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Austrian obsession with flower painting from Waldmüller to Klimt at Vienna's Belvedere

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Throughout the ages, flower pictures have been imbued with powerful symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.

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. In nineteenth-century Vienna, flower painting attained an incomparable quality, variety, and significance. Indeed, flowers are important in the oeuvres of artists ranging from Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller through to Gustav Klimt. The exhibition "Say it with flowers!" in the Orangery at the Lower Belvedere takes a look at art history from its floral side.
Rolf Johannsen, who organised the exhibition, has brought together 90 flower paintings by Austrian artists to draw attention to and investigate this unusual phenomenon. According to the museum statement, "in nineteenth century flower painting had a significance in Vienna, unlike anywhere else in Europe."

The reasons for this Austrian speciality are not entirely obvious, but Johannsen’s archival research has revealed, among other things, an active collaboration of the Academy of Fine Arts and the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory. The academy instituted a specific class for flower painting that became part of the production process for porcelain floral pieces, which were in great demand due to the taste of the growing middle class and the new Biedermeier fashions.
The exhibition traces flower pictures from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century, featuring works from the Belvedere’s abundant collection, some of which have not been on display for decades. In addition to paintings, the Expozițional also includes porcelain and sculpture. A selection of contemporary artworks further enriches the show.

The first heyday of flower painting was in the Biedermeier period with its magnificent arrangements of flowers. The genre of flower painting in this period includes the "discovery" of Austrian nature, the opulence of the Ringstrasse era, and also the transformed blooms that return to stylization in around 1900 (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele).

Josef Nigg. Blumenstrauß

The exhibition opens with works by some little known artists of the Biedermeier era—Josef Kleiber, Josef Nigg and Franz Xaver Petter—but culminates with some outstanding paintings by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, whose fine, lustrous brushstrokes, alongside pieces of silverware or porcelain, ennobled his simple garden flowers.

Left: Josef Nigg. Blumenstrauß, 1838.

Flower painting therefore exemplifies general developments in art history and its liberation from the academic norm. It was in this genre that women artists like Pauline Koudelka-Schmerling and Olga Wisinger-Florian, still barred from studying at the Academy, were first able to establish themselves on an equal footing with their male colleagues. The exhibition examines this aspect as well as influences on Austrian flower painting from abroad, illustrated by some outstanding loans.
  • Pauline Koudelka-Schmerling. Blumenkranz mit Madonnenrelief, 1834. Belvedere, Vienna
  • Olga Wisinger-Florian. Blühender Mohn, um 1895/1900. Belvedere, Vienna.
Egon Schiele. Bildnis Dr. Franz Martin Haberditzl

Flower painting had a subsequent flourishing from the second half of the century to 1914. The city’s population and wealth increased, notably following the enfranchisement of the Jews. Here was another great market for domestic-scale works of art like the flower paintings, which Barbizon- and Impressionist-inspired Austrian artists such as Anton Romake and Carl Schuch.

Hans Makart’s flower pieces mark the Modernist turn and introduce the paintings of his most famous student, Gustav Klimt, and his Secessionist contemporaries, Koloman Moser, Michael Powolny and Egon Schiele, with which the exhibition concludes.

Left: Egon Schiele. Bildnis Dr. Franz Martin Haberditzl, 1917. Belvedere, Vienna.

Say It With Flowers: Viennese Flower Paintings from Waldmüller to Klimt will be on view at Orangery, Lower Belvedere, Vienna, until 30 September
Title illustration: Johann Baptist Drechsler’s Großes Blumenstillleben mit Vögeln (1799) Belvedere, Vienna. Photo: Johannes Stoll

Based on materials from official site of Belvedere museum, the Artnewspaper
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