The 15 Essential Paintings in PMA’s New American Still Life Exhibition
If you’re an impatient type of person or easily bewildered in art museums, we’ve made things easy for you — with the help of Kathy Foster, head of the American Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We’ve assembled a list of the essential works to seek out at the Art Museum’s recently opened major exhibition, “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life,” which explores the tradition of American still-life painting. Nearly 100 artists are represented — from the Philadelphia Peale family of the late 18th century to 20th-century pop icons Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. The exhibit is an abundant feast for the eye. Here are our essential 15, with images when they were available.
Venus Rising From the Sea — A Deception (1822), Raphaelle Peale
The Peales were a Philadelphia family of artists and naturalists who created their own museum here. The father, Charles Willson Peale, an artist himself, wasn’t taking any chances about the future careers of his sons and named them accordingly: Rembrandt, Raphaelle, Titian and Rubens. Raphaelle committed himself to the still life genre that examined objects and our relationship to the material world — much to the displeasure of his father who would have preferred he take up the more illustrious narrative painting to teach morality. This painting is a beguiling trompe l’œil, depicting a coy conceptual deception. The painted handkerchief appears to be placed on the artist’s easel to block the image behind it of a nude Venus. Peale has even painted the Venus in a different style from the handkerchief superimposed in front. All we can see peeking out from behind the handkerchief is a slender foot below and a delicate hand above. The picture conveys the idea of temptation and attempts to entice you into the picture. It is a perfect welcoming painting to begin the exhibition.
Carolina Parrot (1828), John James Audubon
Audubon, a committed naturalist, hunted and shot the parrots in this picture. He hollowed them out and stuffed them to look lifelike and then arranged them on a board, pinning them in various postures to capture how they behaved in life. There’s a case next to this painting in the museum that contains the actual little parrot corpses, looking plump, but sad. The Carolina parrots are extinct now. They had an unfortunate habit of gathering around a fallen fellow bird, making them easy targets for hunters. Audubon’s project, “Birds of America,” was an artistic masterpiece driven by his passion for science.
Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801), Rembrandt Peale
Rembrandt made a name for himself as the portrait painter of the Peale family. This picture of his brother, posed with a potted geranium, shows Rubens’ love for botany. This work shows the relationship we have to the objects that give us our sense of identity. Look at the way the light refracts through his spectacles onto his cheeks. Notice how the geranium plant appears to be running its branches through Rubens’ hair, while he, with great care, holds the pot. His identity is captured in this portrait with the emblematic object.
Fishbowl Fantasy (1867), Edward Ashton Goodes
This painting marks a new section of the exhibit: indulgence. Americans during this period — between the 1840s and 1870s — had more discretionary money and could indulge in more possessions. This painting is a sensual, overstuffed moment of abundance and enjoyment, where more is, well, more! No square inch of the canvas is left untouched in this mysterious narrative picture: plump fish in the fishbowl, a lady’s gloves, a crucifix, a lady’s fan, love letters with the names Isabel and Frank on them, a box with turtle doves and — look closely! — two ladies and an American flag reflected in the fishbowl’s glass. One lady wears gray and one wears blue in, perhaps, a nod to the Civil War. And, of course not to be missed, the voluptuous arrangement of flowers with lush peonies and lilies. This painting demands that you stop and really study its many messages.
Still Life: Cognac and Biscuits (1850), John F. Francis
This painting appears in what you could call the “intoxicated” section with still life pictures of liquors and exotic foods. The pictures here are all about consumption and the enjoyment of life. Look for the oysters, beer, champagne and Rhine wine.
Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest (1853), Severin Roesen
This glorious painting of a floral still life would have carried much symbolism at the time of the painting. Flowers represented personal qualities. For example: Bachelor’s button was anticipation; camellia was graciousness; daisy was innocence; geranium was comfort; holly was domestic happiness; hydrangea was perseverance; lavender was distrust; stargazer lily was ambition; magnolia was dignity; nasturtium was patriotism; orange blossom was fertility; yellow tulip was hopelessly in love. Don’t miss the still life selfie kiosk near this painting. You can scroll through choices of personality characteristics that represent you and then see what your computerized floral still life looks like. You can even email it to yourself.
Wrapped Oranges (1889), William Joseph McCloskey
Oranges were expensive and rare at the time of this painting so this lineup of oranges would have had a real wow factor. The technical skill demonstrated in the representation of the delicately crushed paper wrappers and the veracity of the orange skin is convincing artifice at its best. The oranges are gorgeously painted in various states of undress — like a citrus striptease.
After the Hunt (1885), William Michael Harnett
This painting, a tour de force example of trompe l’œil art, resided for many years in a saloon on Warren Street in Manhattan. People — allegedly in the hundreds each day — would seek out this saloon just to marvel at this optical deception. It’s theatrical as well as technically marvelous. The picture shows us the moments after the hunt — not prestige hunting, but that of a country man who had modestly hunted partridges and rabbit for sustenance. The rabbit looks as though we could reach out and pet its fur.
Which is Which? (1890), Jefferson David Chalfant
This diminutive painting is a challenge to the viewer. A small stamp depicting Abraham Lincoln is pasted on the canvas and an identical stamp is painted alongside. But which is which? Next to the painting is an electronic voting screen where you can guess which is which and see the percentage of how you and those before you guessed correctly.
The Blue Cup (1909), Joseph Rodefer DeCamp
This painting conveys the theme of discernment and connoisseurship in this section of the exhibit: learning through looking. We see a housemaid holding up a piece of fine china, admiring its delicacy and beauty. Aesthetics and truth are celebrated in this picture that values beauty and knowledge.
Rolling Power (1939), Charles Sheeler
This painting marks another section of the exhibit: animating, where objects come to life or we project ideas onto them. This painting gets a fun multimedia experience treatment. We see black and white videos of the actual, massive steam locomotive built by Henry Dreyfuss rolling down the tracks. The wall facing the painting has the artist’s photograph of the train reproduced to actual scale to give you a sense of the locomotive’s enormity.
Woman with Plants (1929), Grant Wood
This is clearly the work of American Gothic painter Grant Wood, but here he shows a solo woman (his mother) clutching her plant in a way reminiscent of Rubens Peale holding his geranium.
The Circle (1948), Walter Tandy Murch
This painting is creepy with its murky lighting and dusty old Decca gramophone, with moss and a beetle atop the record. The gramophone is caught with its arm down, frozen in time, but with flowers poking out from behind the arm. It’s perplexing, mysterious and surreal.
Still Life with Goldfish (1974), Roy Lichtenstein
This familiar painting is placed in the epilogue of the exhibit (right before the gift shop!), but echoes back to Fishbowl Fantasy. But now the abundance and ripeness of that previous work has a flattened, comic-book style treatment.
Brillo Boxes (1964), Andy Warhol
Pop artists like Warhol made objects into sculpture, turning consumer goods into art. Warhol was interested in the decorative quality of the Brillo box design, but again it’s about stuff you’d find in your house — like a bottle of Cognac, a floral arrangement, a basket of fruit, a fishbowl.
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