Rose Fever: The paintings of George Cochran Lambdin

Mark D. Mitchell

Mark D. Mitchell Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2011 |

After his death in 1896 George Cochran Lambdin was remembered by friends and me­morialists alike for his paintings of roses. Ac­cording to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Mr. Lambdin is known wherever there is anything known of American art as the facile princeps in this specialty.”1 At the height of the tea rose craze during the 1870s and 1880s, Lambdin translated popular taste into fine art and thereby became famous himself.

“Lambdin’s roses,” as they were known, came in several formats-in vases, potted, climbing stucco walls, reaching up into the sky, and as props in his genre paintings- but perhaps the most distinctive and dramatic variant depicts an upright spray of differently colored blooms intertwined against a solid black backdrop, often supplemented by other flowers, such as fuchsias or azaleas (see Fig. 3). Sensitiv­ity to the color and translucency of the roses was Lambdin’s paramount concern. In his view, “there is probably no inanimate object in the world more beautiful than a delicately tinted Rose.”2 The bright light that illuminates the flowers is selective, touching only them and creating a spectral effect in the adjacent leaves and stems. No trellis or wall supports the flow­ers as they grow upward from below the com­position, an eye-level anecdote of the garden extracted from nature. Despite the format’s strict decorative conventions, each grouping differs from the others, the resulting illusion of direct observation and organic variation often domi­nated by a single, saturated color accent (Fig. 1).

Begun in 1867 with the creation of a hybrid named La France (Fig. 2), the international fascination with tea roses was driven by an appetite for the latest, most elegant and beautiful hybrids. Amid the wide popularization of amateur ornamental gardening and rose cultivation during the same period, tea roses were particularly admired for their combinations of refined coloring, sophisticated scents, and slender graceful stems. Lambdin’s roses are specific enough to be identified and admired by rose enthusiasts, though he rarely incorporated the flowers’ formal names in his titles.3 Instead, his generic titles permitted general audi­ences to enjoy the beauty of his flowers without preventing experienced admirers from appreciating the unique characteristics of individual breeds. Most often, however, Lambdin’s roses are common enough to be recognized by beginners. The distinctive pink form of La France, for example, is consistently included, and was described by the artist as a quintessential form: he wrote, “I can think of nothing to equal [its] half open flower.”

A resident of Germantown in northwest Philadel­phia for most of his life, Lambdin lived at the epicen­ter of commercial rose cultivation in the United States and, as a rose enthusiast himself, he was ideally situ­ated to portray the subject insightfully.5 He had begun his career in Philadelphia as a genre painter in the late 1840s under the instruction of his father, portraitist James Reid Lambdin (1807-1889), and spent two years studying abroad in Munich and Paris in 1855 and 1856.6 He exhibited his first recorded still life of roses at Philadelphia’s Union League Club in 1870, a year after returning to German­town from a two-year residency in New York.7 It was no coincidence. Germantown, like Philadelphia as a whole, already had a tradition of domestic gardening and rose cultivation by the time tea roses became popular. The Haines family, close neighbors of the Lambdins, had a well-known rose garden at their estate Wyck as early as the 1820s, and several nurser­ies had opened by mid-century to cater to the affluent property owners who populated the area.8 Lambdin himself hired professional gardener William Cochrane to tend the rose garden on his family’s modest property and build green­houses, which served as an occasional backdrop for his paintings (see Fig. 6), to cultivate an array of flowers. In 1876, the same year his rose paintings were featured at Philadelphia’s Cen­tennial Exposition, he painted a charming watercolor documenting his rose beds in full bloom (Fig. 4).

Lambdin became increasingly involved in the rose culture of Germantown as his still life practice grew during the early 1870s. His friend and fellow rose lover Edwin Jellett later remembered that “when roses were scarce, both Mr. Lambdin and Mr. Cochrane came to [Louis Clapier] Baumann’s [nursery] where I was employed for specimens.”9 Baumann’s was a short walk from the Lambdin house on Price Street and was one of several operations in Germantown that predated the sprawling commercial nurseries that opened there later in the century to serve the national market.10 Philadelphia was already “a very hotbed of roses” in 1844,11 and by the time famed nurseryman Thomas Meehan opened his busi­ness in Germantown in 1854, he could expect patron­age from a thriving local network of gardens and gardeners. Meehan soon extended that network around the country with his catalogues and popular magazine, Gardener’s Monthly, just as Lambdin’s paintings were being distributed nationally in print form by the Boston publisher Louis Prang.12 Lambdin played a public role in this gardening community, becoming a founding member of the Germantown Horticul­tural Society, its first secretary in 1873, and, like Meehan, an occasional lecturer.

Despite their naturalism, which borders at times on trompe l’oeil, Lambdin’s roses invoke both the poignant symbolism of the “language of flowers” and the historical context of the aftermath of the Civil War.13 During the war, Lambdin had traveled in the service of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, which played a critical role in the care of injured and disabled soldiers-including Lambdin’s brother Harry-and the artist painted a number of wartime genre scenes illustrating the departure of soldiers for war and the isolation of camp life.14 In those early subjects, critic Henry T. Tuckerman admired Lambdin’s ability to engage viewers’ emotions with pathos, an expressive aspect that also resonates with his celebrated roses.15 The roses, particularly those with black backgrounds and those shown against stucco walls (see Fig. 5), share a remarkably serene, contemplative character. By find­ing such a distinctive, personal approach-rather than participating in a school or movement-Lambdin declared his uniqueness, or in his own words, a style “by which the individual [artist] may be recognized.”16 In his finest white subjects-depictions of white roses, lilies, calla lilies, and cyclamen (see Fig. 7)-the diaphanous quality that distinguished his most delicate roses is even more pronounced, to ghostly effect.17 In these scenes, Lambdin’s flowers share a wraith-like quality that echoes the memorial symbolism of roses, prominently featured by the bedside in his most famous genre painting, The Dead Wife of about 1858 (also known as The Last Sleep, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh).18

Lambdin’s still life practice was rooted in the tradition of still life painting in the Philadelphia region established by Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) and his uncle James Peale (1749-1831) in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Lambdin’s roses invoke the simple formal design, dramatic lighting, and rich colorism of their work.19 Equally, however, his paintings look for­ward. His poetic and allusive flower forms portray subjects in a manner that resonates with the modernist poetry of Charles Demuth (1883-1935), whose pow­erful flowers were drawn from his mother’s garden in nearby Lancaster during the 1920s and 1930s.20

More immediately, Lambdin’s roses-particu­larly those with a lacquer-like black back­drop-straddle the Pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic movements.21 The natural growth and char­acteristic detail of the flowers echo Pre-Raphaelite real­ism, but Lambdin’s interests in Asian art, color effects, and asymmetrical design equally demonstrate the influ­ence of aestheticism, and were likely inspired by the example of his colleague John La Farge (1835-1910).22 The ceramic vases that Lambdin employed for his table­top bouquets (see Fig. 8) document his interest in the Eastern cultures that were central to the aesthetic move­ment, as do his solid black wood panels that echo Asian lacquerware, his frequent use of an elongated vertical format, and the informal arrangement of his flowers close to the picture plane. Like Lambdin’s ceramic vases-a number of which were displayed on a wall-mounted whatnot in his studio in Philadelphia’s Baker Building on Chestnut Street in 1884-tea roses origi­nated in China, and their attributes were associated with Asian aesthetics.23 Effectively incorporating aspects of both prevailing and emerging American tastes, Lambdin’s roses captured the contemporary imagination and became icons of their moment.

This article developed from research for an upcoming exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the history of still life painting in Philadelphia. The author would like to thank Emily Arensman, Jim Hartman, Laura Turner Igoe, and Julie McGinnis for their assistance.

1 “Special Exhibition. Recent Works by Mr. George C. Lambdin at Earles’,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1884, p. 2. 2 George Cochran Lambdin, “The Charm of the Rose,” Art Union, vol. 1, nos. 6-7 (June-July 1884), p. 137. 3 Roses that have been identified in his paintings include Safrano, Gloire de Dijon, Général Jacqueminot, Maréchal Neil, Le Pactole, and La France. Partial listing in Bruce Weber, American Beauty: The Rose in American Art, 1800-1920 (Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, 1997), p. 18. 4 Lambdin, “Charm of the Rose,” p. 137. 5 Germantown is often mistakenly described in the Lamb­din literature as a suburb of Philadelphia or even a separate town altogether. Since the city’s consolidation in 1854, however, it has fallen within the city’s limits. 6 The primary reference for Lambdin’s life and work remains Ruth Ir­win Weidner’s George Cochran Lambdin, 1830-1896 (Brandywine River Mu­seum, Chadds Ford, Penn., 1986), supplemented by her later study The Lamb­dins of Philadelphia, Newly Discovered Works (Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia, 2002). 7 His permanent return to Germantown may not have been anticipat­ed, however: the Daily Evening Bulletin reported on April 14, 1870, that Lamb­din had remained in Philadelphia since Christmas due to nervous exhaustion, and he retained his New York studio until 1871. He also traveled to Europe in 1870, with his brother Harry, who fell ill and forced their quick return home, where Harry died in November. See Weidner, George Cochran Lambdin, p. 26. 8 Edwin C. Jellett, Gardens and Gardeners of Germantown (Site and Relic So­ciety of Germantown, Philadelphia, 1914), pp. 329-330. American horticul­ture more broadly was also pioneered in Philadelphia, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century with John Bartram (1699-1777) and his family. 9 Edwin C. Jellett MS note dated 1896, Warren H. Poley Scrapbook, p. 236, German­town Historical Society, Philadelphia. 10 Jellett, Gardens and Gardeners, p. 294. The Germantown Historical Society has in its collection several area property maps from the 1870s and a period photograph showing the extent of Baumann’s nursery. Jellett also notes (p. 295) that among Baumann’s employ­ees who later “became conspicuous in other lines” were the artist brothers Al­exander and Birge Harrison. 11 Robert Buist, The Rose Manual: Containing Accurate Descriptions of All the Finest Varieties… (Philadelphia, 1844), p. ix. 12 “The largest and most important category of Prang chromos was flowers,” and “the rose was Mr. Prang’s favorite,” remarked Katharine Morrison McClin­ton, which may explain his great interest in and numerous reproductions of Lambdin’s roses. McClinton, The Chromolithographs of Louis Prang (Clarkson N. Potter, New York, 1973), p. 91. 13 “Latent” is how William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke well characterize the symbolism of Lambdin’s flowers in Amer­ican Still-Life Painting (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1971), p. 92. 14 Lamb­din himself is recorded as having enlisted in the short-lived Pennsylvania Eighth Regiment, which organized September 12, 1862, and was discharged less than two weeks later. “Company G,” “Eighth Regiment,” in History of Pennsylva­nia Volunteers, 1861-1865, ed. Samuel Penniman Bates (Harrisburg, Penn., 1869-1871), vol. 5, pp. 1166-1167. 15 Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Art­ists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of Amer­ican Artists… (New York, 1867), p. 450. 16 George Cochran Lambdin, “Style,” Art Union, vol. 2, no.1 (January-March 1885), p. 5. 17 That ephemeral qual­ity has likely increased over time, as he appears to have anticipated when he wrote that “among the pigments prepared by the modern colormen many of the most attractive are utterly untrustworthy.” George Cochran Lambdin, “Primitive Colors,” ibid., vol. 1, no. 5 (May 1884), p. 114. 18 For roses’ me­morial symbolism, see Weber, American Beauty, p. 13. Lambdin never mar­ried or had children, which endows his frequent romantic and childhood sub­jects with personal significance for their absence from his own life. 19 For comparison, see Raphaelle Peale’s famous Blackberries, c. 1813 (Fine Arts Mu­seums of SanFrancisco). The scientific naturalist vision practiced by the Peales and initiated by their patriarch, Charles Willson Peale, endured into the later nineteenth century. Lambdin’s father remembered visiting Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia earlier in the century and even opened his own museum in Pitts­burgh in 1828 on Peale’s model. Among the many things presented there were both portraits and natural history specimens, including roses. Weidner, George Cochran Lambdin, p. 44. 20 For comparison, see Demuth’s Roses, 1926 (Mu­seum of Fine Arts, Boston). 21 Scholars differ about the degree of Lambdin’s alignment with one movement or the other, and also about his interest in Dar­winism. The most balanced account is offered by Barbara Dayer Gallati in “Roses on the Wall,” in Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites (Brooklyn Museum and Schock­en Books, New York 1985), p. 271. Early on, Lambdin may have studied with leading Pre-Raphaelite and fellow Germantown resident William Trost Rich­ards (1833-1905), but no specific link between them has been found except later correspondence, dated 1885-1887. Weidner, George Cochran Lambdin, p. 32, asserts that, based on the titles of some of Lambdin’s early works, he may have begun to paint still lifes with more prosaic subjects suited to Pre-Rapha­elitism, but Lambdin’s titles are often disingenuous. The criticism of Lamb­din’s contemporaries, which is also often cited in both directions, is similarly ambiguous. 22 John La Farge, with whom Lambdin may have shared a stu­dio in New York’s celebrated Tenth Street Studio Building during the late 1860s, had experimented with black lacquer panels as a ground for his still lifes in the early 1860s and was a likely influence on Lambdin’s series of the 1870s and 1880s. La Farge was already a recognized authority on Asian aesthetics and published his insightful study “An Essay on Japanese Art” in 1870, the same year Lambdin painted the first of his recorded black-background roses. Weidner, George Cochran Lambdin, p. 51, n. 30. 23 Anne H. Wharton, “Some Philadelphia Studios, First Paper” Decorator and Furnisher, vol. 7, no. 3 (De­cember 1885), p. 78, includes an engraving of the interior of Lambdin’s stu­dio, accompanied by this description: “Over the fireplace hang some shelves of ebony, on which are a multitude of objects of interest, some old Chinese and Japanese carvings and some fine pieces of Majolica.” Lambdin was equally conscientious about the presentation of his paintings, and consistently used highly stylized frames, some of his own design, that are visible on the still lifes displayed around his studio.

MARK D. MITCHELL is associate curator of American painting and sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the manager of the museum’s Center for American Art.