What catches your eye first are the flowers. The opulent affairs spill out of niches high above the heads of the crowds streaming into the Great Hall of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Lovingly called “the Met,” it is the largest art museum in the U.S. and the second-most visited art museum in the world, according to The Art Newspaper.
Its permanent collection contains more than two million works, divided between 17 curatorial departments. The main building, situated in the eastern side of Central Park along the stretch of Fifth Avenue known as “Museum Mile,” is one of the world’s largest art galleries.
With bragging rights like these, it just wouldn’t do to greet guests with the occasional spray of forsythia — or so thought the philanthropist Lila Acheson Wallace. In 1967, she bequeathed the museum with a flower endowment to ensure the Great Hall’s niches would bloom forever.
The Brilliant Work of Floral Master Remco van Vliet
The Met’s abiding commitment to Wallace’s wishes has never faltered. The lobby arrangements are as artfully arranged as the flowers in the museum’s collection of 17th-century Dutch paintings.
The genius responsible for this weekly flower show is Remco van Vliet, the creative director of Van Vliet & Trap, and a third-generation florist whose grandfather and father ran a flower shop in the Netherlands.
“By the time my father took over the business, it had grown tremendously,” says van Vliet. “The shop was very busy with an increasingly upscale clientele.”
When he was about 10 years old, van Vliet started helping out around the shop — mostly tasked with odd jobs. “Soon I was assisting with the arrangements,” he explains. “And one day my father allowed me to create one for the queen, who had become a regular client. She wrote a note to my father praising it, not realizing I had created it.”
The young florist immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18. He began working at Dutch Flowerline, a flower importer in New York, while freelancing for a variety of floral-design businesses.
Eventually, he was introduced to Chris Giftos, then the Met’s in-house floral designer, who was looking for a protégé. Impressed with van Vliet’s designs, Giftos took him on as an apprentice. They worked together for seven years until Giftos’ retirement, and the position passed to van Vliet.
Livening Up The Met
Artists Magazine was recently in attendance for one of the designer’s installations. On a brisk morning, we watched as his team of assistants loaded in skeins of green boughs, bare branches, sprays of eucalyptus and blooming hydrangea and dogwood in mauve and russet tones.
Urns were filled with greenery and branches as van Vliet circled the room to complete the arrangements, bringing them to life with long-stemmed blooms and fragrant eucalyptus. The resulting arrangements, orchestrated to be soft and muted but distinctly scented, felt perfectly in tune with the light and chill of the morning.
The florist stood back to examine the last completed bouquet, turned and smiled. “The flowers are hello kisses to the museum visitors and are meant to bring smiles to their faces,” he explains. “I love that I get to work in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the combination of art and flowers reminds me of my childhood home in Holland.”
He continues, “My father was a florist, my grandfather was a painter and my grandfather’s brother was an art dealer. Flowers — and art about flowers — were everywhere.”
Flower painting reached its apotheosis in 17th-century Holland, reflecting a bourgeois craze for botany. The genre’s dazzling realism, however, was pure artifice.
Painting after painting includes combinations of flowers that could never actually bloom at the same time. The imagined arrangements were composed from an assembly of seasonal studies done over the course of a year.
“Today we have airplanes and cargo trucks,” notes van Vliet. “I can gather flowers from all over the world and recreate the fanciful arrangements depicted in Dutch flower paintings — which were botanical impossibilities back when they were painted.”
A version of this article, written by Michael Gormley with photography by Manuel Rodriguez, was featured in Artists Magazine. Subscribe today to never miss an issue.