by Alice Dustin
My first paintings during the pandemic were a series of over 40 small paintings of flowers. I did them as a direct observation, a kind of meditation, to bring some joy and peace into a world turned upside down by Covid-19.
I found myself returning to a style forged by Manet from the collection of the last flowers he painted. Monet’s friends had brought him bouquets set in glass vases that became the subjects of his final works. The paintings exhibit an economy of execution, the natural beauty of the subject, in short, the mastery of a mature artist.
Painting flowers is a long tradition in Western art. In the Flemish Baroque era, Jan de Heem, and then his son, Cornelis, created paintings lush in detail, abundant in the effusion of flowers, realistically depicted and often set in limited space as an overall tapestry of color and form. While sumptuous to some, de Heem’s over-abundance doesn’t speak to my heart as much as others in this genre.
Odilon Redon’s vivid color is an inspiration which informs my palette. He took delight in colorizing the entire field of the canvas with vivid intensity, as a complement of the nominal flower bouquet subject. Another forerunner of the modern age, Gustav Klimt, created an art deco feel to his compositions filled with intricate detail, scatterings of just the flowers, without stems or vase, rather in splashes, filtered across, and married with shimmering fields of background color. I aspire to bring this kind of abstraction.
Pierre Bonnard painted gardens with spots of color dancing across the canvas, often creating a flattened pattern vibrant with a counterpoint of dots of paint. This, too, is a jumping off point that attracts my aesthetic.
Many others have put their hand to the subject, notably Georgia O’Keefe, whose oversized details became icons, symbols of life beyond the image portrayed. I also look to Vincent Van Gogh, who lavished thick paint to translate his sunflowers into ribbons of color. Though these two artists bring their very personal point of view to this still life tradition, their art, like the early flower still lifes, does not inform my work.
Flower painting is a rich tradition. My study of flower paintings throughout history informs my work, whether as an inspiration or as a counterpoint. It is a refuge, a familiar home to me in this time when the stress of politics and a treacherous virus have sapped our collective energy and enervated our minds. Observing flowers with the intensity and depth needed to paint them, I believe, has offered artists throughout history with the same sense of pleasure — how can they not? — no matter what their style.