are demonstrated in the showy and academic still-lifes of Alexander Gerasimov and Dmitry Nalbandyan as opposed to the low-key compositions by Sergei Gerasimov, Georgy Nikich, Igor Obrosov and Tair Salakhov and the subtle refined colouristic decisions in still-lifes by Robert Falk and Vladimir Weisberg.

The new Russian art of the second half of the 20th century saw flowers predominantly as construction objects: parts of a flower can be lifted from the sub-conscious, as in Vladimir Yakovlev’s works, which represent an archetype of sorts of a flower; or some artists, like Sergei Shutov, can apply some artistic practices of recent predecessors (such as Andy Warhol, for example); or like Anna Birshtein be traditionally inspired by nature.

“What if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?” inquires one of the characters from a story by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. “I wonder what my reader thinks of that imagining. To me it is perfect,” replied Borges to his character.[17]

After Adam and Eve were driven out from paradise, humankind, with flowers, received a reminder of the lost Eden bliss, as well as the eagerness to keep and to capture the image of this fragile, diverse and ephemeral beauty in art.

“The remains of paradise on earth,” was how the Russian Saint John of Kronstadt defined the essence of flowers, and following these words the exhibition that is to be opened in the Engineer Wing of the Tretyakov Gallery on March 5 2009 has taken the same title. This exhibition devoted to the floral subject in Russian art is the first attempt to collect, systematize and showcase this highly interesting, impressing and luxuriant visual material. The installations made of live flowers will form a spectacular pictorial commentary, a sort of mirror for comparing the real objects and their art images.

The Tretyakov Gallery express their gratitude to the “Society for the Encouragement of the Arts” foundation and OAO Bank VTB for their financial support of the project.


  1. Bely, Andrei. Symbolism as world outlook. Moscow, Respublika publishers, 1994, p.329.
  2. Gippius, Zinaida. Diaries. Moscow, NPK Intelvap publishers, 1999, p.42.
  3. Mayakovsky, Vladimir. Khrenov’s Story of Kuznetsktroi and the People of Kuznetsk. 1929.
  4. See Nikolai Zolotnitsky's “Flowers in legends and tales”. St. Petersburg, Alfaret publishers, Carnation, flower of blood, pp.46-56.
  5. (Comtesse de) Genlis, Stephanie Felicite Ducrest de St-Albin (1746 - 1830). French writer, the author of numerous books and novels, including “Theatre d'education” (1779), “Adele et Theodore” (1782), “Les fleurs, ou les artistes” (1810). Konstantin Batushkov called her works “a catechism for young ladies”.
  6. Sadkov, Vadim. About still-lifes in the art of old Flemish and Dutch masters. Catalogue of exhibition "Language of Flowers.” Triumph Gallery. Feigen Aaron Ltd, p.5.
  7. Bertrand, Louis, known as “Aloysius Bertrand” (1807-1841). Poet, writer. Author of prose poems “Gaspard de la nuit. Fantaisies a la maniere de Rembrandt et de Callot” (published in 1842), which were praised by Charles Baudelaire and inspired Maurice Ravel to compose three ballads for piano. Bertrand is considered an ancestor of surrealism.
  8. Karr, Alphonse (1808-1890). French writer and journalist. In 1839 he became editor of the magazine “Le Figaro”. He published a satirical journal “Les Guepes” (Wasps). After his retirement in 1849, he moved to the Cote d’Azur, where he engaged in his favorite pursuits — gardening and the writing of plays and novels.
  9. Grandville, Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard (generally known by the pseudonym of J.J. Grandville) 1803-1847. French graphic artist. He made illustrations for the works of La Fontaine, Beranger, Swift, and Defoe. Shortly before his death he published “L'Autre Monde” (1844) and “Les Fleurs Animees” (1847). “Grandville is interesting for the crazy aspect of his talent,” wrote Baudelaire about him. He was praised by surrealists.
  10. Quoted from “Ozhivshiey tsvety” (Animated Flowers), Moscow, Tritona publishers, 2008, p.6.
  11. Quoted from Irina Bolotina. Problems of Russian and Soviet still-lifes. Representation of inanimate objects in the pictorial art of the 17th-20th centuries. Moscow, Sovetsky Khudozhnik (Soviet Artist) publisher, 1989, p.99.
  12. Quoted from Klara Sharafadina. Floral codes in the poetics of Genlis’ prose (the novel “Les Fleurs, ou les artistes”)
  13. According to Pavel Muratov. Quoted from Irina Bolotina. Problems of Russian and Soviet still-lifes. Representation of inanimate objects in the pictorial art of the 17th-20th centuries. Moscow, Sovetsky Khudozhnik (Soviet Artist) publisher, 1989, p.88.
  14. Goethe, Johann Wblfgang. Simple imitation of nature. Manner, style. Works. V.X. Moscow, GIKhL (State Publisher of Literature), 1937, p.401.
  15. “The motif of flowers, very prominent in the painting, led Kramskoy to tackle a genre somewhat unusual for him. Working on the picture, in 1884, he at the same time produced several pictures with flowers." SN. Goldshtein. Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoy. Life and Art. Moscow, Iskusstvo (Art) publisher, 1965, p.231
  16. Yury Merkulov. Essays about VKHUTEMAS (Higher Arts and Crafts Workshop) in the 1920s. In: “Struggle for realism in the 1920s' visual art. Documents and memoirs". Moscow, Sovetsky Khudozhnik (Soviet Artist) publisher, 1962, p.200.
  17. Jorge Luis Borges. The Flower of Coleridge (La fleur de Coleridge).
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Bunch of Flowers, a Butterfly and a Bird. 1820
Fyodor TOLSTOY. Bunch of Flowers, a Butterfly and a Bird. 1820
Watercolour, white on brown paper. 49.8 x 39.1 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexamder GOLOVIN. Girl and Porcelain (Frosya). 1916
Alexamder GOLOVIN. Girl and Porcelain (Frosya). 1916
Tempera on canvas. 146 × 97.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Simon USHAKOV. The Tree of the Moscow State. 1668
Simon USHAKOV. The Tree of the Moscow State. 1668
Tempera on wood. 105 × 62 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Georg Caspar Joseph von PRENNER. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. 1754
Georg Caspar Joseph von PRENNER. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. 1754
Oil on canvas. 202.8 × 157.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Jean Loran MONIER. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Alexeevna. 1802
Jean Loran MONIER. Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Alexeevna. 1802
Oil on canvas. 130.5 × 99 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Martiros SARYAN. Flowers of Sambek. 1914
Martiros SARYAN. Flowers of Sambek. 1914
Tempera on canvas. 60 × 71 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily POLENOV. Galilean Anemone. 1883
Vasily POLENOV. Galilean Anemone. 1883
Oil on canvas. 16.5 × 10.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai ANDREEV. Bacchante. 1911–1912
Nikolai ANDREEV. Bacchante. 1911-1912
Reclined figure. Ceramics, engobe, glaze. Height 34 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Nikolai SAPUNOV. A Vase, Flowers and Fruit. 1912
Nikolai SAPUNOV. A Vase, Flowers and Fruit. 1912
Tempera on canvas. 147.2 × 115.8 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Elena BEBUTOVA. Magnolia. 1922
Elena BEBUTOVA. Magnolia. 1922
Oil on canvas. 66 × 73 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
М.Н. ЯКОВЛЕВ. Кукла. 1907
Mikhail YAKOVLEV. A Doll. 1907
Oil on canvas. 107.2 × 106.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Tatyana MAVRINA. Lilac and a Woman. 1940
Tatyana MAVRINA. Lilac and a Woman. 1940
Oil on canvas. 64 × 64.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexander GERASIMOV. Roses. 1940
Alexander GERASIMOV. Roses. 1940
Oil on canvas. 98.3 × 112.2 cm. Tretyakov Gallery





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