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Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life

August 10 - December 8, 2013


Still life paintings make us think about the objects we love, and an exhibition at Reynolda House Museum of American Art invites visitors to look more closely at what those objects say about us. "Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life" opened August 10, 2013 at the museum, and features treasures from the Reynolda House collection accompanied by key loans from museums and private collections across the state. The exhibition closes December 8, 2013. (right: Claes Oldenburg, Spoon Pier, 1975, Etching on paper, 12 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches. Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1983.2.26. Copyright 1975 Claes Oldenburg)

"The objects you see in a still life are often the same types of objects we collect as souvenirs in daily life," says Allison Slaby, curator at the museum. "The treasures we arrange on our coffee tables and in curio cabinets are signposts of our travels, avowals of friendships, mementos of life experiences."

A still life depicts a purposefully arranged group of objects, often embedded with hidden meaning about history, culture, or identity. Still lifes often include flowers, fruit, or man-made objects like books and jewelry. While visitors will see stunning examples of traditional still life paintings, they will also be invited to explore non-traditional works of art and decorative arts from the historic house collection of Reynolda House.

Works by artists like William Michael Harnett, Childe Hassam, and James Peale will be viewed alongside the rose-engraved silver punchbowl given to Katharine Reynolds by her husband, R.J., on their fourth wedding anniversary. Prints by Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg will be mounted alongside historic, etched-crystal basket vases, and an iconic work by John James Audubon will lend perspective to a porcelain hummingbird sculpture by Dorothy Doughty.

Slaby says the museum chose some unconventional objects for "Things Wondrous & Humble" as an interesting juxtaposition to the traditional still lifes and to further explore our fascination with symbolism.

"This exhibition is not only visually compelling and rich with meaning, but I think visitors will enjoy discovering the secrets that these objects tell," she says. "What do our objects say about our personality, our history, and what is important to us?"

A series of public programs accompany the exhibition including "A Bouquet of Music," a performance by The Carolina Summer Music Festival held on August 18; a gallery talk by exhibition curator and American art scholar Martha Severens on August 25; and an after-hours Harvest Moon Festival on September 19. The museum will host artist Julie Heffernan for a special artist talk on November 21. Heffernan's painting "Self Portrait as Explosion" is included in the exhibition.

"Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life" is organized by Reynolda House Museum of American Art. The museum is grateful for the generous support for the exhibition from major sponsor PNC Bank, and exhibition partners Dee LeRoy, Macy's and Charles and Lamar Taft.


Wall texts from the exhibition

Things Wondrous & Humble: American Still Life
In a traditional still life painting, an artist depicts a purposefully arranged group of objects, often a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. Seventeenth-century Dutch artists such as Gerrit Willemsz Heda established the conventions of the genre; their works were highly realistic, often minutely detailed and accurate in color, scale, and texture. In many still lifes, the gathered objects have symbolic meanings. Fragile flowers or decaying fruit, for example, may allude to the brevity of life, a theme traditionally called vanitas. With their virtuoso compositions and portrayals of luxury items, Dutch still lifes serve as important precursors to the work of the American artists represented here.
This exhibition -- drawn primarily from the Reynolda House collection -- encompasses a broad variety of still life subjects and styles, from the early years of our nation until today. Still lifes speak volumes about identity and culture across time. Some examples address the American penchant for consumerism, showing costly ceramics, sumptuous flowers, baubles, and crystal, often on a grand scale. In others, a still life serves as one component of a larger composition, working symbolically to impart messages about people or places. Sometimes the meanings are clear, other times they are enigmatic or mysterious. This section of the exhibition examines both traditional and unconventional examples of the still life genre.
Part of the Whole
At times, still life motifs appear as subsets of larger compositions. Their presence can further a narrative and convey symbolic content. In Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, for example, the rich array of wine glasses and mouthwatering food contributes to the sensuousness of the painting by appealing to the senses.
In figurative works, inanimate objects known as "attributes" identify the individual's role in life, as a builder, preacher, or artist. The tradition of attributes dates to the Middle Ages, when saints were associated with certain possessions or traits. In allegorical settings, disparate objects allude to deeper meanings; the more disjointed the combination, the more provocative they become.
Studio Studies
Things found in studios are often ordinary and anonymous. They become ideal subjects for the study of art fundamentals because they vary in shape, texture, color, and reflective qualities. They lend themselves to the exploration of light and shadow, the illusion of depth, and the rendering of volume. Usually, the artist arranges objects on some kind of surface, like a tabletop, creating both formal and narrative relationships. The post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne explored the challenge of rendering three-dimensional objects on a flat surface using common objects such as fruit and dishes.
For artists, the advantages of still life are many: objects are inexpensive, available, and -- unlike live models -- ndefatigable, except when flowers fade or fruit rots. As a result, the study of still life has become a staple of art schools everywhere.
Decoding Symbols
Artists have used symbols -- things that stand for certain concepts or qualities -- for centuries. A classic example is Jan van Eyck's portrait of the Arnolfinis, which becomes a wedding document by virtue of its numerous symbols. Here, an apple signifies fertility, shoes on the floor humility, and the mirror, which is surrounded by the Stations of the Cross, the reflection of a Christian union.
Symbolism is also a critical component of still life. To what do faded roses, skulls, spent candles, or watches allude? Conventional wisdom says: life is short, time passes. Duality and ambiguity, however, are often common; an apple can mean health -- as in "an apple a day" -- or the fall of Adam and Eve. Context is all-important.
Some symbols, like a cross or a book, are universal and well known, but many are more arcane and even personal, known only to their creators. In these instances viewers are permitted and encouraged to construct their own interpretations. Perhaps you have something of great significance to you -- a piece of clothing or a trinket -- which is meaningful to you alone. The same is true of artists.

(above: Severin Roesen, Flowers in a Glass Pitcher with Bird's Nest and Fruit, circa 1867, Oil on canvas, 50 3/8 x 36 1/8 inches. Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse, 1992.2.1)


(above: William Michael Harnett, Job Lot Cheap, 1878, Oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches. Original purchase fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1966.2.10)


(above: Martin Johnson Heade, Orchid with Two Hummingbirds, 1871, Oil on panel, 14 7/8 x 19 inches. Original Purchase Fund from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, ARCA, and Anne Cannon Forsyth, 1976.2.8)

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