J. J. Grandville’s Illustrations from The Flowers Personified (1849)

“Unhappy the man who never had his eyes fill with tears at the sight of a particular flower. Such a one can have been neither a child nor a youth. He can have had neither mother, sister, nor affianced bride. He never loved.” This is the tone and tenor throughout Les Fleurs animées (The Flowers personified), a collection of floral — and sometimes florid — writing, featuring playful illustrations by J. J. Grandville (1803–1847), engraved and hand-colored by Charles Michel Geoffroy.

Imagining common flowers as a series of ornately-dressed women, Grandville’s illustrations are simultaneously fanciful, instructive, otherworldly, and frightening. Sweet Pea guzzles directly from the watering can, for she is always parched. Narcissus looks for her reflection in a pond and finds a prostrating bottlefly and lizard gazing back. Sensitive (Mimosa pudica) is pursued by a giant slug and gentlemanly critter. Some images play upon their flowers’ intoxicating properties: Hemlock’s toad and rabbit companions succumb to poison; Grapevine gets drunk with a starling; and beetles nod off beneath Poppy’s dew. Two flowers seem unable to be personified: Helichrysum is represented by a ring-like crown and ouroboros, perhaps due to its connotations of immortality, which shine down on a faded scythe; tobacco is not to be associated with ladies — clay pipes and a hookah billow smoke with no one there to inhale. The illustrations culminate in a grand ball, where floral ballerinas frame the stately procession of spring.

These images illustrate an unclassifiable miscellany of texts written by Alphonse de Candolle, Taxile Delord, and Alphonse Karr, which includes: a full music score (“The Forget-Me-Not”); otherworldly denizens of hidden floral worlds (The Flower Fairy, Maguertine the Oracle of the Meadows); short stories masquerading as Platonic dialogues (“A Lesson in Botanical Philosophy”) and lyric elegies (“The Weeping Willow”). Some of the motifs feel like pressed flowers, preserved from time’s blight within the folds of a forgotten book. Other texts buckle under the tiresome equation of femininity and fragility, as well as a recourse to heavy-handed allegory. “The Traffic in Flowers”, for instance, compares florists and botanists to the slave traders of Cairo and Constantinople — with Grandville’s illustration playing on the moral panic regarding white slavery in the mid-nineteenth century — and calls for the abolition of pruning shears: “Do not plants and flowers live as really as men? Do you not see, cruel friends of science, that you are abominable stranglers? If the daisy could only cry out, you would be compelled to throw over its head a pitch-plaster.”

Below you can browse all fifty-two of Grandville’s illustrations from the original 1847 edition of Les Fleurs Animées. The Internet Archive also has a later 1867 edition, with updated colouring, and Nehemiah Cleaveland’s 1849 English translation. For another set of images related to the personification of seasonal change, see our post on Walter Crane’s A Floral Fantasy in an Old English Garden(1899).

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