Untitled (Still Life with Peaches)

Two peaches and two copper vessels—a tall ewer and a squat kettle—comprise the still-life arrangement pictured close-up in Frank Wadsworth’s painting. The color of the undefined surface on which these objects rest complements their muted tones of pink and orange, while the light green of the backdrop, echoed at the bottom edge of the picture, provides contrast. The narrow color range focuses attention on the varied surface textures of burnished copper and velvety peach skin. Like Alfred Jansson in his early Untitled (Still Life), Wadsworth selected ordinary objects and arranged them as if at random. In this small work, he rendered them in the rather loose brushwork and thinly applied oil paint characteristic of a quickly executed study. The confined vertical composition, slightly elevated perspective, and arbitrary cropping of forms at the edges of the canvas all suggest the influence of Japanese prints, which provided powerful aesthetic inspiration for many Western artists in the late-nineteenth century.

The painting’s original title is unknown. Wadsworth primarily painted landscapes as well as interior figural images, but early in his career, in 1896 and 1897, he exhibited a painting entitled simply Still Life at the Art Institute of Chicago and (presumably the same work) at the Cosmopolitan Club in Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. A Chicago newspaper praised it as “well in line with the earlier promise of this young man.”i Untitled (Still Life with Peaches) may well be that exhibited painting, for no other still-life images by Wadsworth are now known. Artists have long made still lifes not only as finished works of art but also as training exercises in which to work out of problems of rendering light, texture, and form. In the late 1890s Wadsworth was still a fledgling painter, particularly in the medium of oils. This work may have originated as an exercise for developing his skills in the medium.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “The Fall Exhibition,” Inter Ocean, Oct. 25, 1896.

Chinese Jar

Anna Stacey’s Chinese Jar evokes the exotic East in its assortment of elegant objects. The elaborate ceramic jar or vase on a carved wood stand is decorated with images of water-lilies and a pheasant on a black background. It holds an unusual mixture of plants: the dried oval seed pods of the money plant (lunaria) and shiny dark-blue berries on reddish stalks. Sharing the polished tabletop is a statuette of a kimono-clad kneeling female figure holding a shamisen, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument with a distinctive square body. The backdrop to these objects appears to be a folding screen. Two of its panels meet in a vertical band of blue and red that gives the composition a decidedly asymmetrical emphasis. Strong contrasts of almost monochromatic darks and lights set off the bright tints of the figurine and the vase.

For much of her long career, Stacey exhibited mostly genre scenes and landscapes in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibitions. In the early 1920s she began to also paint still-life images; these dominated the works she showed in her joint exhibition with her husband, landscape painter John F. Stacey, at Chicago’s Carson Pirie Scott and Company department store in 1928. Anna Stacey’s titles typically name the floral subjects of her still-life paintings, but Chinese Jar, the title of a painting she showed in the Art Institute’s 1924 “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition, is an exception. With it, Stacey drew attention to the exquisite man-made vessel rather than the plants it bears, thereby partaking in an established fashion for all things “Oriental.”

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Still Life)

Ethel Spears’s vividly colored still life presents yellow flowers in a round blue vase, along with a fanciful painted pottery animal—perhaps a clay whistle—and what appears to be a painted clay dish. These objects are set in tiers against the folds of two different swathes of fabric, one a brilliant solid red and the other white with a pattern of stylized red, green, and yellow flowers and a border of green and yellow half-circles, intertwined with a bright blue ribbon. Echoing the tints of these objects are the broad abstract shapes filling the background, creating a composition dominated by strong contrasts of primary and secondary colors. Indeed, Spears’s painting seems almost an exercise in juxtaposition—of hue, shape, and line—and a stylistic homage to the bold simplicity of the folk-art objects she depicts.

Spears’s habit of filling her picture frame with detailed imagery typically took the form of humorous cartoonlike scenes of everyday life featuring small figures of uniform scale engaged in discrete activities. Apart from their tipped-up perspective, these accessible works reveal little of the formal distortion and exaggeration often associated with early twentieth-century avant-garde artistic expression. In this still life, however, Spears allied herself more firmly with modernism in her bold use of color and defiance of conventional perspective: notwithstanding the sinuous edges and evident modeling of the folds of bunched cloth, the objects seem to float in relation to one another, and the composition as a whole can be read as a flattened, abstract surface decoration.

The genre of still life has long served artists as a means of exploring “pure” composition by emphasizing color, line, and shape independent of narrative or moral content. Spears made relatively few still-life paintings in the course of her career. In 1932 and 1934, however, she exhibited two such works in the Art Institute’s “Chicago and Vicinity” annual exhibitions, and in 1932 she contributed a canvas to a display of flower paintings by members of Chicago’s modernist art community in Diana Court in the Michigan Square Building on Michigan Avenue. Perhaps this still life represented Spears in one or both venues. The artist had recently returned from a visit to California and may well have brought home with her the Mexican-style pottery and fabrics shown here.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

A Regal Dessert

From fresh and dried fruit to cookies, wrapped candies, and iced cakes, a generous array of dessert treats tempts the viewer in  C. P. Ream’s still life painting. As bountiful as these foods are the vessels holding them, notably the matched set of basket on the left, the sugar bowl and creamer on the right, and the tall mounted bowl that commands the center of the arrangement. These are placed on a marble tabletop (the edge of which bears the artist’s signature, at the right) against a plain dark background. Before them, ripe raspberries, green grapes, and an orange are set on a fringed yellow napkin, their perfect forms and lustrous surfaces contrasting with clusters of dessicated purple grapes and a solitary almond in the shell. All these things are delineated with a somewhat hard, literal realism that minutely inventories the distinct materiality of each object without distracting the viewer’s attention to artistic process, technique, or materials. If Ream intended to communicate a moral message through the juxtaposition of such contrasting objects as the fresh and preserved fruit, that end is subordinated to stimulating our anticipation of sensual pleasure.

A Regal Dessert, the title of a painting Ream exhibited at the Interstate Industrial Exposition in 1874, certainly describes this image. Until he moved to Chicago in 1878, Ream worked in New York, in close competition with his brother, Morston Constantine Ream, also an accomplished painter of still lifes. In the early part of his career, C. P. Ream specialized in the elaborate tabletop compositions that were highly popular during the prosperous Gilded Age, particularly the so-called dessert or dining room pictures intended to be displayed where the foods represented in them might be consumed. Such images offer a rich variety of edibles—including fruit, sweets, fish, and game—vying for admiration with luxurious vessels of glass, ceramic, or silver, often set on a marble, highly polished wood, or tapestry surface. Ream abandoned these manufactured objects as well as interior settings in such later works as Plums, of the mid-1890s.

The pearl-handled knife at left that extends toward the viewer, a time-honored device to demonstrate the artist’s facility with the illusionistic construction of three-dimensional space, links Ream’s art to a still-life tradition with roots in seventeenth-century Holland. Other features of the picture locate it firmly in Ream’s time, however. The metalwork containers, with their repetitive pattern, dull finish, and decorative contrasts of light and dark, appear to be examples of Britannia ware (a pewter alloy) or electroplated silver, the production of which boomed in the mid-nineteenth century, bringing ornate serving pieces to middle-class consumers on a mass scale; the angular style of the handles of the sugar bowl and creamer are characteristic of the 1870s. The grapes and raspberries, two fruits not naturally available at the same time of the year, and the orange, a product of tropical regions, testify to broad range of luxury foods increasingly within reach of status-conscious Americans, while the varied fancy cookies and colorfully wrapped sweets are conspicuously store-bought rather than homemade, marking yet another innovation of the era’s urban culture. The artist may have chosen these foods not only to trumpet the enhanced accessibility of such dainties but with an eye to their variety of rich color. In the 1870s several of Ream’s paintings of this type were reproduced as chromolithographs by the Boston publisher Louis Prang & Company.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Plums

Purple plums, seemingly spilled at random onto the grassy ground, fill the center of C. P. Ream’s still-life painting. Uniform in size and color, the plums are positioned to offer multiple views of their rotund forms, with slender bright-green stems providing a contrast to dusky purple skins. Ream further varies the fruits through the use of shifting light. In the soft radiance of the foreground, the pale bloom on their skins appears a delicate blue, while undersides flush a dull red with reflected illumination. In the background, five plums glow an iridescent pink in a dramatic shaft of sunlight. Ream’s humble, casual subject serves as a lesson in close observation and its rewards: appreciation for the transient beauty of ordinary things.

A specialist in “fruit pictures” from the start of his career in the Civil War era, Ream followed a naturalistic still-life tradition characterized by exacting portrayal and moralizing overtones. As demonstrated in this late painting, however, the artist’s mature work features comparatively loose brushwork, perhaps reflecting his awareness of more painterly styles current in Europe, notably in Munich, where he worked in the 1880s. Yet the composition of Plums, with the grouped fruit centered on the canvas and evenly framed on all sides, links this work firmly to established pictorial conventions.

Ream painted nearly every available kind of fruit, both combining different species and showing single kinds. This work likely dates to the early or mid-1890s, when he made several closely related pictures of purple plums in natural settings. Included in his 1895 solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago were three works, Plums, Plums—Sunlight Effect, and Plums—On Grass, of which this painting could be one. Another may well have been the 1895 canvas now titled Purple Plums, which is one of the first works by a Chicago artist to enter the Art Institute’s collection. By that time, Ream was a venerable figure in Chicago’s art scene and its acknowledged master of still-life painting.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Still Life)

Charles Kellner’s brilliantly hued still-life composition features a tabletop arrangement of flowers and fruit, with a pleasant country landscape glimpsed as if through a window in the background. Kellner used distinct spots and strokes of pigment to create a highly textured surface further animated by tapestry-like patterns of contrasting hues. While the rounded forms of apples, oranges, and a pear are carefully modeled, other areas, notably the tabletop itself, are rendered primarily as accretions of actively applied pigment on the flat canvas.

Kellner worked mainly as a portraitist for much of his career, although he painted landscapes and still lifes from an early period, as demonstrated by the record of works on exhibit in his Sheridan Road studio in 1925. In his last decades, Kellner painted his still lifes with particular freedom, using static compositions of inanimate objects as vehicles for dynamic brushwork and dramatic color contrasts. This example unites his joint interests in still life and landscape, while stylistically invoking the artist’s early artistic mentors and inspirations. The painting’s vivid colorism reflects the influence of the early twentieth-century French artists known as the Fauves, notably Pierre Bonnard, with whom Kellner studied in 1919–1920. Particular areas of the composition seem to nod to other modern masters: the tapestry-like effect of interwoven blue, green, and lavender tints in the left background recalls Claude Monet’s late paintings of the Seine, for example, and the spotted paint with which Kellner rendered the tabletop, the swathe of blue-and-green fabric on it, and the undefined area in the composition’s the lower right corner seems an homage to the late works of Vincent van Gogh.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Still Life)

­An assortment of potted plants is set on a wood surface against an undefined mottled-gray background in Alfred Jansson’s early still-life painting. The bright pink blossoms of an azalea and a potted red-and-white tulip are oriented toward muted light penetrating the scene from the upper right. The tulip­’s long, slender leaves contrast with the shiny, round, slightly frilled foliage of a begonia spilling from a bowl decorated with painted flowers in dull red on a pale ground. At the left, the tendrils of an unidentified vinelike plant cling to the upright azalea; a similar plant occupies a clay pot in the shadowy background on the right. Jansson’s spontaneous, evident brushwork and the cool colors of the leaves in the foreground, especially the hints of gray in the tulip foliage and the light-blue highlights on the begonia, are the hallmarks of a “modern” style of painting in vogue in the 1890s.

This still-life composition may be the only such attributed to Jansson, who devoted his career to landscape painting. The artist took care to sign the canvas, adding “Chicago [18]93.” The flowering plants suggest he painted it in early spring—perhaps only weeks before the official opening of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in May 1893. At the fair, the Swedish Building featured two large landscape murals completed by Jansson for a commission that confirmed the young painter’s professional credibility. This modest still life, with its casual assortment of plants associated with an ordinary spring garden, seems far removed from that ambitious project. Yet in precisely noting the place and date of its creation, Jansson associated the work with an historic moment in both the life of his adopted city and his own nascent career.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Interior

Minerva Chapman’s untitled interior view takes in a corner of the artist’s studio, where a tall drop-front desk, with an armchair pulled up to it, is placed between an upholstered sofa and a hanging golden curtain pulled back to reveal a well-furnished corner of the room. Framed paintings are hung in a random arrangement on the wall; a bust sculpture of white marble or plaster sits atop the desk cabinet; and in the shadowy back corner is what appears to be a case displaying some of the miniature portraits for which Chapman gained a reputation in the first decade of the twentieth century. The deep diagonal recession of space is emphasized by the generous expanse of polished wood floor partly covered by an oriental rug. Bright but diffused light flooding the space from the upper left implies the presence of a high, slanted window or skylight of the kind favored for artists’ studios.

Chapman spent much of her career in Paris. Returning there in 1903 after several years’ hiatus in the United States, she settled into a studio at 9 rue Falguière, in the popular artists’ quarter of Montparnasse. During an earlier period in Paris, Chapman had made several small images of corners of her studio, showing casual arrangements of props, easels, and paintings stacked against the wall to evoke the artist at work. This later studio scene, in contrast, suggests Chapman’s professional success. From her desk, at which the artist is shown seated in a photograph made around the same time as the painting (see Chapman’s biography), she would have managed paperwork relating to her many professional activities. The framed paintings and the display of miniatures seen here stand for an existing body of finished work in diverse formats. The draped curtain and pillow-strewn sofa present the studio not merely as a site of artistic labors but as a material statement of culture and tasteful refinement, a setting to be frequented and admired by prospective clients, according to the practice of many late-nineteenth-century European and American artists.

Chapman’s studio views, with their quiet arrangements of inanimate objects, testify to the importance of still-life painting in her practice, which also extended to landscapes, figure studies, and portraits. In addition to full-size easel paintings and miniatures, she painted numerous small study-like works in oils, made quickly and on site. This technique was highly popular among American artists working in Paris around the turn of the twentieth century, particularly for landscape views. Chapman additionally used it for still-life compositions and studio scenes. Although Interior is painted on a somewhat larger canvas, it retains the sketch-like freshness and aura of unedited immediacy for which her smaller studies were prized. As she often did with such works, Chapman inscribed her name and the date of the painting by incising the wet oil paint with a sharp stylus or the tip of a brush handle.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Untitled (Still Life with Flowers in a Vase)

In Macena Barton’s floral still life, the brilliant tones of tulip blossoms vie for attention with ripe fruit scattered across a green tabletop. Set against a plain background and with the front edge of the tabletop cut off from view, fruit and flowers seem to press into the viewer’s space, their luxuriant forms virtually writhing with a vital energy echoed in the twisting forms of poppies on the pink vase that barely contains the tulips.

Although best known to her contemporaries and today as a painter of striking portraits and nudes, Barton also considered still life one of her specialties. She made her debut in the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibitions in 1926 with a self-portrait and a still life, and three years later her first solo show, also at the Art Institute, featured three still-life images, among them two paintings of flowers. Critic Clarence J. Bulliet remarked that Barton, “Chicago’s best painter of the nude, speaks also in the language of flowers.”i Barton continued to win favor for her still-life paintings into the 1940s. This work probably dates to the 1930s. The vase depicted is an example of Roseville Pottery’s poppy line, which was introduced in 1930. Barton exhibited works titled The Bouquet, possibly this painting, as early as 1931 in her solo show at the M. Knoedler & Company gallery in Chicago.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i C. J. Bulliet, “Around the Galleries,” Chicago Daily News, Apr. 8, 1939

Untitled (Floral Bouquet with Landscape)

A riot of contrasting colors and forms, Macena Barton’s untitled painting is an unusual combination of still life and landscape imagery. A brown ceramic vase is overloaded with a rich combination of flowers, included spiky orange tiger lilies, yellow black-eyed susans, and clustered pink blossoms that may be a pink-tinted variety of lilac. The table bears mimosa blossoms and leaves on one side and on the other an oak branch bearing a bird’s nest containing several blue speckled eggs. Apparently approaching the nest is a green anole lizard with its characteristic red dewlap. The background for this incongruous display of natural specimens is a verdant landscape under a partly clouded sky that at the far right hints at a coming storm. The mimosa, the lizard, and the charged energy of the natural abundance evoke a subtropical world.

As in other Barton still-life paintings, such as Untitled (Still Life with Flowers in a Vase), objects and landscape background are evenly illuminated, with no shadows. Garish color and undifferentiating attention to detail further the sense of deliberate artificiality. Allegory or moral storytelling has long been a function of still-life painting. The oak leaves seen here, for example, traditionally symbolize strength, while birds’ eggs suggest hope and promise, perhaps threatened by the lizard (although in fact green anoles do not eat birds’ eggs). Barton’s image goes beyond direct communication through established symbols, however, to conjure a subtle strangeness. As if to emphasize that the table actually inhabits the outdoor world seen behind it, the tips of grasses overlap its front edge, yet this only confuses the viewer’s perception of the spatial relationship between close-up objects and the distant landscape. On that table edge, a series of small black spots can be read as the nails attaching a canvas to the edge of a stretcher, as if the tabletop is itself a painting, albeit one simply painted black with a red border. Finally, and most intriguingly, Barton signed the work in red at lower right with a deliberate misspelling of her first name—Macina rather than Macena. Encoded with highly personal if cryptic messages, this combined still life and landscape may serve as a kind of self-portrait for an artist who painted herself obsessively throughout her career.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD