Imperial Lilies-of-the-Valley Basket (see below)
Humans have gardened for centuries out of necessity and more recently for visual pleasure. But garden scenes and images of plant life have figured in decoration since the beginning of time. One need look no further than the first floor of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) to see that this is true. There, among the Egyptian, Greek, African and European sculptures and decorative art, I found enough images of flowers and natural scenes to brighten even the rainiest of days.
The back story behind these spectacular artworks is, of course, their importance in the lives of the people for whom they were created. What role did the particular plants and flowers play? In some cases, the depiction of certain plants provides tantalizing clues to the day-to-day life of ancient societies, while in others it is purely decorative. In all cases, the artifacts are a fascinating window into what types of plants existed during the different periods and how they were appreciated or used.
Here are some highlights from my recent visit to the collection, in chronological order.
Relief fragment depicting ears of barley, Ancient Egypt , ca. 1353-1336 B.C.
Way back in ancient Egypt, fields of living plants were not part of royal or temple decoration except during the Amarna period when a more ‘naturalistic’ style was introduced. Art during this time shifted from the depiction of the gods to focus on the wonders of the natural world including plants, birds, wild animals and the every-day activities of family life. In this limestone fragment at The Met, the realistic carvings of ears of barley are life-sized and appear to be bending in the wind.
Barley was an important crop for ancient Egyptians, who used it to make beer and bread as well as to feed their horses.
Painted sandstone capital, Kharga Oasis, 380-343 B.C.
A thousand years later, plant forms were figuring prominently in Egyptian architecture. One of ten columns of a kiosk built in front of a temple in Kharga Oasis (also known as the Southern Oasis to Ancient Egyptians), this architectural fragment features two species of cyperus plants; common cyperus and foxtail flatsedge.
These native sedges, known to have grown in abundance along the banks of the Nile River, were used by ancient Egyptians to make everything from boats, baskets, sandals and medicines to writing paper. You can still see remnants of the original pink, blue and green-toned paint on the capital.
Jar, Ptolemaic Period, 100-30 B.C.
There is historical evidence through painting and architecture that ancient Egyptians put flowers in vases as far back as the Ptolemaic Period. This faience jar at The Met featuring rows of vegetal motifs, birds and fish, and wild animals, is supported by a lotus calyx (the part that forms the outer part of the plant’s bud as it develops).
Lotuses and the afore-mentioned papyrus were depicted almost exclusively for 2000 years until late in the Ptolemaic Period when perfume recipes and floral garlands found on mummies showed evidence of foreign plants being introduced to the area.
House post, New Guinea, Papua, 19th century
In the northwest of New Guinea, the Sentani people live in villages built over a large inland lake called Lake Sentani. Houses are constructed atop wood pilings and linked by boardwalks that allowed residents to get around. The most imposing houses of the 19th century were owned by Sentani chiefs, who decorated their pilings with elaborate architectural carvings.
The roof support pictured above in The Met collection is made from one inverted tree. The upper part of the tree was sunk into the lake bed to stabilize the house and the lower, flared portion served as a roof truss. Aside from being functional, the inverted tree may have also symbolized a cosmic tree in the Sentani religion that was fabled to have grown downward from the heavens to the earth.
WIne bottle cooler, French, ca. 1730-35
This French wine bottle cooler features unmistakable elements of a Japanese garden. In fact, it was created during a time when Japan was in an era of seclusion with only one international port in operation. Due to their rarity, Japanese goods became highly prized by European royalty.
In the early 1700s, when kaolin clay was discovered near Nagasaki, Japanese artists began creating porcelain pieces specifically targeted to Europeans and the Dutch market. The above cooler provides an interesting window into the plants that figured prominently in Japanese culture, namely cherry blossoms and bamboo. Eventually, porcelain became one of the main exports from Japan to Europe.
Floral vase, French, ca. 1895
This earthenware vase was made by Edmond Lachenal (1855-1948), one of the pivotal figures in the development and creation of Art Nouveau, an artistic style inspired by natural forms. During this period, artists drew upon botanical studies and the sinuous forms of plant stems and flowers to break with past, traditional styles.
The above vase, part of The Met’s French collection, does a good job of demonstrating the flowing lines of this radical new style.
Earthenware dish, Hungary, ca. 1900
Established in 1853, the Zsolnay Factory rose to international prominence in 1878 when it won the Gold Medal at the Paris World Expo for a new high-fire glazed process for porcelain it named eosin. Eosin colors and processes, which made porcelain appear iridescent metallic, became a favorite of Art Nouveau artists. Colors seemed to change with the angle of reflection and this added a naturalistic sense of movement to their decorative objects.
The plate above features tulips, which are the national flower of Hungary.
So what about that spectacular jeweled Lily-of-the-Valley? Made by the House of Fabergé, this basket is constructed of nineteen individual stems decorated with pearls and diamonds. It is considered the most important Fabergé piece in the United States and the highest achievement of workmaster August Wilhem Holmström. It was presented to Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna (wife of Czar Nicholas II) on the occasion of her visit to the Pan-Russian Exhibition in 1896.
Lily-of-the-Valley was one of her favorite flowers.
Of course, these are only a few of the very many artworks that are on view at The Met. Worth a visit, but be prepared to lose yourself for hours in the incredible collections. For more information, click here for the The Met’s official website.