Why Is the Symbol of Flowers Associated with Femininity?

Floral symbolism is often linked to femininity. This can be seen in art as well as literature.

Mar 26, 2024By Tyla Jade Whiteley, MSc Global Premodern Art, BA (Hons) History of Art
symbol flowers femininity


Floral symbolism has a long association with women and femininity. The link can be seen in literature as well as in paintings; adjectives often used to describe flowers are also used when discussing a woman’s beauty. Additionally, there are women who were able to establish careers by painting floral imagery. The connection between flowers and women appears throughout history, especially in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century.


Flowers as Symbols of Femininity

rachel ruysch vase with flowers mauritshuis
Vase with Flowers by Rachel Ruysch, 1700. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague


The meaning behind flowers and what they symbolize has been studied and written about throughout history. In 1857, the book The Language of Flowers: An Alphabet of Floral Emblems was published. This text showed how the imagery of flowers could add to the story of a painting and what the artist was trying to convey.


In the nineteenth century the term Floriography was established to describe this language of flowers. The type of flower used within a painting could change the meaning behind the image. The color also had significance. For example, white was often interpreted as connoting purity and innocence. Flowers such as white lilies can sometimes be seen in art to embody these ideas, especially around young girls’ virtue.


In the present day, websites through which someone can order bouquets have definitions behind the meanings of flowers. The idea of giving bouquets as gifts is something that has been happening for centuries. Under many circumstances, people send flowers to one another, from showing love to expressing condolences. In the twenty-first century, giving a person a bouquet as a gift is still common practice.


femininity jan davidsz de heem vase of flowers
Vase of Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1670. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague

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Even though flowers have been long admired for their beauty, this becomes increasingly evident in the Dutch Republic. During this era, there was a lot of interest in botany, which coincided with the phenomenon known as tulip mania. Still lifes featuring flowers became very popular and many artists started to specialize in this genre. Painters were commissioned to depict a person’s botanical collections as well as produce floral still lifes that were then sold on the open art market.


This type of painting could be found in many art collections throughout Europe by male and female artists. Compared to other genres of painting, still lifes were viewed as an appropriate subject matter for women to paint. Throughout the Low Countries, multiple female artists used these opinions to establish successful careers. The fact that this theme was deemed suitable for women to paint further shows the connection between them and flowers.


Rachel Ruysch 

rachel ruysch still life flowers glass vase
Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase by Rachel Ruysch, c.1690/1720. Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 1693) and Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750) are two female painters who were very well-known for their floral still lifes.  Both of these women used the subject matter that society allowed them to paint and established careers that were documented. During their lifetime, ownership of exotic flowers reflected a person’s wealth which increased the need and popularity of this genre of still lifes. Van Oosterwijck and Ruysch identified that they could make an independent living by producing these paintings.


Coming from a wealthy family, Rachel Ruysch received training from Willem van Aelst (1627 – 1683) who was a well-respected still-life painter. Ruysch was the daughter of a notable botanist and professor in Amsterdam. Due to her father’s connections, she had opportunities that the majority of women did not. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that Ruysch was recognized for her artistic talents and became one of the most commercially successful painters in the Dutch Republic.


Many of Ruysch’s paintings include a tulip, which is often placed at the top of the compositions in her work. Her piece Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase is an example of this. Tulips are viewed as a patriotic symbol for the Dutch, especially after the tulip craze that occurred at the beginning of the seventeenth century. They are often included in still lifes by Dutch artists to represent power and national pride.


Maria van Oosterwijck

maria van oosterwijck bouquet flowers vase denver art museum
Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase by Maria van Oosterwijck, c.1670. Source: Denver Art Museum, Denver


Before Ruysch became a well-known artist, Maria van Oosterwijck had established her own workshop in Amsterdam. From a small village near Delft, van Oosterwijck’s father was a pastor and her family was heavily involved with the Church. Through her family’s connections, she was able to receive an education most girls in the seventeenth century could not. It is documented that Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606 – 1684) taught van Oosterwijck. Her work was very popular among the bourgeoisie, especially the Royal Courts throughout Europe.


Due to her upbringing, van Ooserwijck’s art is often linked to religious themes. Her paintings Bouquet of Flower in a Vase (c.1670) and Flowers in an Ornamental Vase (c.1670/75) both have sunflowers at the top of the bouquets. Sunflowers are often viewed as a symbol of the sun and God. The other flowers within the paintings appear to be growing towards the sunflower. Plants are known to grow towards the light, which is what the sunflower represents in these still lifes.


In Bouquet of Flower in a Vase, a tulip can be seen directly under the sunflower, the stem is bent so that the two flowers are facing one another. The tulip can be personified as a Dutch citizen looking upwards to God. These religious connotations are a theme that women in the Dutch Republic were expected to follow. The use of the color orange in all of these paintings also links to Dutch nationalism. The House of Orange were Stadholders throughout the Republic before becoming the Dutch Royal Family.


The Personification of Flowers

maria van oosterwijck flowers ornamental vase
Flowers in an Ornamental Vase by Maria van Oosterwijck, c.1670/75. Source: Mauritshuis, The Hague


Like the paintings mentioned, flowers are bought to be put on display and admired. Floral imagery was created to be appreciated for its beauty, similar to a female figure. The symbolism of beauty, youth, and purity in regard to women and flowers refers to an idealized male view of things. This opinion has led to the objectification of women throughout history. The fact that two of the most successful female artists from The Netherlands were only allowed to paint flowers further supports this.


The way flowers are admired for their beauty is similar to the way women are written about. There are texts and paintings throughout history that compare the two, always focused on their physical appearance. Even in the twenty-first century, women are often referred to for the way they look. Emblem Ogni Fiore al fin Perde L’odore by Jacob Cats (1577 – 1660) translates to Every Flower Eventually Loses its Smell and is a metaphor for a woman’s beauty.


jacob cats emblem ogni fiore al fin perde l’odore
Ogni Fiore al fin Perde L’odore Adriaen van de Venne, Illustration from Spiegel vanden Ouden ende Nieuwe Tijd, 1632. Source: The British Museum, London


Cats was a poet and politician originally from the Dutch Province of Zeeland. He became well-known for his emblem books which contained poems and illustrations often about moral teachings. Ogni Fiore al Fin Perde L’odore was published in his 1632 book, Spiegel van den Ouden en Nieuwen Tyt. The illustration accompanying this emblem, by Adriaen van de Venne (1587/89 – 1662), shows an elderly woman holding a wilting flower whilst talking to a young girl who has a flower which is in full bloom in her hand.


The text is told from the older figure’s point of view. It explains how the flower is not strong enough to withstand the inevitable, and eventually will wilt and die. This emblem is almost a warning to the young girl telling her that she will get older and no longer be considered beautiful by society’s standards. With this the girl will lose the admirers she receives due to her appearance, reflecting the harsh realities of what life is like for women.


maria van oosterwijck still life flowers butterflies
Still Life with Flowers and Butterflies by Maria van Oosterwijck, 1686. Source: Royal Collection Trust, Kensington Palace, London


Moreover, the loss of beauty and the passing of time can be seen in still lifes like Still Life with Floor and Butterflies (1686). In this painting, the roses have started to wilt and some details have broken off. This reminds the viewer that the flowers are no longer at the height of their beauty. The personification of flowers and the fact that they do not stay in bloom is a reference to the theme of vanitas which can often be seen in van Oosterwijck’s artwork.


Imagery of Venus and Femininity

femininity botticelli the birth venus
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, c.1485. Source: Uffizi Gallery, Florence


A historical figure that represents ultimate beauty is Venus, the Goddess of Love who often embodies the ideals of physical beauty. Venus is often depicted alongside flowers, mostly roses, which are used to symbolize love. Red roses continue to be bought as gifts between romantic couples, specifically on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day. Sandro Botticelli’s (c.1445 – 1510) painting The Birth of Venus (c.1485) shows flowers being blown in the wind around the Goddess of Love. There is also a cloak covered in flowers.


Botticelli’s painting shows a modern audience what a male’s ideal female figure should look like in the fifteenth century. The connection between Venus and flowers continues to be seen in other works of art. Van Oosterwijck’s Flowers in an Ornamental Vase shows the lid of a vase in the shape of a kneeling figure who resembles Venus. If the figure is in fact the Goddess of Love, van Oosterwijck’s inclusion of her alongside a bouquet of flowers supports how the beauty of flowers is compared to that of a woman’s.


The symbolism of flowers and their meanings can be interpreted differently. It is evident that in art flowers are often used to embody femininity. On the other hand, the close association between women and flowers allowed for female artists to build careers for themselves. Ruysch and van Oosterwijck used society’s interest in botany and the fact that it was a topic deemed appropriate for women to their advantage.

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By Tyla Jade WhiteleyMSc Global Premodern Art, BA (Hons) History of ArtTyla Jade is an art historian who holds an MSc in Global Premodern Art: History, Heritage and Curation from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in History of Art from the University of Plymouth. Based in London, Tyla Jade has previously worked in art galleries as well as assisted with lectures for Utrecht’s Summer School in The Netherlands. She is passionate about research and enjoys writing about varied art historical topics. Also, she enjoys travelling and learning about different cultures from around the world.