Editor's note: The following article was written in conjunction with the exhibition Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life, on view August 10 - December 8, 2013 at Reynolda House Museum of American Art. It was published November, 4, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author via Reynolda House Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life

by Martha R. Severens


Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life explores still life imagery over time -- from 1828 to 2008 -- and includes decorative arts, photography, prints, paintings, and sculpture. Largely based on Reynolda House's collection, the selection is supplemented by loans from private and public collections in North Carolina. The installation does not purport to be comprehensive, but seeks to ask: what constitutes still life?

An introductory section lays the foundation and addresses the legacy of seventeenth-century Dutch art and the early evolution of still life painting in this country. A pristine painting by James Peale is an orderly arrangement of unblemished fruit. The only manmade object -- a simple ceramic bowl -- provides a unifying element at the center of the composition. Peale, one of the earliest practitioners of still life painting in the United States and known primarily as a portrait miniaturist, belonged to early America's most celebrated artistic family. His older brother, Charles Willson Peale -- an eminent Philadelphia portraitist with a great interest in natural history -- founded a museum where he exhibited portraits of statesmen along with natural specimens like mastodon bones and taxidermied birds. James Peale's approach to still life painting mirrors his brother's commitment to the systematic study of the natural world.

More in the Dutch tradition are a pair of large-scale paintings by German immigrant Severin Roesen, one representing fruit, the other flowers. Roesen's approach was a no-holds-barred one; his displays boldly incorporate varieties that are not in season simultaneously. Some specimens are exotic, some past their prime, but each is rendered in scrupulous detail. More than beautiful arrangements, however, they remind viewers of life's transience, a recurring theme known as vanitas. Eventually, everything will droop and fade, much like the flowers in Reynolda House's painting. The eggs in the bird's nest -- a recurring device in his oeuvre -- offer a more hopeful note of new life, an idea that carried special poignancy after the tremendous losses of the Civil War.

Not all still life paintings depict precious, beautiful objects or nature's bounty. William Harnett's Job Lot Cheap presents a shelf of well-worn books, perhaps at a junk sale, made compelling by his rendering of a convincing shallow space and his meticulous simulation of textures like worn leather, gilt letters, and torn paper. His highly realistic trompe l'oeil technique is so tangible that many viewers are tempted to reach in and tidy things up. As with many still lifes, the painting carries an underlying symbolic meaning. The tattered books no longer hold interest. The "cheap lot for sale" serves as a metaphor for the inevitability of passing fancies, loss of pertinence, and even death.

A very different approach is Childe Hassam's in Giant Magnolias, where symbolic meaning is not an issue. Instead, using lushly applied paint in bold strokes, the artist appeals to the senses. A Middle Eastern vase with a brilliant turquoise glaze further enhances the sensuality of the image.

Flowers have always been a traditional subject for still life artists. In Phlox David Johnson captures a stand of lavender, pink, and white blooms at their peak, emphasizing the abundant nature of the species by crowding the picture plane. The loosely articulated background provides a sense of surrounding vegetation, while the more detailed foreground reveals that the scene is a garden, not a vase filled with cut flowers like so many traditional compositions. The close view eliminates the presence of sky, creating ambiguity about time and place and concealing the fact that the painting is actually a landscape.

Similarly, John Singer Sargent, better known for his fashionable portraits, simply presents a container of roses in his Garden Sketch. Sargent rarely painted still lifes, but often included flowers and objects in bigger compositions. This canvas may be preliminary to a larger work or, as the title implies, a quick sketch done in a garden. The casual, off-center composition reflects the influence of Japanese prints, which were very popular in the 1890s, and the visible brush strokes and ample paint relate to Impressionism, a style of painting Sargent knew from his many years in Paris.

Another example of a still life painting with a landscape is Martin Johnson Heade's Orchid with Two Hummingbirds. A dedicated naturalist, Heade made many trips to Brazil to research and collect hummingbirds, hoping to publish an illustrated study of these tiny creatures. Even though he worked from preserved specimens, he rendered his birds lifelike and life-sized. He also portrayed them in their native landscape alongside exotic plants, revealing an interest in scientific specificity that was common in the nineteenth century. In addition, he rendered both flower and bird meticulously as objects of beauty -- a quality seen in many early still life paintings.

Complementing this section of the exhibition are objects drawn from the historic 1917 Reynolda House itself: a Queen Anne revival-style armchair with embroidery that depicts both floral and fruit still life compositions and an elaborate Samuel Kirk silver repoussé punchbowl decorated with roses and chrysanthemums. The bowl was a gift from R.J. Reynolds to his wife Katharine for their fourth anniversary. Mirroring Heade's painting is Dorothy Doughty's Royal Worcester porcelain Male Hummingbird with Fuchsia, one of eighty on view in the historic house. Like Heade, and also John James Audubon who is represented in the exhibition by his Blue Jay, Doughty insisted upon placing her birds in appropriate habitats.

Still life motifs also appear as subsets of larger compositions, where their presence can further a narrative and convey symbolic content. In the Studio, William Merritt Chase's depiction of his premises at prestigious Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, reminds the viewer that in his time artists' studios were not only places for work; they also served as waiting rooms, salesrooms, and exhibition spaces. Chase was an inveterate collector, indifferent to cost in the pursuit of acquisition, and he bought many of his things on his frequent travels to Europe. As evidence of his active and varied collecting practices, when Chase was forced to sell the contents of his studio at an auction in 1896, the items were sorted into twenty-five categories.

Gathered around Chase's fashionably dressed figure is an eclectic array of exotic curios forming an "aesthetic boutique" that alludes to his travels and his cosmopolitanism. There seems to be little conscious order to things; a Renaissance-style plaque hangs above an Asian figure, a laurel wreath crowns a classical bust, and a brass vessel dangles above brushes and a small painting. Like these objects, the woman, her bonnet lying on the floor, is also decorative as she browses through a portfolio of Japanese prints. With its rich colors and textures, and profusion of stuff, In the Studio is a testament to American materialism and the practice of collecting.

In a very different manner and almost one hundred years later, Gregory Gillespie portrayed his studio in a scene that is both still life and autobiography. On a tablecloth inspired by memories of his favorite trattoria in Rome is a miscellaneous array: two squash, a tree stump, and a mannequin who bears a slight resemblance to the artist's second wife. Displayed along the central axis are three masks, flanked by his self-portrait on the left and a likeness of his first wife on the right. Additional small drawings and minute objects add to the work's complexity.

Gillespie's symbolism is arcane, personal, and at times sexual, as exemplified by the naked figures and the phallic, flesh-colored gourd. The starkness of the space, the clutter of objects, and their disturbing symbolism veil the artist's intent. In a talk at Reynolda House in 1982, however, he admitted the piece "had a heavy side" and was done at a time when he was "going through personal difficulties." Gillespie never escaped his demons; the artist took his own life in 2000.

Mystery and decay pervade Frank London's Song Silenced, which includes familiar still life conventions such as a peeled lemon, a sliced watermelon, a draped tablecloth, and a knife. The setting appears to be the artist's studio, where one might find a T-square and a page from an art journal pinned to a wall. At the center a caged bird is silenced by a cloth covering, a goblet holds grapes -- an obvious reference to the Christian Eucharist -- and a pair of locusts creeps among the fruit. London, who had studied art in Europe, painted a number of allegorical still lifes. This 1938 work, with its references to decay and corruption, may allude to the destructive power of the Nazi party, which, among other heinous acts, wreaked havoc on the arts, religion, and agriculture.

Another painting that conveys its message by a variety of objects is Elihu Vedder's Dancing Girl. The young woman recognizable as an exotic entertainer by virtue of her attributes -- a tambourine, an elaborate costume, and her willingness to reveal Turkish-style leggings and slippers. Scattered below her are tools for amusement: a wheel for predicting fortunes, juggling balls, and sticks. the painting is called Dancing Girl, she is not depicted dancing, but rather posing serenely, lips parted. She is less an actor and more an aestobject, like the tapestry, tambourine, and the plate at her feet. the multiple objects form a kind of still life, the presence of the wheel of fortune alludes again to vanitas; the wheel's arrow points toward a skull, reminding the viewer that youth and beauty -- qualities the dancer has in abundance -- are fleeting.

For artists, the advantages of still life are many: the objects are inexpensive, available, and -- unlike live models -- indefatigable, except when flowers fade or fruit rots. This helps to explain why the study of still life has become a staple of art schools everywhere.

With the advent of modernism, studies of tabletop arrangements of miscellanea became useful vehicles for exploring light and shadow, the illusion of depth, and the rendering of volume. Things found in studios are often ordinary and anonymous, but are ideal for the study of art fundamentals because they vary in shape, texture, color, and reflective qualities. Usually, the artist arranges objects on some kind of surface, creating both formal and narrative relationships.

For centuries, still life artists have painted musical instruments both for their interesting formal qualities and for the allusions they make to the sense of hearing. Stanton Macdonald-Wright's combination of a flute, mandolin, lilies, and apples appeals to all five senses -- hearing, smell, taste, and, of course, sight and touch. With its inclined tabletop, round fruit, and crumpled cloth, The Jade Flute #2 be read as an homage to Paul Cézanne, the early modernist master of still life painting.

Also admitting a debt to modernism is Louis Lozowick's Breakfast, a synthesis of early modernist styles: Cubism, Precisionism, and even Surrealism. It is also a supreme example of his talent with tonal lithography. The use of such still life motifs as fruit, eggs, and glasses, the spatial dynamism of the composition, and the tilted tabletop relate to early phases of Cubism, when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque explored how humans perceive objects in space and time. They also struggled with representing them on a two-dimensional surface. Lozowick crisply delineated everything that he depicted, including the transparency of the glass, exemplifying the technical virtuosity of Precisionism. The seemingly random combination of things is typical of Surrealism; as in dreams, objects appear in nonsensical relationships.

On the other hand, William Bailey is concerned for the interaction of objects and the intervals between them. He uses familiar, domestic items and places them in a quiet and timeless space. He does not work directly from objects or from photographs. Instead, he relies on memory and imagination. As a result, his paintings often include "inaccuracies." In Still Life with Bottle, Bowl and Eggs, for example, the shadow of the central egg is to its left, while that for the vase behind it is more at an angle. Also, the perspective of the tabletop is skewed. Although most view Bailey as a contemporary realist, he describes his approach as abstraction.

On a much larger scale Audrey Flack's aptly titled Bounty is an eye-catching, pulsating, and brilliantly colored exposé of American consumerism. With the exquisite illusionism typical of Photorealism, Flack has faithfully rendered the transparency of glass, the juiciness of an orange, and the gleaming plastic surface of artificial grapes. On her large canvas, Flack exaggerated the scale of the objects and crowded them together for added impact.

While Bounty displays the stuff of modern life, some objects relate to traditional vanitas still lifes, conveying the idea that existence is transitory. The hand mirror, the half-full wine glass, the burning candle, and overripe vegetables all reference the passage of time and the brevity of life. In addition, the artist humorously juxtaposes meaningful objects, such as photographs of loved ones, with kitschy items like the plastic parrot.

Also working on an imposing scale, Ben Schonzeit comments in Englishtown Jewels upon American consumerism by magnifying common costume "jewels." They glisten against a dark background, forcing the viewer to confront cheap imitation baubles on a grand scale. Although the word "Englishtown" might imply something upscale, it actually refers to a New Jersey flea market where Schonzeit photographed this display; he then based his composition on those photographs. As an accomplished photorealist, Schonzeit cared little about his actual subject, preferring to concentrate on creating perfect verisimilitude.

Whereas both Flack and Schonzeit make statements with easily interpreted, familiar objects, other artists in Things Wondrous & Humble are more inscrutable. Jasper Johns, for example, in his lithograph Decoy, placed a Ballantine ale can in the center as the focal point and underneath depicted a retrospective frieze of his own still life imagery: a flag, flashlight, numerals, and a Savarin coffee can filled with brushes. Similarly engaging and mysterious are the various things found in a Joseph Cornell shadow box: small white sphere balanced on two metal rods, symbolic, perhaps, of progress; a goblet with the zodiacal sign for Leo; and a background of deep blue. More difficult to decipher is a small ceramic head with African features. The inclusion in the exhibition of works like these serves to expand the expected definition of still life -- the depiction of fruit, flowers, dead game, and other objects -- and allows the viewer to contemplate a vast universe of things both wondrous and humble.

Things Wondrous and Humble: American Still Life
by Martha R. Severens
Unless otherwise noted, all works belong to Reynolda House Museum of American Art.
1. James Peale
Still Life with Peaches, Apples and Grapes, circa 1828
o/c, 28 3/4 x 35
Ann and Jim Goodnight
2. Severin Roesen
Flowers in a Glass Pitcher with Bird's Nest and Fruit,circa 1867
o/c, 58 1/4 x 44
gift of Barbara B. Millhouse
3. William Harnett
Job Lot Cheap, 1878
o/c, 18 x 36
original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth
4. Childe Hassam
Giant Magnolias, 1904
o/c, 35 x 20
original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth
5. David Johnson
Phlox, 1886
o/c, 26 x 21
gift of Lawrence A. Fleischman in honor of Charles H. Babcock Sr.
6. John Singer Sargent
Garden Sketch, 1890
o/c, 23 3/8 x 17 5/8
Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
museum Purchase with funds from Jefferson-Pilot Corporation, 1971
7. Martin Johnson Heade
Orchid with Two Hummingbirds, 1871
o/ panel, 22 1/4 x 26 1/2
original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth
8. William Merritt Chase
In the Studio, c. 1884
o/c, 50 x 33 1/4
original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth
9. Gregory Gillespie
Studio: Still Life , 1978
Mixed media on panel, 74 1/4 x 60 1/2
Barbara B. Millhouse
10. Frank London
Song Silenced (Bird Cage), 1938
o/c, 58 1/4 x 48 3/8
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, gift of Mrs. Frank M. London and Mr. Marsden London
11. Elihu Vedder
Dancing Girl, 1871
o/c, 39 x 20
gift of Barbara B. Millhouse
12. Stanton Macdonald-Wright
The Jade Flute #2, 1941
o/c, 20 x 24
Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, gift of Anne and John Summerfield in honor of Will South, 2005
13. Louis Lozowick
Breakfast, 1930
gift of Glenn C. Peck
14. William Bailey
Still Life with Bottle, Bowl and Eggs, 1970
o/c, 36 x 42
Weatherspoon Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro,
museum purchase with funds from North Carolina National Bank and the Smith Richardson Foundation, 1971
15. Audrey Flack
o/c & acrylic, 80 1/4 x 67 1/4
gift of Betsy Main Babcock
16. Ben Schonzeit
Englishtown Jewels, 1971
gift of Jean Crutchfield and Robert Hobbs

About the author

Martha R. Severens retired in 2010 as Curator at the Greenville County Museum after seventeen years. Previously she held similar positions at the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC, and the Portland Museum of Art. She has authored books on Andrew Wyeth and the Charleston Renaissance. She has served as a research consultant and guest curator at House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, NC, and currently is a consultant for The Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, SC.


About the exhibition Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life

The above article was written by Ms. Severens in connection with the exhibition Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life, organized by Reynolda House Museum of American Art. The exhibition opened August 10, 2013 at the museum, and features treasures from the Reynolda House collection accompanied by key loans from museums and private collections across the state. The exhibition closes December 8, 2013. For further information please see Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life (10/16/13).


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 4, 2013 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on October 28, 2103.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Allison Slaby, Curator at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, for her help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.

An edited version of the article appeared in the September - October, 2013 issue of American Art Review.

To read other articles and essays by Ms. Severens published in Resource Library please click here.

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