Lilac’s Reach Beyond the Garden: From Walt Whitman to Claude Monet, Lilacs Sparked the Imagination of Creative Minds

The lilac tree next to our living room window is blooming. I like the fact that unlike the cherry blossoms that show up before the leaves appear, lilacs bloom next to or side by side with leaves, giving the impression of a perfect bouquet for offering.

Perhaps it’s their self-effacing quality that draws me to lilacs. Their demeanor is subtle and unpretentious. Flamboyancy is not their style, and they’re perfectly happy to remain in the background hiding behind other ostentatious trees or bushes and you only discover them from a mellow fragrance wafting in the air. The memory of the fragrance stays with you for good and you yearn for it from afar.

The lilac in general is a sturdy and resilient bush and it keeps coming back year after year without fail, even though we hardly do any nursing of it. As the spring breeze blows through them, the undulating fully-bloomed lilacs give the impression of a dance of joy for homecoming after a year’s absence.

(Photo by Shankar Chaudhuri)

The lilac tree in our yard belongs to the Syringa vulgaris or common lilac species, reportedly native to Southeastern Europe. The overwhelming majority of lilacs found in the United States belong to this common lilac variety. While our lilac blooms have a lavender color, they also come in various other colors such as purple, white and diffused burgundy.

(Photo by Shankar Chaudhuri)

If their etymology is any clue, it’s conceivable that lilac originated in Asia and then made its westward journey through the middle east and eastern Europe before reaching western Europe and then beyond the Atlantic to America. Lilac name appears in closely related forms in ancient Sanskrit as nila for dark blue, as nīlak for bluish in Persian as well as Arabic, and as lilas in French.

In America, lilac’s popularity was instantaneous beginning with its introduction in the 1750s. It featured prominently in the gardens of the nation’s founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Early on lilac inspired European and American nurserymen and horticulturists to select and create cultivars across varieties and species exhibiting diverse colors, fuller and larger blooms, or unique aromas. Today we have close to two thousand lilac cultivars. Some of the hybrids include French lilacs, Persian lilacs, Beauty of Moscow Lilacs and Korean Lilacs. Interspecies cross-breeding involving the common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and an Asian species (Syringa oblata) has produced what is known as hyacinth lilac.

Lilacs Inspiring Writers

But it’s not just nurserymen and horticulturalists that the lilacs have served as the inspiration. They have also captivated the imagination of creative minds for a long time.

In Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, written in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s death, Walt Whitman pays a most evocative tribute to the “wisest soul of all my days and lands.” In the poem, as the fallen president’s coffin makes its final journey from the nation’s capital across towns and cities to its burial site in Illinois, Whitman makes his humble offering: “With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces . . . Here coffin that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of lilac.” He also uses the lilac imagery as a lasting symbol of remembrance of the great president: “Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves, I leave thee there in the door yard, blooming, returning with spring.”

While T.S Eliot finds April to be the “the cruelest month,” he also seems to eulogize it for it breeds “lilacs out of the dead land” mixing “memory and desire,” as he put it in the Waste Land. Eliot comes back to the lilac imagery in Ash Wednesday where “the lost heart stiffens and rejoices in the lost lilac.” The lilac imagery also permeates his The Portrait of a Lady where “She has a bowl of lilacs in her room/And twists one in her fingers while she talks.”

In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde offers a momentarily nuanced portrait of his famous literary creation Dorian Gray “burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine.” The scene is quite telling in conveying a softer side of Dorian Gray. Essentially Wilde is showing that even a hedonistic and pleasure-seeking individual like Gray has aesthetic sensibilities and is entitled to have an appreciation for the sublime.

In a strange twist, years later after he wrote the novel, we find Wilde himself craving for the lilacs as much as his character Dorian Gray. Wilde almost recreates the scene of Gray “burying his face” in lilacs for himself in De Profundis written during his imprisonment in Gaol, Reading: “I tremble with pleasure when I think that on the very day of my leaving prison both the laburnum and the lilac will be blooming in the gardens, and that I shall see the wind stir into restless beauty the swaying gold of the one, and make the other toss the pale purple of its plumes, so that all the air shall be Arabia for me.”

Lilacs produced similar intensity of feelings for Marcel Proust. Proust writes in Swann’s Way:

… we would leave town by the lane that ran along the white gate of M. Swann’s park. Before reaching it, we would meet the smell of his lilacs, coming out to greet the strangers. From among the fresh green little hearts of their leaves, the flowers would curiously lift above the gate of the park their tufts of mauve or white feathers, glazed, even in the shade, by the sun in which they had bathed.

For Proust lilac’s fragrance and “memories of the lost time” are intertwined:

When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.

Joyce Carole Oates in Last Days finds Budapest of late May permeated with the “sweet, languid, rather sleepy smell of lilacs.” For Carole Oates the open display of affection by lovers in the city is “bound up…with the heady ubiquitous smell of lilacs.”

Lilac left an indelible mark in the works of Russian writers such as Anton Chekhov and Ivan Turgenev. Chekhov paid special attention to the natural scenery at Melikhovo, the estate south of Moscow where he lived for seven years writing some of his most famous plays and stories. One spring, he reportedly planted over 100 lilac bushes in his estate. The influence of the lilac landscape he created is clearly visible in his short stories which are infused with lilac phrases and references such as “a lilac-colored dress,” “a soft-lilac sky,” “lilac-colored mist,” “a soft warm lilac hue,” and so on. Chekhov’s friend, the famous Russian painter Issac Levitan, perfectly captured the image of how lilacs were so dear to Chekov’s heart through his painting of the front porch of Chekhov’s estate in Melikhovo surrounded by fully bloomed lilac bushes.

Spring: White Lilacs, Isaac Levitan, c. 1895, Public Domain.

Lilac features prominently in Ivan Turgenev’s works as well. In Fathers and Sons, lilac-filled nature serves as a dynamic and benevolent force in contrast to the nihilism of Bazarov who claims that “nature, too, is trivial, in the sense you give to it. Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it.” In contrast, Kirsanov finds in nature a perfect antidote to Bazarov’s materialistic claims, and mechanical mindset: “…a few late-homing bees hummed lazily and drowsily among the lilac; swarms of midges hung like a cloud over a single far-projecting branch. ‘O Lord, how beautiful it is!’ he [Kirsanov] thought.”

In the end Turgenev uses flowers to redeem a man who had been skeptical of everything and was devoid any feeling to the natural world:

However passionate, sinful and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep at us serenely with their innocent eyes; they speak to us not only of eternal peace, of the vast repose of ‘indifferent’ nature: they tell us, too, of everlasting reconciliation and of life which has no end.

Lilacs also make up many of the lyrics of our time. Paul Robseon writes about hearing “my people singing — in the glow of parlor coal-stove and on summer porches sweet with lilac air, from choir loft and Sunday morning pews — and my soul was filled with their harmonies.” Carlos Santana sings about the spirit having “a lilac smell.” In “Ballads of the True West” Johnny Cash sings in remembrance of his “sweetheart” who had left him: “Each time I see lilacs my heart breaks in two.”

Lilacs touching Painters

It’s only natural that painters with their general fascination with the natural world would also gravitate to lilacs. This was precisely the case with both impressionist and post-impressionist painters in Europe. Claude Monet is perhaps most widely known for his water lily paintings that he embarked on in his gardens in Giverny, in northwestern France, in the final decades of his life. But much less well-known is the fact that Monet also produced two lilac paintings in the garden of his first home in Argenteuil, near Paris, in spring 1872. One of these two compositions is made against an overcast sky, and the second one during a sunny day. The works are mirror images of each other, except the light and the number of individuals in them, two in one, three in the other. What is outstanding in both paintings is that Monet is providing primacy to the lilacs and that individuals are ancillary to the composition. In fact, the fuzzy human figures in each seem to be an extension of the lilacs and help to accentuate their look and feel against different shades of light.

Lilacs, Grey Weather, Claude Monet, 1872 Orsay, Paris. Public Domain
Lilacs in the Sun, Claude Monet, 1982, Pushkin Museum. Public Domain

Edouard Vuillard, a friend of Proust, also composed a series of lilac works, including the well known The Lilac Trees, mostly as private decorative pieces for Paris apartments of famous people. But it was Edouard Manet who composed some of his most famous paintings of fruits and flowers during the final six months of his life including the Vase of White Lilacs and Roses, created just two months before his death in 1883. The lilacs in the painting exude a high level of energy and vitality in spite of being featured in an indoor setting. Auguste Renoir had also produced a painting of a similar namesake Vase of Lilacs and Roses. The difference in the focus of these two paintings (see below) is very interesting. While Manet’s work primarily focuses on the charged-up flowers, Renoir seems to be more interested in the overall context. His composition appears to project a sense of movement, perhaps imparting a feeling of the fragrance circulating around the vase.

Vase of White Lilacs and Roses, Edouard Manet, 1883. Dallas Museum of Art. Public Domain
Vase of Lilacs and Roses, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1870. Public Domain

If lilacs sparked happy memories of a lost time for Proust, they also provided an outlet and inspiration for Vincent van Gogh to create one of his best works during his mental illness. The Lilac Bush was one of the first group of paintings that Van Gogh composed almost as soon as he arrived at the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy. In the painting the nature is a portrayed in its spring bounty and the lilacs with their bluish green tinge serve as a perfect complement to the blue sky in the background, giving the setting a harmonious look and feel.

Lilac Bush, Vicent van Gogh, 1889. Hermitage Museum. Public Domain

In between the two world wars, Marc Chagall, drawing inspiration from French painters of the nineteenth century, used the lilac motif to create Lovers in the Lilacs (1930). Ensconced in an oversized bouquet of lilacs a couple in the painting is immersed in love in an elevated space, free from mundane and earthly worries. Composed after the first world war, and shortly before the rise of Nazism, the painting could also be interpreted as a metaphor for nature serving as a perfect refuge and antidote against the human turmoil and tragedy all around.

Since the time I began working on this piece, our lilac blooms have largely faded or dried up. I feel a sense of pathos in that the lilac season is effectively gone. Proust, who would also like to grab on to the lilacs as long as possible, perfectly captures my feelings:

We stopped for a moment in front of the gate. Lilac time was nearly over; a few, still, poured forth in tall mauve chandeliers the delicate bubbles of their flowers, but in many places among the leaves where only a week before they had still been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, a hollow scum now withered, shrunken and dark, dry and odorless.

But instead of despairing we can also turn to Whitman and take comfort from his line that the lilacs will again be at our “door yard, blooming, returning with spring” in a year’s time.

Writer, critic, market researcher, world traveler and former professor of history. Passionate about art, literature, culture, animals, nature, and human rights.