Ethel Spears 1903–1974

Untitled (Still Life)

, circa 1932

Oil on canvas, 24 by 20 inches

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

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