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