Flowers on the Wall 

The VMFA welcomes spring with the first major exhibition of French floral still-life paintings.

click to enlarge Vincent van Gogh’s “Vase with Carnations,” an oil painted in Paris in the summer of 1886.

Vincent van Gogh’s “Vase with Carnations,” an oil painted in Paris in the summer of 1886.

A woman stands at a table arranging deep-hued flowers in a vase. Although the motif was hardly new, the interpretation would be remembered. Painter Edgar Degas, visiting his extended American family in New Orleans, captured his nearly blind sister-in-law in a domestic portrait that resonates as a profound meditation on sight and touch.

After the coldest and snowiest weather in Richmond memory, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has chosen the sunniest possible way to leave winter’s gloom behind with its sparkling spring blockbuster, “Van Gogh, Manet and Matisse: The Art of the Flower.”

For those inclined to dismiss floral painting as the stuff of grandmothers’ living rooms, the exhibit provides a much-needed reassessment of a genre so underexplored that this show represents the first major American exhibition of French floral still-life painting.

“It’s the first international loan show of French paintings at the VMFA,” says co-curator Mitchell Merling, the Paul Mellon curator and head of European art, name-checking museums in Canada, France and the Netherlands along with top U.S. institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Getty Museum. Also included are three works from the museum’s permanent collection, including a recently acquired van Gogh.

The idea for the show was born out of the museum’s mission to be both accessible and scholarly. Six years ago, it occurred to Merling that French floral still life had never been accorded a major exhibition treatment in this country. He pitched the idea to the French Regional American Museum Exchange, a consortium of major museums in France and North America that promotes cultural exchange in the context of museum collaborations to develop innovative exhibitions. In 2011, he was contacted by Heather MacDonald, associate curator of European art at the Dallas Museum of Art, about lending work to the Virginia Museum.

“But as I started to research what works from our collection would fit the parameters of the exhibition, I was immediately excited to get involved more directly,” MacDonald says from Dallas. “We have six masterworks from our own collection in the exhibition and I knew that this exhibition could be a great vehicle to present these paintings in an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime context.” Merling took her on as a co-curator and the Dallas Museum as a co-organizer.

Featuring 65 paintings by more than 30 artists, the show is a visual feast, tracing the development of the floral still life from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries. Merling makes a case for artists’ being most creative when doing floral still life paintings because they had the least responsibility to patrons, unlike with portraits and commissions.

“Flowers are the product of nature’s creativity,” he says. “Floral paintings are the product of the artist’s creativity. Van Gogh painted sunflowers for himself. Most profound floral paintings make that correlation really clear.”

It’s a genre of quiet communication that operates in a narrow register with a very specific set of conventions passed down from generation to generation.

“It was by playing with those rules, tinkering with the formula,” MacDonald says, “that artists could signal their innovations, their progressive allegiances, their commitments to past masters.”

Among a series of galleries painted in sumptuous colors to best show off the paintings, visitors will happen on a sketching gallery. A pedestal holds an elaborate fresh flower arrangement to provide inspiration for artistic types. Benches offer perches from which to sketch, and a cloth-covered bulletin board displays the results for those willing to leave their work behind.

“It’s meant to be the takeaway,” Merling says. “You can look at real flowers like the artists did and be inspired.”

After six years spent taking his idea from inspiration to the museum’s walls, he knows of which he speaks. That passion for floral still life painting has him counting on visitors feeling as fortunate as he does about what’s made it to those walls.

“Someday, you may be at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and see Cezanne’s ‘The Blue Vase’ and say, remember when that was in Richmond?” S

“Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower” opens March 21 and runs through June 21 at VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard. Call 340-1400 or visit vmfa.museum.

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