Single Oriental Poppy (C), 1968 by Irving Penn. From Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

The Art of the Plant – Irving Penn

In a series of excerpts from Plant: Exploring the Botanical World we look at artists inspired by flora

Our new book, Plant: Exploring the Botanical World, surveys the wide variety of botanical representations though the ages, with 300 of the most beautiful and pioneering images ever. Professional botanists produced many of these images. However, fine artists created many others.

Take, for example, the photographer Irving Penn. Though he is better known for his fashion photography, Penn proves, in this image, that a simple, wilting flower can as worthy a subject as an artfully styled model.

“This cut specimen of the oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) is already beginning to wilt: its delicacy is a far cry from a robust growing plant,” the book explains. “Instead, this photograph by the leading twentieth-century US photographer Irving Penn echoes the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painting, with elements turning towards decay. Poppies was Penn’s second series of flower photographs, produced over seven years for Vogue magazine. Penn claimed no particular knowledge of horticulture, a fact that freed him from the need to represent perfection. The sensibility he had developed working in contemporary advertising and fashion lends a lush quality and high finish to this study of ephemeral beauty, a critical meditation on fashion.


The cover of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World
The cover of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World

As a depiction of something just past its prime, the poppy is a deliberate inversion of fashion – a vanitas, a reminder that beauty does not fully compensate for death. Native to the near Middle East, this hardy perennial species produces brilliant scarlet-orange flowers in the wild. What is depicted here is rather different, a garden hybrid with its close relative the great scarlet poppy, Papaver bracteatum. Selective breeding has produced a wide range of colours including the deep maroon shown here, and the sense of artifice in this photograph is heightened by removing the poppy from any kind of natural setting.”

You can see a work by Ellsworth Kelly from our book here; and you can also check back soon for more fine art cultivars extracted from Plant: Exploring the Botanical World. You can buy a copy of this new book here.