Still Life Claims its Place in American Art

Still Life and America was the first lecture in the inaugural John Wilmerding Symposium on American Art held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. this October. Mark D. Mitchell, Holcombe, the T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery based his 30 minute lecture on the recent exhibit that he curated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life.
I present some of his thoughts here (and they are by no means complete) that inspired me to think more about the still life.

Mitchell noted that many landmarks in American Art are in the still life genre. Still life, he said, represent “objects in culture… embracing so much beyond the frame.” He noted the immediacy with which the viewer can engage with a still life; there is nothing in between.

Some of the early still lifes, while seemingly imitative of their European predecessors often demanded a closer look. Rembrandt Peale’s sensitive painting of Rubens Peale with a Geranium from 1801, for example, begins to invites conjecture of the still life as a double portrait (see below).

Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778 - 1860 ), Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund
Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778 – 1860 ), Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

As another example, Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest by Severin Roesen from 1853 threw together an “explosive” mix of flowers from different seasons “that had no business being together” into one painting that spoke to the bounty of nature in America.

From the 1876 centennial and its marvel of materials and industrialized production to the age of skepticism in the late 19th century when taste and discernment became the barometers of beauty in art, Mitchell traces the trajectory of the still life in America. By the early 20th century we had moved into the age of “animating surrealism and precisionism.” He illustrate this with an image of Two Calla Lilies on Pink by O’Keeffe next to Charles Scheeler’s Rolling Power, vastly different subject matter, but both he said, “imbued with movement and energy and sensitivity.”

While still life may have been the vehicle of abstraction in the 1930s, it took a back seat to the powerhouse that was abstract expressionism. Fittingly, at the end of this post I’ve included a still life by Thomas Hart Benton (not in the Mitchell lecture), acclaimed as the most famous artist in America in the 1930s for his populist and regional images of America and its people. Benton is also known from being both a friend and mentor to Jackson Pollock. But by the later nineteen-forties, barely more than a decade later, it was Pollock who could lay claim the title of most famous American artist. Benton retreated into obscurity as the art world turned away from realism, and with it, the still life. That was, until the 1960s, when Pop Art returned us to the everyday objects of our lives (think Warhol’s soup cans), but rendered them anew, a representation of the commodification of our lives–and of art.

For me, in its essence, the still life is a tableau in the most basic sense of the word, an arrangement of everyday object mostly on a flat surface, instantly familiar and accessible to everyone, and thus perhaps the most democratic of the figurative arts. We know that the still life is not going to get up and go somewhere. The objects do not (generally) gaze back, and even if imbued with a larger meaning or allegory, they still do not gaze back. The still life, thus, can invite as much contemplation as the viewer is willing to extend.

In its familiarity, in its reassurance of stability and gravity, it provides a foundation for appreciating art and through abstraction, a safe passage into the bewildering seas of abstract expressionism.

It is the safe harbour to which we can always return to discover and render anew.

Silver Vase, Thomas Hart Benton 1945, Collection: Phoenix Art Museum
Silver Vase, Thomas Hart Benton 1945, Collection: Phoenix Art Museum. The sinuous muscular quality of Benton’s brush is apparent here, as is the homage to the tulips of the Dutch masters and the settings of Cezanne.

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