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Of Waterlilies, Seduction and Oblivion...

An interesting aspect of this picture is its background, which represents "a distant view of Aboukir [Egypt] and the waters of the Nile". When Thornton had the image made, Nelson's triumph over Napoleon at Aboukir Bay was a recent event. The seemingly placid waters of the Nile contrast greatly with how viewers of the time would have perceived a picture of Aboukir. Indeed, Thornton's accompanying text seems to reflect more on the battle than on the plant.]

The language of flowers is a long and vast lexicon that has accompanied mankind prior to language itself. The colors, attitudes, and forms of each instruct the human observer to either embrace or avoid a given plant or flower. The knowledge of plants and their uses is a wisdom that has been dearly paid for by countless and nameless souls, who have, at times, chosen unwisely, even in their boundless curiosity, and whose lives terminated prematurely while seeking among the mysteries of the plant kingdom.

An instructive, though highly satirical, series of images was published by J. J. Grandville (pseudonym of Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, 1803 - 1847) in ‘Les Fleurs Animés’ (published: 1846 ) regarding the character of individual flowers and their ‘personalities’ (albeit in highly anthropomorphic forms). View the entire suite of images at the link below:


As regards the water lily and its sister, the lotus, who languidly, yet brazenly, spread their charms upon the water’s surface beneath the full, fair and indifferent sky, it has been observed in the Far East (allegedly):

“Out of the foul mire springs the pure lotus flower”

…but is the blossom a sublimation of the suffocating mud below, or is it merely a seductive gateway to the mire itself ?

Le Nénuphar

Sur les bords endormis du lac, auprès des berges,
Dans l’eau, qu’argente un grand reflet d’acier poli,
La plante pousse ses tiges d’un vert pâli,
Molles comme des joncs, nettes comme des verges ;

Nénuphar, dont la robe est sans tache et sans pli,
Dont la blancheur fait honte à la blancheur des cierges,
Fleur de la paix, fleur de la mort, fleur de l’oubli,
Fleur des amants déçus, fleur des dieux, fleur des vierges !

Humant l’âpre parfum de tes pistils glacés,

Des flamants roses, sur tes grandes feuilles plates,
Reposent au soleil leurs ailes écarlates.
Et la nuit, le ciel mort, et les oiseaux passés,

Ta corolle, aux poisons mystérieux et fastes,
Endort profondément, parmi des rêves chastes,
Les cœurs endoloris et les esprits lassés.

MATGIOI (Albert de Pouvourville), Rimes Chinoises, 1904.


On the verge of the lulling lakeshore, by the banks, 
In the water, which silvers a great reflection of polished steel, 
The plant pushes forth its stems of ever pale green, 
Soft as rushes, clean as birch trees ; 

Waterlily, whose dress is without stain and without fold, 
Whose whiteness shames even the whiteness of candles, 
Flower of peace, flower of death, flower of oblivion, 
Flower of lovers deceived, flower of gods, flower of virgins! 

Inhaling the biting perfume of your frozen pistils, 

Pink flamingos, on your broad leaves, 
Rest their scarlet wings in the sun. 
And the night, the dead sky, and birds now flown, 

Your corolla, to these mysterious poisons and pomps, 
Lulls deeply, among chaste dreams, 
Hearts that ache and minds that swoon. 

MATGIOI (Albert de Pouvourville), Chinese Rhymes, 1904.
[Traduction Anglaise: Raymond E. André III, 2011].

[Image : Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the Blue Egyptian Water Lily, was painted by Peter Henderson for Dr. Robert John Thornton's The Temple of Flora (1798-1807). Joseph Constantin Stadler was the engraver: aquatint, mezzotint, and stipple engravings finished by hand.