Flowers have often been associated with eroticism, especially that of the female sex. It has been found that there has been a long and enduring link between the two. In the more classical age, women, more so the virgins, were compared to flowers. In text, Sappho made the analogy between a woman and ‘a hyacinth in the mountains that the shepherds trample with their feet’ (BBC). Shakespeare also made note between woman and flower, resorting to botanical metaphors and often named his female characters after flowers.
Different flowers can be traced towards different women and characters. The carnation was a symbol of those who were betrothed or engaged, whereas the poppy is a symbol of death (thoughtco). The Virgin Mary was singly associated with the lily flower, which is a symbol of purity, chastity and innocence.
When things start getting really sexy is the 18th Century, when the botanist Carl Linneaus classified the world’s organisms according, in part, to their means of reproduction. Leanneaus’s Species Plantarum of 1753 did not just pin down all the known world’s vegetation with Latin name. It established that plants reproduced sexually – and offered a scientific, rational basis for the analogy of humans (usually women) to flowers. – BBC
It was quickly after this, in the 19th Century that floral metaphors for women’s genitals started to bloom. Manet painted Olympia, whereupon she covers her genitals with her left hand but has positioned a pink camellia in her hair in place of her covered sex.
A bunch of flowers that are presented to the subject of a painting, who is often a woman led in a suggestive manner, indicates that this woman is on the market. It is the placing, or the handing of the flowers by another, subservient woman, that suggest this. The analogy is seen across the world in different ways, as in China brothels were referred to as the ‘flower market’ and in Japan, geishas worked in hanamachi, or ‘flower towns’.
Georgia O’Keeffe strongly showed that the woman can paint about the woman and the erotic through the metaphors of flowers. Her abstract depictions of blossoms and buds transforming into flower often remind the spectator of the female genitals. O’Keeffe “resisted the overdetermined reading of her flowers as stand-ins for the female sex organs” in her 2016 exhibition at Tate Modern, London. She exclaims that her paintings extend past the botanical depictions to a modernist engagement with form and colour. There are still large implications that the formal experiments of abstract shapes are that of the female sex organs.
Other artists found that through capturing the close detail of flowers in photography, it can be likened to that of the female genitals. Mapplethorpe explained that his early homoerotic and sadomasochistic photography had overwhelmed the interpretation of his flower images – the work he did, affected the work he wanted to create. “Sometimes a flower signifies a more lascivious thing, and sometimes a flower is just a flower” (BBC).
Men have been shown to have sexual availability through the use of flowers, however this has not been as prominent throughout the history of art. There is a hermaphroditism of flowers with the pistils and stamens having a particular symbolic appeal for gay artists.