Canvases bloom in this show of French paintings

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Still Life: Bouquet and Compotier, 1924, oil on canvas, 29 1/4 × 36 1/2 in. Dallas Museum of Art, The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., in honor of Dr. Bryan Williams, 2002.19.McD © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the VMFA.

While it may not feel like the first day of spring across much of the U.S., the canvases are in full bloom at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Opening Saturday, "Van Gogh, Manet, and Matisse: The Art of the Flower" traces the evolution of the floral still life genre from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. It features 65 masterpieces from more than 30 artists including Henri Matisse, Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne and Vincent Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Vase with Carnations, summer 1886, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 × 14 3/4 in. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, purchased with the generous support of the Vereniging van Hadendaagse Kunstaankopen, A2235. Courtesy of the VMFA.

With lilacs, roses, and peonies abounding, the bouquets are a feast for the eyes, from the most exquisitely crafted floral displays to the humblest of arrangements.

"I think of flowers as the summation of all that is creative in nature, and I now think that artists thought of them that way as well," co-curator Dr. Mitchell Merling told Art Beat. "As that epitome of creation, they also epitomize all that art is capable of — and that is a very profound thing — binding artists, flowers, nature, art and creation together."

The exhibit ultimately took six years to pull together, co-led by Merling, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's Paul Mellon Curator and head of the Department of European Art, and Heather MacDonald, the Lillian and James H. Clark Associate Curator of European Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, the exhibition's initial stop.

Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903) Still Life with Peonies, 1884, oil on canvas, 23 1/2 × 28 3/4 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1995.47.10. Courtesy of the VMFA.

In the galleries, the painstaking attention to detail and conservative palette of the 18th century are juxtaposed with the vivid hues and looser brushstrokes that came to define Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in the decades that followed.

Merling said the collection offers a unique perspective since it's the first major U.S. exhibition to examine the French floral still life over the course of the 19th century. He likened the experience to "a walk through one of the most exciting periods in art history," as visitors can see how a traditional, age-old genre was reinvented as the art world began pivoting towards Modernism.

Antoine Berjon (French, 1754-1843) Bouquet of Lilies and Roses in a Basket on a Chiffonier, 1814, oil on canvas, 26 3/16 × 19 1/2 in. Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris, RF 1974-10 © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of the VMFA.

Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) Vase with Cornflowers and Poppies, 1887, oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 26 3/8 in. Triton Collection Foundation. Courtesy of the VMFA.

"In the late 18th and early 19th century, artists exactly and minutely replicated the external appearance of nature down to the last leaf, petal and thorn," said Merling. "As the century progressed, artists from Delacroix to Van Gogh sought to penetrate the surface of natural appearances and discover its internal truth — that is the secret of artists like Van Gogh's eternal appeal."

Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, active in France, 1853-1819), Daisies, Arles, 1888, oil on canvas. Unframed: 13 x 16 1/2 in. (33×41.9 cm). Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Courtesy of the VMFA.

You can view "The Art of the Flower" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through June 21st. After which, the exhibit journeys on to the Denver Art Museum, where it will be on display July 19th through October 11th.

Recently in Arts