At Large  June 12, 2024  Abby Andrulitis

Floriography in Art: The History Behind The Language of Flowers

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 1614

Ambrosius Bosschaert's Flower Still Life

If one were to receive a dozen red roses, the meaning behind it would be no secret— it’s a sign of love. But, has this foral symbol always been so well-known? 

For centuries now, women in particular have been utilizing flowers to send secret messages to their lovers, friends, and even enemies without the interference of family members or guards. 

With the growing popularity of this innovative mode of communication, by 1810, French publishers started producing “flower dictionaries” that explained the correlation between plant and code. This language of flowers soon earned the term floriography

Wikimedia Commons

The Language of Flowers - an alphabet of floral emblems, 1857. License

Some of these hidden meanings came from the appearance of the plants or were derived from their mythology-based root names, while others were inspired by cultural norms of the Victorian era. However, not all floral symbolism is intuitive.

For example, leafy cabbage greens look like cash, so cabbages became the symbol of wealth and profit, whereas dill was randomly deemed to symbolize lust.

Floriography, also known as floriology, eventually became an art form. Whether the subject of a painting, or a small detail in the background, artists have used flowers to convey a specific theme or mood within their works. 

Forget-me-nots symbolize friendship and respect, walnuts represent intelligence, and bamboo is a sign of longevity and strength. Even the placement of a flower, or the quantity present, can impact the meaning behind the art. A lone flower often symbolizes innocence, purity, and either reproduction or decay.

Wikimedia Commons, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick

Sunflower- Haughtiness, from the series Floral Beauties and Language of Flowers. License

For Pre-Raphaelites, a group of 19th-century English painters and poets who sought to revive the rich details and vibrant colors of 15th-century Italian art, flowers became a staple component of their works.

With this, they studied nature with the precision of a botanist, taking the time to replicate intricate details, so their audience could experience both physical and psychological realism

Pairing this attention to detail with the language of flowers, the works of Pre-Raphaelites resulted in art whose deeper meaning was well-understood by those in the Victorian era. However, throughout the years, aspects of floral symbolism have been altered or lost altogether, so the interpretation of some of these pieces are now skewed.

Of course, the use of flowers in art was not left in Victorian times. Contemporary artists, such as Takashi Murakami or Amber Cowan, incorporate flowers into their art. 

Murakami, a Japanese contemporary artist, uses flowers to speak on postwar Japanese culture. Cowan, an American artist and educator, uses hundreds of glass flowers to plays with themes of love and loneliness. 

Floriography is perhaps the intellectual equivalent of stopping to smell the roses. This centuries-old symbolic language asks us to stop, look closer, and consider more deeply that which is small, delicate, and beautiful.

About the Author

Abby Andrulitis

Abby Andrulitis is a New England-based writer and the Assistant Editor for Art & Object. She holds her MFA in Screenwriting from Boston University. 

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