Boys with Plants in Art (Hotties Alert!)

Anuradha Sroha
May 18, 2020

Boys and men posing with plants and flowers is a popular theme in art. The concept was revisited on Instagram, a social media platform on the account @boyswithplants. Although Instagram photographs focus on plants for their aesthetic appeal, the paintings use them as personal and professional symbolism.

Symbolic Meanings of Plants

Flowers and plants in art fulfill aesthetic and symbolic meanings. In western classical mythology and Christianity, plants were used as metaphors for virtue and vice, and flowers represented chastity and purity. Beyond the sacred themes, plants were also valued for their medicinal properties. Also known as botanical imagery, from the 15th and 16th centuries, there was an increasing interest in the natural world and its realistic depiction by the artists.

Boys with Plants on Instagram

Thanks to a project started in 2016 by Scott Cain, a graphic designer, and ‘plant guru’ on Instagram called @boyswithplants or Boys with Plants, the concept has gained much popularity on social media. The account is a collection of photographs of men posing next to their carefully nurtured exotic plants. Although the plants are the focus of the photographs, it is difficult to overlook their good-looking owners. The collection is also available as a coffee-table book entitled, Boys with Plants: 50 Boys and the Plants They Love (2019). However, men and boys posing alongside plants and flowers is not a new concept; it already exists in portrait paintings.

Boys with plants in art: Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait with Holly (Self Portrait with a Thistle), 1493, 56×44 cm, Oil on Vellum, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Boys with Plants in Art

Faithful Husband

Boy: Albrecht Dürer

Plant: Thistle

Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) Self-portrait with Holly (Self Portrait with a Thistle), 1493, is one of the very first independent self-portraits in Western painting. After serving his apprenticeship in his hometown of Nuremberg, the young Dürer made a guild tour through southern Germany. The self-portrait was probably painted in Strasbourg.

The Self-portrait with Holly (Self Portrait with a Thistle) takes the form of a bust seen from a three-quarters angle against a dark background, and its composition is entirely consistent with the painting tradition of the time. The pose is a little awkward because the painter had to constantly look at himself in the mirror.

He is wearing sophisticated clothes: a small red cap with pompoms and an elegant overgarment of bluish-gray which contrasts against the whiteness of the inner garment. The face still has some childish features as seen in his earlier self-portrait painted at the age of 13, but the manly neck, the strong nose, and the vigorous hands are already those of an adult. Dürer is 22 years old in the portrait. His excellence as an engraver and training as a goldsmith is evident in the almost metallic fineness of detail, seen in the prickles of the thistle.

One interpretation of the thistle held by the artist came from a German scholar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) who saw it as an engagement present for Agnes Frey, whom Dürer was going to marry in 1494. In German, the thistle is called ‘Mannstreu’, which means a husband’s fidelity.

The other interpretation, owing to the inscription on the painting next to the date, “Things happen to me as it is written on high” suggests the thistle as an allusion to Christ’s Passion or more specifically the spikes on the crown of thorns. In this case, the portrait would be a forerunner of his self-portrait of 1500 in which Dürer appears as the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, a Christ-like figure crowned with the glory of God. Regardless of the interpretations, the self-portrait combines the artist’s pride with humility, making Dürer the first painter of the German Renaissance.