Published: August 17, 2010
Of art’s enduring genres, still life may offer the most opportunities for bravura paint handling, astute composition and deft arrangement of color, texture and light. Whether it is contorted reflections of light on glass and silver, dewdrops glistening on flower petals, fruit or vegetables heaped on porcelain or meticulous textures of cloth, metal or fur †the rendering of such objects requires not only technical skills, but an instinct for the right image for the subject at hand.
The supremely gifted French still life master Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699‱779) suggested that it takes more than skill to excel in the genre. “One uses color,” he observed, “but one paints with feelings.”
An offshoot of still lifes, trompe l’oeil (or “fool the eye”) paintings †so realistic that they trick the viewer into thinking objects or scenes are real rather than painted †demand exceptional painting ability and are extremely time-consuming. They offer special rewards to those who examine them closely.
Although elements of still life and trompe l’oeil painting can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the genre did not emerge full-fledged until the Seventeenth Century in the Netherlands. While popular throughout Europe with middle-class patrons during the following two centuries, still life paintings were considered by art critics, theorists and upper-class collectors as inferior to history paintings with religious or political themes.
In the Eighteenth Century, however, new compositional types, depictions of wild game and hunting equipment and kitchen scenes made the genre lively, contemporary and interesting. By the Nineteenth Century, cross-cultural influences had broken down national boundaries, launching a new international style of still life work.
Starting in colonial times with the likes of the Peale family and proceeding with such skilled painters as Severin Rosen, William Michael Harnett and John F. Peto, still life and trompe l’oeil emerged in America as vibrant genres second in popularity only to portraiture.
By midcentury, the rise of a national school of landscape painting and the subsequent growth of art unions added to acceptance of still lifes among both artists and the public. Indeed, the demand for still lifes became so strong that numerous artists known for their work in other genres focused on the rendering of fruits, flowers and game. For many, still lifes, like panoramic landscapes, were signs of nature’s bounty, of the abundance and prosperity of the New Eden.
Trompe l’oeil painters, inspired by the deceptive realism of Harnett (1848‱892), specialized in meticulous, tightly executed renderings of bric-a-brac, antiques and other everyday objects. John Haberle used the same illusionistic technique as Harnett in his depictions of currency and shipping packages, but added his own touches of humor and satire.
In the Twentieth Century, American still life artists have more than held their own in the field. In the heady post-World War II era, they survived the onslaught of the Abstract Expressionists and their champions who sought to quash every style, especially Realism, that came before it. A resurgence of Realism in the 1970s led to renewed interest among museum curators and collectors, and still life exhibitions at prestigious museums.
An outstanding example is “Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art,” an exhibition drawn from that museum’s fine collection. Already seen at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, it is on view at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts through October 3.
Comprising more than 50 diverse works, the show offers an overview of the history and evolution of the still life tradition. Among the well-known artists represented are Avery, Beckmann, Beuys, Chagall, Demuth, Kuniyoshi, Lichtenstein, Mapplethorpe, Matisse, O’Keeffe, Picasso, Steichen, Warhol and Edward Weston. There is no catalog.
As the exhibition documents, still life came into its own as an art form in the Golden Age of Dutch painting. In “The Banquet of the Holofernes,” 1615′0, Dutchman Kaspar van den Hoecke (circa 1585‱648) depicted the festive “cocktail hour” during which Judith of Bethulia prepared to save her fellow citizens from the Assyrians by getting their leader, Holofernes, soused. She then led him to bed where she sliced off his head with his own sword. The artist’s virtuosity is apparent in the masterful rendering of rich fabrics and candlelit culinary delicacies.
Similarly, albeit more than 300 years later, Russian-born American painter Robert Brackman (1898‱980) exquisitely portrayed a tabletop jumble of fruits, a bottle, a bouquet of flowers, a violin and a man’s top hat being surveyed by a dreamy young woman. It is anybody’s guess what is going on in “The Reverie,” 1957, but there is no question that it is a technical tour de force.
Another Dutch master, Jacobus Biltius (1633‸1), specialized in trompe l’oeil portrayals of dead game hanging on plain walls typical of Dutch pantries of the time, as in “A Trompe L’oeil: A Hen and a Kingfisher Hanging on Strings Against a Whitewashed Wall, with a Spider, Flies and Other Insects Nearby,” circa 1670.
Pulling out all the stops, Biltius complemented his realistically painted large red hen and kingfisher with insects crawling along the wall toward the dead fowl. One must look with care to discern that all these elements are an illusion.
Somewhat akin to Biltius’s subject matter, but a still life rather than a fool-the-eye picture, is American Modernist and Maine native Marsden Hartley’s “Flounders and Blue Fish,” 1942. Reducing forms to their essentials, Hartley (1877‱943) showed the unadorned fish against a dark, rough-hewn background that seems to emphasize their availability for the next meal.
Dutch/Flemish and Spanish still life painters favored flowers as centerpieces of their work. Flemish artist Daniel Seghers (1590‱661), a Jesuit priest in an Antwerp monastery, painted meticulous floral images to encourage religious contemplation on the part of viewers. Colorful blooms from Dutch gardens are showcased in his beautiful “A Garland of Pink Roses, A Tulip, A Pink Carnation, Narcissi and other Flowers with Blue Bows,” Seventeenth Century. Spain’s leading still life painter, Juan de Arellano (1614‱676), painted with similar virtuosity vases overflowing with vibrant flowers.
Of more recent vintage, American Modernist master Charles Sheeler (1883‱965) painted a precise view of a white vase with muted green-white flowers juxtaposed against a dark brown pitcher with a bare, tan wall behind. Eugene Speicher (1883‱962), on the other hand, chose to pose his vase of flowers bursting with color against a gray-paneled wall. Both works demonstrate their creator’s adroit use of composition and setting to convey their vision of the scene.
In the Twentieth Century, photography became an important medium for creating floral and other still lifes. On view are examples ranging from Baron Adolph de Meyer’s straightforward 1908 photogravure of a vase of flowers to Florence Henri’s 1975 photomontage derived from Cubism that fragments the image of several tulips.
Ordinary garden-variety fruits and vegetables have long been a staple of still life artists. There are no examples in the exhibition by the all-time master of this motif, Paul Cezanne, but a solid “Still Life,” 1871, by French Realist titan Gustave Courbet (1819‱877) helps fill the void. True to his Realist standards, Courbet here gathered a largely unappealing, motley assortment of fruit, pitted and perhaps wormy, and set them against an ominous background. To some, it represents Realism to a fault.
Much more appealing is Canadian Edward M. Manigault’s (1887‱922) decorative “Still Life with Pears, Bananas and Grapes,” 1918, with ceramic bowls of luscious fruit surrounded by richly patterned swatches of cloth. Walt Kuhn (1877‱949), best known for his depictions of clowns, demonstrated his versatility with a Cezanne-like “Dancing Pears,” 1924. In a similar vein, Vaclav Vytlacil (1892‱984) used vivid colors, disorienting perspectives and tactile surface treatments in appealing compositions.
One of the more challenging motifs for still life painters is the tabletop arrangement, which requires astute placement of everyday objects to make an appealing picture. The star here is American still life master Harnett, who built his reputation on delicately rendered vignettes of worn household objects ld books, newspapers, pipes, tobacco tins, stoneware, quill pens and tattered greenbacks. His skill at organizing and then painting such objects on a nondescript tabletop is exemplified by “Bachelor’s Table,” 1880. Meant to be read metaphorically, Harnett’s work speaks to modern conditions and urban lifestyles in ways traditional paintings of fruit, flowers and game cannot.
In a manner similar to Sheeler, the underappreciated Preston Dickinson (1891‱930) used semiabstract forms, compressed space and subtle colors to create assured tabletop compositions like “Still Life with Compote,” 1922.
Self-taught German photographer Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schultze, 1913‱951) created a gritty, Realist view of a table strewn with a dirty plate and utensils and an unfinished glass of wine and smudged wine bottle, as though a meal had just been finished.
A quite different approach is represented by Modernist photographer Ralph Steiner (1899‱986), whose gelatin silver print “Ham and Eggs,” 1930, offers a bird’s-eye view of a tabletop with a plate with circular ham and eggs, surrounded by a pattern of eggs as far as the eye can see.
The Norton collection goes beyond the usual by including three-dimensional still life objects. They include a Chinese tomb table loaded with food designed to feed the well-to-do in the spiritual realm and a Chinese “Imperial Carved Panel” that melds carved items with perspective and painterly techniques reflecting European painting conventions. Also mixing East and West is a pair of Chinese blue porcelain vases in the shape of fish, a frequent motif in Chinese art, each adorned with shiny European ormolu mounts. It dates to 1796‱820.
Another intriguing Asian object, sawed and chiseled by Japanese artisan Fumio Yoshimura (1926′002), is a linden wood skeleton of a “Grouper,” 1975. Remarkable for its delicacy and detail, it documents continuation of traditional Japanese woodworking.
At an opposite pole is Nigerian-born, British-educated sculptor Yinka Shonibare (b 1962), who created a fascinating mixed media, toy Victorian townhouse like his own. It is open on one side, revealing that it is decorated in the artist’s signature style †brightly colored, European-made Nigerian fabrics. On one interior wall hangs a tiny picture of French Eighteenth Century artist Jean-Honore Fragonard alongside a photograph of Shonibare, suggesting their artistic affinity. This is a busy image indeed.
Utilizing both time-honored painting techniques and new technology from photography forward, still life artists continue to create works that appeal and confound. Artists continue to mine the suggestive possibilities inherent in everyday objects to transmit a universe of meanings. As one contemporary still life specialist put it, “I want to take the ordinary and give it a place of honor.”
In a world in which everybody and everything seems to move so fast, still lifes make a case for looking harder and slower. This exhibition, illuminating the evolution of the genre, suggests that there will always be a place for still life images in world art.
The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is in Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park, 1 Museum Drive. For information, www.mmfa.org or 334-244-5700.
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