Audio Journey

Language of Flowers

Remco van Vliet is a third-generation florist whose work is regularly featured at The Met. He is also co-founder of Van Vliet & Trap, an event design company.


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Audio Transcript

Remco van Vliet: Hi, my name is Remco van Vliet. I’m a third-generation Dutch florist and I do the flowers in the Great Hall at The Metropolitan Museum.

I grew up in Holland and helped my father in his flowershop growing up. My grandfather was also a florist, and my great-grandfather, he grew flowers in Holland. It’s kind of like being the son of a butcher or a baker. You have to help out in the company business.

A massive bouquet with dozens of lush flowers, arranged with grapes and an apple. A snail, butterfly, bee, and drops of water rest on the leaves.

Margareta Haverman (Dutch, 1693–1722 or later). A Vase of Flowers, 1716. Oil on wood, 31 1/4 x 23 3/4 in. (79.4 x 60.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, 1871 (71.6)

Narrator: Who better than a third-generation Dutch florist to speak about Dutch still life? Van Vliet offers a uniquely personal take, for example, on the painting titled A Vase of Flowers, by Margareta Haverman.

Van Vliet: There were a few very well-known female painters in Dutch painting. This is one of the most beautiful still lifes ever created by a Dutch artist, period.

Certain flowers have been painted in later to balance the arrangement. It’s a trained eye, somebody that has looked at this for a long, long time to bring it to that level. Even the tiniest little details; the tiny little orangey-red flower next to the large leaf, if you imagine that it’s not there, then the whole arrangement feels like it’s almost out of balance, leaning to the right. They’re kind of a team, pulling the whole arrangement straight.

We have this expression in Holland, Als je hoofd boven het maaiveld steekt, wordt het vanaf gehakt. “Stick your head out above the mowing fields, your head is gonna get chopped off.” So that’s pretty much a warning, like, just be normal and you’re crazy enough already.

Narrator: One of the symbols we still associate with Holland is the tulip. The flowers were so popular in the seventeenth century that they sparked a craze: “Tulipmania.” It’s no surprise that this flower is represented here as well.

Van Vliet: The most important flower in this painting is the tulip. This is also a symbol of beauty and perishability. People refer to it as a “Rembrandt tulip.”
It’s really a byproduct of cross-hybridizing. What creates the stripes in this tulip is a virus. So they brought the virus in, on purpose, to create these beautiful stripes. You see a little touch of wheat under the tulip—that’s also a sign of fertility.
When I see this painting, I know from being a florist that some of the flowers, their heads are very heavy and the stem cannot really support it. But you still see them on a very high level and they’re not drooping. That’s not really a natural way that a flower behaves.
What I really appreciate about this flower arrangement is the asymmetry, and with my flower arrangements, I do that as well. Sometimes when I make my own compositions, I squint my eyes and I look, because then you can really tell if something is in balance. It does not matter, per se, what your composition is, as long as visually it’s in balance. And that you can do with color, but you can also do it with size.

Narrator: Seen through the eyes of a florist, the flowers in this painting tell another story—one of time, seasons, and money.

Van Vliet: In order to create one of these bouquets, it must have been a very, very, very long process. It was very hard to get all these flowers together. You had to have wealth for your painter to collect them all. You see carnations, or tulips from Asia. There are grapes—it comes from the Mediterranean. Instead of creating gold sculptures and statues, the Dutch hung this in their house.

During this period in painting, they would paint certain flowers during certain times of the year. So it would really take a full year to finish one painting. So you have a combination of spring flowers, like the irises, for instance, like the tulips. But then you also see roses in full bloom, which are grown in the summer. Back then it was not possible to create it in one arrangement. Now it’s possible with airplanes and bringing the flowers from all over the world.

I spoke with a curator at the Rijksmuseum, and he told me the most popular painters in this genre during that period, they would take the money from one client, start a painting, and then start another painting and another painting, and take all the money from all the clients, and just tell the clients, “You know what? The rose this year, it’s really a terrible year for roses. You have to wait ’til next year before I can finish your painting.”

It reminds me almost like construction here in the city. They’ll take on one project and it takes years for them to finish. It was probably a smart business decision back then, because you never know when your genre is not cool or hip anymore. So they maximized it.


 A single red poppy, visited by butterflies, a dragonfly, and snail, grows out of the ground. In the dirt, a snake crawls through mushrooms

Otto Marseus van Schrieck (Dutch, 1619/20–1678). Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles, ca. 1670. Oil on canvas, 26 7/8 x 20 3/4 in. (68.3 x 52.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1953 (53.155)

Narrator: For Van Vliet, different species of flowers have different characteristics, behaviors, even personalities, as he describes in the painting by Otto Marseus van Schriek, Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles.

Van Vliet: You can see this one individual poppy. My initial reaction was, well, it’s only one flower. It looks fairly simple. Poppies—that’s one of the few flowers I don’t mix with anything else. I just like them by themselves. Once you start adding poppies to a flower arrangement, they usually dominate the arrangement, and it takes away from their elegance.

Narrator: Why is it exactly that flowers were—and continue to be—such a meaningful part of Dutch culture? Van Vliet has a few thoughts on that.

Van Vliet: I think it has a lot to do with the religion in Holland. It was mainly Protestant, so not flamboyant. People dressed fairly sober, and flowers are really a symbol of their internal understanding of God, of beauty, of creation, of life. And that’s why I think flowers have been just an obsession for Dutch people, since forever.
We’ve been taking credit for many varieties of flowers. Probably the most famous one is the tulip, which originally came from Persia or Turkey, and we’ve been taking credit for that flower for many, many years. And it will never stop, probably.

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