Throughout a remarkable career that spanned nearly eighty years, Irving Penn secured himself as one of the leading photographers of the 20th Century, consistently reflecting his mastery of multiple genres, from fashion to still-life and, as seen in Cottage tulip: Sorbet, flowers. The image was taken while on assignment for Vogue. Over seven consecutive December issues that ran from 1967 to 1973, Penn devoted each one to a particular flower. The first, 1967, was devoted to Tulips; 1968 to Peonies; 1969 to Poppies; 1970 to Orchids; 1971 to Roses; 1972 to Lilies; and 1973, to Begonias. The images were collectively published as a book in 1980 titled Flowers. Of the seventy-three flowers illustrated in the book, Cottage tulip: Sorbet was bestowed with the most coveted spot, the book cover. This was partly due to the eye-catching angle from which the photograph was taken, which creates an effect of swirling, vibrant colors. Indeed, Cottage tulip: Sorbet was one of only a few flowers in the series photographed from below, with its bulbous base forming the central foundation of the composition. By choosing this unexpected angle, Penn stripped the flower of its traditional context and associations, namely, a romantic bouquet or a traditional centrepiece. He instead presented it in a fresh, modern way, encouraging viewers to focus on the petal’s undulating forms and edges, the effects of the water droplets, the wide range of colors within the frame. This was Penn’s consistent methodology, which lent itself naturally to presenting something as ordinary and familiar as a flower as an extraordinary, sculptural objet d’art.
Penn, admittedly ignorant of horticulture and unable to appreciate the rarity of his impressive bounty, was pleased to be able to ‘react with simple pleasure just to form and color, without being diverted by considerations of rarity or tied to the convention that a flower must be photographed at its moment of unblemished, nubile perfection,’ as he later confessed. This impulse to capture blemishes within the ageing flowers underscores Penn’s lifelong devotion to exploring beauty within imperfections. To connect intimately with an object, each portion of the whole – and inevitably, each imperfection – was to be explored and honored equally. This guiding principle is evident throughout Penn’s oeuvre, which began over two decades before the flowers series was commissioned.
While a student at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he pursued his passion for painting, Penn was acquainted with the man who would become his first mentor, Alexey Brodovitch. Recognizing Penn’s astute eye and undeniable talent, Brodovitch, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar at the time, took Penn under his wing, and soon thereafter, to the magazine’s offices. Penn would later consider Brodovitch his ‘spiritual, aesthetic father’ for having encouraged Penn to ‘give up the preciousness’ in his work and learn to appreciate beauty within the details of form, texture, materiality, color, and seemingly mundane details (Exhibition catalogue, Irving Penn Centennial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2017, p. 11). This concept guided Penn’s approach to his subjects and became the hallmark of his work, one that he continued to employ during the next stage of his professional career, at Vogue.
Under the helm of Alexander Liberman, the radical new art director of Vogue in New York, Penn flourished, and it was here where the artist defined his career and legacy. Liberman, together with legendary editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland who came on board in 1963, transformed the magazine into a beacon of innovative style, ever at the foreground of trendsetting and taste making. By then, Penn had already established his reputation as one of the world’s leading fashion photographers; indeed, he was the only one at Vogue with his own studio. But under the tutelage of Liberman and Vreeland, Penn was granted the opportunity to further expand his repertoire, as exemplified by the Flowers series, which was commissioned by Vreeland. Throughout the series, Penn applied to the flowers the invaluable lessons he had mastered under Brodovitch and Liberman, capturing the sculptural form, the nuanced texture and the elegance of his subjects.
Anthony West, a frequent contributor to Vogue, eloquently described the tulip images in his accompanying essay in the December 1967 issue: ‘In a collective passion tulips transform themselves into a bonfire of light and color.’ The tulips were sourced specifically from The Netherlands Flower-Bulb Institute in Holland, as well as the Virginia private gardens of Mrs. Paul Mellon which arrived with ‘the morning’s freshness still on them’ (Irving Penn, Flowers, Harmony Books, New York, 1980, p. 6).
NOTES ON THE PROCESS
For being so rich in color and volume, Penn chose to print the Cottage tulip as a dye-transfer print, which further emphasized the saturated hues of mauve, magenta and champagne splashed across the petals. As a printing process, the dye-transfer is the preferred method for emphasizing the color and tonality of an image as much as the object itself. As an intense and time-consuming process, this printing method was reserved by Penn for an exclusive group, many of which, like Cottage tulip: Sorbet, rank among his most striking and collectable. It is noteworthy that in addition to the brilliance of the colors, the dyetransfer print is also the most stable, ensuring that the print retains its vibrancy and sensuousness for years to come.