Exhibition: Artfully Arranged
On exhibition March 26, 2016 - May 21, 2016
Still life is simply defined as a picture of inanimate objects. This definition does little to emphasize the genre's inherent ability to resonate with audiences centuries apart by infusing beauty into the everyday things around us. With landscape painting and portraiture dominating the 19th century art market, still life was often seen as a frivolous pursuit. However, a number of leading American artists began to dabble in the subject as the century progressed, a brave contingent whose gift for painting flowers, produce and other objects helped to elevate the art of still life beyond its presumed limitations.
James Peale and his nephew Raphaelle, working in the early decades of the 19th century, exhibited their distinctive compositions of fruit and vegetables at the Pennsylvania Academy, where they were readily purchased by influential collectors of American paintings. Milne Ramsey, a native of Philadelphia, was likely influenced by the strong still life tradition espoused by the notable Peale family. Ramsey was a consistent exhibitor at the Pennsylvania Academy’s annuals, and his carefully composed arrangements of freshly cut flowers, delectable fruit, antique vases and pottery and even lobsters and fish, were admired for their varying textures and accuracy of detail. Still Life with Copper Kettle and Herring shows Ramsey’s talent for rendering the effect of light on the different surfaces of his subjects, from the glistening scales of the fish to the tarnished copper kettle and ladle, objects clearly often used by their owner.
The still life talents of these mid-century artists eventually led the greater art community to reconsider the merits of the theme. Furthermore, the advancing Aesthetic movement in America and its concept of art as a form of personal expression changed the perspectives of critics and collectors, opening minds to the validity of still life as an effective and worthy art form.
Women artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were especially drawn to still life, due in part to the convenience of finding subject matter and in deference to traditionally-minded schools that rarely offered female art students lessons in the nude or anatomy. Adelaide Palmer, one of the earliest women artists in this exhibition first began exhibiting her still life paintings at the Boston Art Club in 1880. She then furthered her education at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and spent the next few decades creating richly colored fruit and floral arrangements, captured at the peak of freshness. Still Life with Brass Pot is by another graduate of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gretchen Rogers. She moved into Fenway Studios in 1909, at which time she began producing figural work and still lifes. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where Rogers exhibited as early as 1911, counts a Rogers still life among its holdings as well as her self-portrait, Woman in a Fur Hat, which was awarded the silver medal at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Elizabeth Paxton, a graduate of the Cowles Art School in Boston, kept her studio in her home in Newton where she was able to capture the play of light on a variety of objects. Kitchen Still Life – China, Pewter and Lemons is a timeless composition of everyday domestic objects rendered with a sensitivity to light, color and form.
Other woman artists, Laura Coombs Hills and Lee Lufkin Kaula, practiced more conventional styles of still life painting and focused on producing pleasing scenes of flowers. Hills primarily worked in pastel, and created gorgeous flora subjects, including Lilies and Roses, which were avidly collected by an adoring public. This piece was featured in the Boston Water Color Club’s special loan exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Coreopsis and Larkspur, by Lee Lufkin Kaula, features brightly colored flowers placed in the center of the composition, with a muted background, which lends itself well to the striking flowers bursting from the pot.
While images of fruit and vegetables dominated the still life world in the mid-nineteenth century, flowers soon became the subject of choice for many turn of the century painters by virtue of their lyrical qualities and the availability of varied textures, shapes and colors. One of the most successful flower painters of this time was Soren Emil Carlsen. Born in Denmark, and a frequent visitor to France, Carlsen encountered the 18th century French master of still life, Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779), whose depictions of everyday items profoundly influenced Carlsen’s paintings. Like Chardin, he began incorporating kitchen utensils, earthenware pots, dead game and scaly fish into his compositions, paying heed to the play of light on a range of textures and surfaces, while continuing to render the delicate blossoms that were eagerly sought by collectors and celebrated by critics and scholars. His son, Dines Carlsen, also included in this exhibition, received direct tutelage from his talented father. Urn and Fruit in a Landscape incorporates the various elements Soren Emil often included in his still lifes, resulting in a dynamic composition.
Hermann Dudley Murphy attended the Museum School in Boston before traveling abroad to Paris for five years beginning in 1891. There, he was exposed to the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and became fascinated with the Aesthetic Movement, which came to reveal itself in both his work and in the intricately carved frames he created specifically for his paintings. By the 1920s, landscapes and figural work gave way to the still life compositions for which he is today best known. Painted in 1934, the soft, luminous petals in Single White Peonies contrast beautifully against the subdued earth tones of the background tapestry, cleverly mirrored in the glass tabletop. Murphy’s aesthetic skill is revealed in both the harmonizing palette of muted purple and golden hues, and in the hand-carved frame created by him just a few years earlier.
Leslie Prince Thompson, also a graduate of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, responded in his still lifes to the popularity of Asian objets d’art found in many fashionable New England homes around the turn of the century. Both Still Life- Buddha, of 1918, and Still Life with Fruit and Figurine of 1920, demonstrate the flood of these objects on the market, in addition to the artist’s talent in demonstrating careful attention to the combination of items in his still lifes, from the variations in color to the texture and shape of each object.
As the twentieth century progressed, avant-garde methods spreading in Europe and the United States came to shape the still life work of many American artists, from Walt Kuhn to Charles Demuth to Georgia O’Keeffe, in new and profound ways. Contemporary still life painters continue to reinvent the genre, and Vose Galleries is proud to represent four artists who bring their unique sensibilities to a time-honored tradition. Janet Monafo’s pastels, often large-scale, elaborately composed “piles” of everyday objects viewed from a high angle, defy the traditional formula of still life. Over Easy combines the elements traditionally seen in 19th century still lifes, objects found in the home, displayed in a unique and dramatic way with bold colors and patterns. Similarly, June Grey portrays the often-painted rose in miniature, a format she specializes in. In their trompe l’oeil work, John Whalley and David Brega pay homage to the late 19th century discipline made famous by the paintings of William Harnett and John Peto. Whalley paints still lifes of worn books, paper money, pipes and the like, depicted life-size with deep shadows to give a three-dimensional effect to the composition and thus “deceive the eye.” Brega’s talent with texture and depth is seen in the weathered table, and ripe fruit depicted in Pair of Pairs.