Modern May Flowers

“April showers bring …” Well, you know the rest. But there’s no reason to wait until May to enjoy the beauty of flowers. In fact, a rainy April day is the perfect time for a visit to the Delaware Art Museum where the galleries are brimming with painted blooms. On a sunny day, you could enjoy the flowering trees of the Copeland Sculpture Garden too! Some of the downstairs galleries are closed, but upstairs the art scene is flourishing.

This spring DelArt’s galleries dedicated to modern American art host a variety of florals. On the south wall of the large gallery of Modern American Realism, Henriette Wyeth, Frank Marsden London, and N.C. Wyeth capture three seasons of plant life. Henriette Wyeth’s Still Life shows an ikebana-inspired display of winter pine and pyracantha, enlivened by the ceramic figurine that seems to be watching the arrangement come together. Less quirky minimalist and a lot more Southern Gothic in its mood, Frank Marsden London’s Spring Glory features a branch wound in morning glory and roses, with a robin’s nest tucked in among the foliage. In our area, these flowers would be markers of summer, but the artist lived in North Carolina. A prominently placed scythe adds a layer of menace to the picture, painted during the dark days of World War II. N.C. Wyeth’s The Springhouse captures Queen Anne’s Lace, among other local late-summer plants.

The floral highlight of this room this spring is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jonquils I, a 1936 painting on loan to the Museum from a private collection. O’Keeffe gave her characteristic precise, close-up treatment to a trio of yellow daffodils. The painting has a clear center—the corona of the central flower—but the artist resisted symmetry, playing up differences in tone and allowing the petals of the central flower to obscure most of the flower on the right. The subtle asymmetries of natural forms fascinated the painter in the 1930s. The lavender background intensifies the green and yellow hues and gives the painting a modern edge. On the East Coast, daffodils are early signs of spring, harbingers of longer days and warmer weather. The composition of O’Keeffe’s painting, with blooms arranged horizontally across the canvas, recalls a landscape—perhaps even a sunrise. Jonquils I reflects the optimism and renewal of springtime, especially this year.

Two florals await you in the smaller gallery. Joseph Stella’s The Lotus, c. 1930, has much in common with O’Keeffe’s painting. Flowers are presented up close and centered, and the colors create a play of warm and cool that dances on the edge of acidic dissonance. Stella depicted nature throughout his career—he spoke of his wish to end each day painting flowers—but he often used them to create elaborate modernist fantasies. DelArt’s painting hints at that direction. Despite the precise rendering of the floral forms, The Lotus steps further from nature toward art deco design. I’m looking forward to the 2023 exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum to learn more about this aspect of Stella’s career.

Finally, let’s end our tour of modern flowers by spending some time with a large canvas by Jane Freilicher. The work was recently conserved and is on view for the first time in at least 15 years. The aptly named Fresh Air dates from around 1960, when Freilicher was active at the heart of the second generation of Abstract Expressionist artists. Her large canvas captures the riotous energy of a garden at mid-summer. The loose, energetic brushwork contrasts with the precision of O’Keeffe and Stella and reflects the turn among American artists toward active and emotionally expressive handling. Women in Abstract Expressionist circles—including Freilicher, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler—excelled at translating nature into powerful modern paintings.


Fresh Air, c.1958-1962. Jane Freilicher (1924-2014). Oil on canvas, 58 1/2 x 35 1/8 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Gift of Adalar Marberger, 1981. © Estate of Jane Freilicher.

Flowers and gardens, which inspired so much Impressionist innovation, have a place at the center of American modernism. They provide artists with particular challenges. As Delaware painter Mary Page Evans has noted: “You’re making order out of chaos. There’s a lot out there . . . and it’s just as important what you exclude as what you include. What you do is to leave out the extraneous details and concentrate on what builds and sustains a mood.”

I hope you can join us in the Copeland Sculpture Garden on May 16 for Brunch, Brushes, and Blooms. Be sure to have a look around the galleries while you’re here.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Chief Curator and Curator of American Art

Top image: Jonquils I, 1936. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). Oil on canvas, 16 x 22 inches. Private Collection, Delaware, courtesy of Art Finance Partners LLC © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York.