The Cult of the Sunflower

By Nancy Rutman

Photography by Rob Cardillo

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In 1882, Oscar Wilde, the 28-year-old Irish poet, playwright, and self-styled evangelist of the "cult of beauty" known as the Aesthetic Movement, arrived in America for a lecture tour that would prove immensely popular. Many of the vintage sunflower illustrations shown here were created by advertisers hoping to capitalize on Wilde's fame and the resulting craze for Aestheticism. Wilde frequently wore or carried a sunflower, helping to establish the flower as an emblem of the movement. But what did it mean?

In the Victorian "language of flowers," sunflowers represented "haughtiness" or "adoration," and these terms certainly fit the unabashedly snobbish Wilde and his besotted sunflower-brandishing followers.

Wilde may have had less conventional reasons for choosing sunflowers, though. He frequented London's Grosvenor Gallery, where paintings by leading Aesthetic artists had found a home after having been rejected by the Royal Academy for being insufficiently moralistic. The Grosvenor's green-and-gold interiors were customized to showcase the paintings' color palette. Gallery regulars followed suit—literally—by dressing in shades of green and yellow, with color-coordinated flowers. Sunflowers were the perfect complement.

The unconventional Aesthetes were lampooned in Punch magazine and satirized in the 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, which included the following lines:

A pallid and thin young man,
A haggard and lank young man,
A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery,
Foot-in-the-grave young man!

The success of Patience in England inspired Wilde's overseas tour and launched him as a celebrity, but its stereotypical characters caricatured the sexuality of Aesthetic leaders. So some of the fans who wore sunflowers to Wilde's lectures surely wore them as the 19th-century equivalent of the gay-pride rainbow flag. The modern connotation of the word gay may stem from the fact that it was an acronym for Green And Yellow. Greenery-yallery.

Sometimes a sunflower is more than just a sunflower.

Check out Nancy Rutman's collection of Sunflower Ephemera.

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