Still life in America

This is a lecture covering the development of still life painting in America from the 19 th to the 20 th century. I found it interesting as a starting point to look at the history before exploring more contemporary still life.

Fruit, Flowers and Lucky Strike- Still life in American Culture, speaker Carol Troyen

Oct 29 2015. A Yale University Gallery lecture on You Tube

For a long time still life painters got no respect. The genre was largely disdained in the 18th 19 th century, considered only for decor. It was only in the 20 th century that this changed and still life became a forum for innovation and exploration.

An illustration of this is Charles Bird King , The poor artists cupboard 1815:

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A commentary on the low standard of life resulting from the  the low opinion of still life, poor artist, a glass of water, not wine.

Henry Church in Monkey Picture 1870 makes a satire of the many fruit and flower still lives in America in the 19 th century, painting two monkeys tearing a part a typical Victorian still life setting, knocking things over.

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Raphael’s work is admired today, but in his time his work was not highly regarded. (Wikipedia: Raphaelle Peale (February 17, 1774 – March 4, 1825) is considered the first professional American painter of still-life.)

He paints very quiet paintings of simple compositions of fruits or berries placed on a tabletop before a dark background. Noble but poignant in their simplicity.

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After the Civil war (1861–65) lithographic firms started hiring artists specifically for prints. The American society became aware of the variety of artistic styles and paintings became available to everyone. These were not considered as art, but for decoration or education.

Henry Roderick Newman (1833-1918) produced one of the most popular chromolithographs of the day:

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Robert Dunning, the basket of cherries and George Cockram with lilies on a black background were also popular motives. The right painting shows the beginning interest in Japanese style and design.

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The wealthy class would still choose oil paintings, not chromolithographs, like this painting Abundance by Severin Roesen.

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There are so many flowers the glass vase can not contain them all, from all seasons, all regions, filling the picture space,  a visual assurance of abundance.

Printed advertisements were inspired by still life. Thus the language of the still life had become the language of the consumer class. New styles began to appear and the prestige and interest in still life started to increase.

John Lafarge was the first to create “painterly ” still lives, a vehicle for personal expression rather than virtuosic rendering of nature. He used many media like stained glass, watercolors . His work placed still life in a new light.


William Harnett in the 1870’s was painting money, a new subject that became widespread, as well as trompe l’oeil pictures of bric a brac. This was a time when it was fashion to collect things, bric a brac, and still life paintings were in a way catalogues of the collections.

John Haberle (1856–1933) was another painter expressing this subject. Here in Changes of time from 1888, a history of America through money, a trompe l’oeil on a battered cupboard.

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There was a growing vogue and interest in Japanese painting. Charles Coleman explored this. Here painting with black peach blossom shaped like a Japanese scroll, a blend of realism and trompe l’oeil:

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So at this time the boundaries of still life were being pushed and the genre escaped being pure decor, but what really changed American still life at the turn of the century was the work of Paul Cezanne.

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Since 1870 Paul Cezanne used still life as a tool for constant innovation and many American artists that got into contact with his work began to experiment with still life as a base to explore colors and shapes.

Also the spreading of Photography freed the still life genre from the expectation of exact and detailed rendering of nature.

Paul Strand , photographer, developed the abstract photography, the subject of still life is pure form. He transcends the traditional task of both photography and still life and created a new and modern genre.

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Alfred Stieglitz had a similar approach , doing away with gravity in this study of clouds.

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This liberation of the still life genre is visible in the work of Georgia O Keefe, most known for her paintings of flowers:

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There is no horizon and strong cropping of the flowers. She said “details are confusing”. Her flowers are spirals and curves, not botanical renderings.

This is the Machine Age in America, and the still life genre started embracing machinery as a subject matter.

Morton Livingston Schamberg (October 15, 1881 – October 13, 1918) was one of the first to embrace the interplay art/ machinery. From 1916 he created a series of paintings of made up machines on a neutral background.

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His art work “God” 1917 made from plumbing tools shows how the American culture idolized machinery. He also proved that still life can be made from anything.

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The 20 th century was a time of brash consumerism, money , advertisement and this became a new subject matter . Here Stuart Davis work with Odol mouthwash and Lucky Strike cigarettes:

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Similarly Gerald Murphy with the safety matches:


In his work “Watch” he shows a pocket watch blown up to the size of a person- this radical alteration of scale is a modernist approach, like in the works of Georgia o Keeffe .

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Charles Sheeler (July 16, 1883 – May 7, 1965) was a painter and photographer, creating duos of both of his subject matter.

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Here in Frozen moment, he explores the mechanical form as sculptural elements.

This work with a cactus is a Jazz age version of the traditional table top. The cactus itself the botanical equivalent of a modern bouquet.

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His works are near monochrome, with the cactus a color .This becomes a picture about making a modernist still life.

Paul Outerbridge, Jr. (August 15, 1896 – October 17, 1958) used photography exploring still life playing with the question- what is more real? He groups cylinders, spheres and cones in a way of mocking Cezanne.

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Another satire of the whole tradition of still life, the chromolithographs, is this recreation of  fanny Palmer motive from 1867, an immensely popular chromo at the time.

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Here he asks the questions of the avantgarde: realism versus artificial, imitation versus invention.

Still life as a genre has become essential to modernism.


This lecture was very useful for my understanding of the development of still life and has given me a lot of pointers for further research. Writing it down with the illustrations was very time consuming though as there were no captions on the images shown and I had to google all the artists names to get them right, often searching quite long as the American pronounciation of the lecturer was unusual to me and I had misspelled much. But in turn that gave me the chance to see more works by the same artists and now I know quite clearly in wich direction I want to look further.



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