The Art of American Still Life: Audubon to Warhol at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
October 27, 1915 to January 10, 2016
2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Still life painting, as Meyer Schapiro writes in his marvelously economical account of Paul Cézanne’s apples,
consists of objects that, whether artificial or natural, are subordinate to man as elements of use, manipulation and enjoyment; these objects are smaller than ourselves, within arm’s reach, and owe their presence and place to a human action, a purpose.
His definition nicely hints at why it is a distinctive product of modern mercantile cultures, societies that thus celebrate their ability to assemble supplies of such objects. Still life is an art of plenitude. Indeed it would be worthwhile making a comprehensive list of the artifacts represented in the still life works in this exhibition: biscuits; dead animals; eyeglasses; fine china; fish; foodstuffs; heaps of flowers, fruits, and vegetables; hunting horns; insects; letters, business cards and other written materials; live birds; living and dead plants; oysters and shellfish; piles of books; paper money; picture frames; violins and sheet music; and watch gears. I’ve rarely attended an exhibition with so many depicted things on display. Since the early 19th Century, on the evidence demonstrated here, the United States has been a prosperous manufacturing culture.
Still life painting poses compelling challenges for its commentators. Interpreting history painting involves identifying the story displayed. Analyzing landscapes typically requires knowledge of the site depicted, and discussion of portraits often demands information about their subject. But since the identity of many (though not all) objects in these American still lifes is visually obvious, what is the legitimate role of commentary? Some these 130 still lifes, I grant, show strange subjects. The exhibition opens with two by Raphaelle Peale, the founder of the American still life tradition: Catalogue Deception (after 1813), a small trompe l’oeil image of a worn exhibition catalogue; and Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception (1822), in which a white cloth obstructs our view of the female nude. And it concludes with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Jasper Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960), a coffee can container of paintbrushes, which are cast in bronze. But most of the subjects shown here are not unfamiliar.
We learn a great deal about America from still lifes, the exhibition catalogue argues, because these banal things at hand express our social history, define our relationships and illustrate our dominating personal desires and fears. Thus the currency and stamps in John Haberle’s The Changes of Time (1888) illustrate American history; WiIliam Michael Harnett’s After the Hunt (1885) presents the implements of the huntsmen and some of their animals caught; and Kate Safe’s The Answer is No (1958), painted when she was going blind – by depicting a vast array of blank canvases – shows her grim future. But merely identifying the subjects of these pictures, as I (following Schapiro) have done, does not identify what is perhaps their most aesthetically significant feature, the ways in which the groupings of these objects are composed. Just as, when bringing flowers home from the florist, you display them in a pleasing arrangement, so successful still life artists arrange their objects with care, constructing what might be called a group portrait of these things. Consider, for example, William Michael Harnett’s Music (1886), in which you see a rare Cremona violin balanced on top of a pile of sheet music, with books, a vase and a fine carpet. As in most of these still lifes, the objects are depicted in fine-focus naturalistic detail. But how strikingly unnatural is this composition, in which the violin extends over the edge of the table, pressing towards the viewer like the saint in some baroque altarpiece. A similar analysis could be offered of many of the pictures—the presentation of these things thus reflecting our aesthetic interests. The Art of American Still Life is an important exhibition because of the quality and quantity of art displayed, because the catalogue presents a challenging and plausible thesis, and above all because the art is such fun to look at.