Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education
Millefleur (in French, mille-fleurs, a “thousand flowers”) refers to an artwork in which the background is comprised of various small flowers and plants, usually shown on a green ground to suggest grass. Seen predominantly in European tapestry from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance (1400-1500), the style experienced a revival in 19th century England under Morris & Co, who co-opted it for both their original tapestry designs and illustrations for their Kelmscott Press publications. Today, it continues to feature in contemporary textiles and photography.
Millefleur differs from other floral decorations, like arabesque, in that no regular pattern exists; instead, many different individual plants are shown. In an arabesque, seen in Ambreen Butt‘s lithograph (below), the interlacing and scrolling calligraphic lines follow a rhythm, or pattern, circling outward (or inward, depending on how you view it). Even the insects are arranged concentrically, mimicking the scrolling, curvilinear lines. Seen most often in Islamic artwork, like the mosaics decorating the exterior and interior of mosques, arabesque and millefleur are both purely implemented for design aesthetic.
Unlike in Say My Name, the millefleur style disperses plants throughout the background with little to no rhythm. Originally called verdures, the flowery meadows are in full bloom, the brightness of the petals distinct against the darker greens that delineate grass and leaves. The flora is not a tool to create perspective or depth of field. In fact, the flowers are usually flat and much smaller in relation to any other figures (human or animal) in the composition. Take one of the most notable, best-known examples of millefleur: The Lady and the Unicorn.
Commonly used as the background for tapestries, particularly in France and the Netherlands (Flemish), The Lady and the Unicorn and its six sister tapestries are from the “classic” period. Here we see two ladies, a unicorn, and a lion arranged in a pyramid shape around a tent flanked by banners. The floral motif occurs in three distinct areas: the island on which the figures stand with densely arranged plants, the upper background where the flowers feature in vertical bands and are accompanied by animals (bunnies, goats, birds, and a dog) at various scales, and a lower zone with a single row of plants. The flowers decorating the larger, red background are small and white, yellow, or blue while the ones strewn on the floor create a more colorful, carpeted garden with additional reds and greens. While recognizable species, their realism is not necessarily key to the depiction. Flattened, the florals don’t detract from the figurative scene or create depth, but their repetition does connect the tapestries across the series.
Chuck Sperry, a contemporary screenprinter influenced by William Morris wallpaper designs, applied millefleur to a tapestry he designed in 2018. Hand-woven in Mexico by Mexican artisans and Titled Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, the tapestry shows a woman with red hair and green eyes crowned in flowers against a millefleur background. The green leaves form an arabesque-like swirl that is broken up by the purple and blue flowers. A riot of color, there isn’t a noticeable pattern to the placement of the leaves and flowers like in Butt’s lithograph but it’s not quite as chaotic as the Lady & the Unicorn, striking a visual balance.
Separate but similar to tapestries, millefleur is also used to describe north Indian carpets in the late Mughal era (17th-18th centuries). The flowers in these carpets, however, have large numbers of smaller flowers in repeating units, often arranged geometrically in clusters, adhering closer to the arabesque style. Reflecting a combination of European influences and Persian-Mughal decorative tradition, it suggests the trading of art along with commerce.
Applied to patterns or backgrounds that feature many tiny flowers and/or plants, contemporary photographer Morgan Barrie’s Myth of the Flat World series follows the basic structure of a millefleur tapestry. Barrie assembles each work flower by flower so that the final image contains dozens of individual photographs of real plants. Mixing non-native, and even invasive plants, with native species alongside humans and/or animals, she visually composes a compelling environmental narrative.
Barrie sees landscapes as texts, each element revealing a piece of the narrative. Weeds tell the story of traveling across continents and displacing other species to dominate their new terrains while cultivated plants survive and spread through human beings and animals. A different story to the tapestry and carpet trade across continents but with a similar thesis, Barrie explores landscape as a construct, piece by piece, over time and by many different players.
Visit FWMoA to see Barrie’s work on display through January 8, 2023 in The National: Best Contemporary Photography.