Rose Fever: The paintings of George Cochran Lambdin

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."

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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