Roses have a subtle way of weaving themselves into music, art, and literature. We can look at ancient art work whose subject is majesty, myth, or religion and if we look closely, we will see a rose. When we read Alice in Wonderland and Shakespeare, we find the rose. And if we listen to Bette Midler sing, we hear The Rose.
"A large rose tree stood near the entrance of the garden: the roses growing on it were white, but there were three gardeners at it, busily painting them red.." From "Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, 1865
I was too young to read but as I lay snuggled in my fluffy feather bed dressed in jammies with feet, Granny Ninna read those words over and over again until I had them memorized. Come summer, when the roses bloomed again, I was going to paint all the white ones red. That was my plan when I was three going on four.
Time has passed, and I don't remember painting any roses red, but I do remember painting my first picture of roses. I didn't know then that other artists, since time began, also used the rose both as subject and as an adornment in many of their works of art. We all have a passion for beauty, and we seem to find it in the rose. This is a brief journey through time while we look at roses in the work of artists through the ages.
The first known painting of a rose appeared in a fresco (painting directly on wet plaster or plaster-like surfaces) in Crete. The painting dates to about 1500 B.C. and the archeologist who discovered it stated that it appeared to be a bird sitting beside a wild rose. The rose adorned many ancient paintings, including family crests that appeared on columns or doorways. Later, when religion dominated, the rose made its appearance in paintings of angels and saints, including paintings of the Virgin. It seemed not to be associated with love until sometime later during the middle ages. Prior to that time it was more often a reference to purity. Angels wore roses in their hair, or garlands of roses appeared in the background, even in the religious paintings. Botticelli's mythological painting of Birth of Venus shows us the connection between roses and mythology. The rose was known as the symbol of Venus and in the painting, her sweat turned into roses falling back into the sea.
During the Renaissance, roses were used quite often as background adornment in paintings by Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and by the artist Durer. It was about this time as well when the rose became a symbol of British royalty, and paintings of Queens often showed them holding the rose. Following the Renaissance the French artists began painting colorful realistic paintings in the Rococco style. Their portraits became landscapes, with many of their subjects holding flowers, particularly the rose, in their gardens. With this flamboyant style coming into acceptance, the rose became a symbol of love. In a painting done by Fragonard in the 1750's called Storming the Citadel, a young man carrying roses in his hand climbs a wall to meet his lover.
Again in the late 1700's, roses often became the subject of illustrations. Redoute painted most of the roses in the elaborate gardens of Napoleon's Josephine at Malmaison in the early 1800's. He was one of the most accomplished botanical artists of the time. Marie Antoinette had many portraits painted, and most of them showed her holding a rose in her own rose garden. Van Huysum was also a finely detailed artist, one who always had a drinking problem, which eventually led to his early demise. But he did several main paintings, however, with roses always prominent in the paintings.
The Realist period followed, leading to artists who bridged the gap into Impressionism. Manet's paintings were tempered by the fact that he had some nerve damage, so his realistic paintings took on the look of what later was called the Impressionistic period, bold work, and slightly abstract. Van Gogh, such a crazy genius of a painter, often painted just one or two blooms. His last painting, done just before he committed suicide was White Roses.
And everyone knows that Monet, whose work appears on everything from calendars to motel room walls, has thousands of roses in his paintings of the gardens at Giverny. Renoir is another of the Impressionists whose use of light and brush strokes make paintings sparkle. His favorite subject along with people, seems to be the rose.
The list is long, but in every period up through the twentieth century, we have paintings of roses. Gauguin's work captures the beauty and the color of Tahiti, including some paintings of the rose. Georgia O'Keefe whose paintings of flowers we can ponder for hours at a time and still wonder, has The White Rose as one of her most beautiful.
Paintings reflect the times and the culture of the period, and as our pace becomes faster and our days become more hurried, modern art reflects the frenzy that surrounds us. Roses in today's art might creep into a collage, or illustrate a comic book. We see roses on the covers of novels, and adorning the jeans that we wear. Even today if we look closely we can see the beauty of the rose in contemporary paintings, in sculpture, in song and in poetry. There is something very peaceful in the beauty of the rose, and I hope our artists continue to include that beauty and peace in their work.
Sources for this article include: Gardner's Art Through the Ages, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1996; Gloria K. Fiero's Landmarks in Humanities, McGraw Hill, Inc. 2006; and Sister Wendy's 1000 Masterpieces, DK Publishing Company, 1999.
The thumbnail and the last photo are my own photographs. Other photos are as follows: Coat of Arms with Roses is a fresco on the base of a Venetian column; the Festival of Rose Garlands is a painting by Durer in 1506; the painting, Vase with Roses is by Van Gogh and is his last painting. Those photos are from Public Domain sources.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.