Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Nature's Bounty: Still Life Painting in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1860-1910
By Judith Hansen O'Toole, Director/CEO, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA
Still life painting is defined as the depiction of inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers, dead game, and common household objects. It is a genre that dates back to at least the fourteenth century; however, its heyday in the course of Western art is commonly recognized to have occurred in the seventeenth century, especially in Holland and Flanders. In these countries the tradition of still life rose from the applied arts to the stature of easel painting with themes ranging from the purely decorative - with lush flower and fruit subjects, to vanitas pictures - reflections upon the brevity of temporal life using the metaphors of books, skulls, candles and other such objects. Artists at this time specialized in still life painting rather than employed it as one of the several subjects in their oeuvre.
Artists from other European countries also used the still life theme although never establishing a school or dominant style: the Italian master of chiaroscuro in the late seventeenth century, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, springs to mind; and in the nineteenth century in France there were Jean Baptists Simeon Chardin, Fantin de la Tour, Eduard Manet, and Paul Cezanne. This despite the fact that the two most important European academies in the nineteenth century, the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris led by Charles Le Brun and the Royal Academy in London led by Sir Joshua Reynolds, both considered still life painting to be the lowest rung on a hierarchical ladder of prescribed subjects for an artist's brush. It was believed to be a frivolous pursuit not to be undertaken by "serious" artists. According to these academies, the subject delivered no messages of moral, historic or religious significance and therefore had no value. In point of fact, we know that even the most decorative still life is expressive of meaning by referring to one of two common themes: the fecundity of the earth as seen through nature's bounty or the fragile, temporality of mortal life. The types of objects displayed and the messages they convey are inextricably related: the fruits of the earth, the temporary beauty of flowers, the momento mori elements of dead game, snuffed candles, closed books and so on.
American artists of the nineteenth century generally studied in Europe or toured European cities and museums bringing back with them the same hierarchical notions of importance regarding subject matter in painting. The elements of purpose and practicality which pervaded colonial American life also seemed to go against the practice of still life painting as it was then perceived.
The first true school of American still life painting occurred in the early nineteenth century with the artists of the Peale family in Philadelphia whose patriarch, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), had studied with Benjamin West in London. Although Peale felt that still life was not a subject to which an artist should be singularly devoted, he believed it had its merits in the name of scientific investigation and documentation. As such, the Peale aesthetic in still life painting was very different from that of Northern Europe: the first being simple compositions with only a few objects meticulously placed, the latter being ebullient displays with many varieties of fruits or flowers. It was Charles' brother, James (1749-1831), however, and, later, Charles' sons and daughters, especially Raphaelle (1774-1825), who came to excel at the subject. The latter painted exceptionally beautiful still lifes of fruits and desserts on marble ledges that were pristine in their composition exquisitely rendered. Unfortunately, Raphaelle Peale was not only short lived, but died in poverty because his work could not support him: there was little market at that time for his now much sought after fruit pieces.
In 1848, several decades after the Peales were active in Philadelphia, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Germany which included many artists. The best known of these in the still life tradition was a painter from Cologne named Severin Roesen (circa 1816-1872) who, after a decade in New York City, traveled to several communities in Pennsylvania including coming as far west as Huntingdon before settling in the central Pennsylvania city of Williamsport. Roesen painted in the grand tradition of the late seventeenth century as perpetuated by later practitioners including Jacob Preyer (1803-1889) and Jan Van Huysum (1682-1749). Roesen clearly knew the works of these men as evidenced through his own style, but they were also known to American artists and collectors through works which found their way to exhibitions in New York and Philadelphia. For the most part, Roesen's paintings were large scale, Baroque extravaganzas of fruits and flowers arranged in such great quantities that their number often required several tiers of support. It is tempting to connect this quality of excess to the immigrant artist's feelings about the rich natural resources of his new country. In fact, Roesen was simply emulating the European style in which he was trained and which happened to appeal to consumers who made the connection to the abundance of their new land. It is interesting to note, however, that in Roesen's later works, following his move to Pennsylvania, he incorporated long vistas into virgin landscapes which are highly reminiscent of the state's topography and further suggestive of the promise of America. This addition to his still lifes makes more explicit the underlying connection between land and nature's bounty. Roesen entered the scene at a time when still life painting began to come into its own with many transplanted Europeans being joined by a growing number of American practitioners
Roesen's influence after he left New York City is difficult to establish. However, since he traveled from east to west in Pennsylvania, and was not only prolific in his own work but had students in at least three communities, it is hard to believe that his work was not known to Hetzel and his colleagues. The larger question of determining which still life painters, if any, influenced the artists that we are concerned with in this exhibition is harder to answer. We do know that Hetzel exhibited in New York and Philadelphia and traveled to those places to view exhibitions and visit galleries. He would have shared what he saw with his friends and associates during their many meetings at J. J. Gillespie's gallery where they gathered for just that purpose. Further, it is interesting to note that W. C. Wall owned a still life by the Philadelphian, Joseph Biays Ord (1805-65), which he purchased from the Pittsburgh collector/dealer, C. H. Wolff. Ord was one of the few painters of still life after the time of the Peales and before the mid-nineteenth century when still life began to come into its own in this country. He was not very prolific in this subject, however, and in his mature years turned to painting portraiture, a fact which makes the picture in Wall's collection even more interesting.
The importance of the German city of Dusseldorf as an influence on these artists, and, in fact, the art world in general at mid-century, is a point that must be made. Many American artists, of which George Hetzel was one, studied at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf. Attracted in part because of their German ancestry, these artists also sought the excellence of the program offered by the Akademie. They returned home having learned to work with the dark color palette and an interest in realism that was promoted by the Dusseldorf school and in turn passed these tenets along to their students and colleagues. Further evidence of the German city's influence was the opening of a commercial art establishment called the Dusseldorf Gallery in New York City in 1849 to fill the demand for pictures by German artists and to provide a home away from home to those artists who left due to the political turmoil of that era. The prominent gallery was an active one and set a standard for collectors while establishing a taste for the type of art it promoted.
George Hetzel, and the artists both closely and loosely associated with the Scalp Level School, have become best known for their paintings of the rural landscape of Western Pennsylvania. In fact, the very name of their association refers to the geographic area which inspired their landscapes. However, it is clear through extant pictures and through surviving exhibition records, that many of these artists also produced still life paintings. Indeed, they were painting during the most significant period of American still life painting from mid-to-late century. It is interesting to speculate on the place of still life painting in the work of these artists - did they, for example, work on both landscape and still life together and consider both to be important subject matter? Did sales and market interest contribute to their pursuit of one over the other? Has the focus of recent scholarship on the landscape pieces overshadowed our view of the role of still life?
We know that this group of artists worked en plein air in creating their landscapes although we also surmise that they worked in the winter months from memory and sketches. Oil sketches by A. S. Wall and George Hetzel survive along with a scrapbook of landscape sketches by W. C. Wall (Collection Westmoreland Museum of American Art). Was this also the case with still life? Did they work from studio arrangements of objects or from drawings, botanical illustrations, and decorative wax replicas? Drawing from life year round would have been difficult before the late 1880s when refrigerated train cars began to make seasonal items more available throughout the year. Was this also the reason why flower pictures were not popular as a subject matter? Were flowers too expensive, too unavailable, too fragile, or simply not of interest to the group? Unfortunately, due to the lack of information, not all of these questions can be answered.
Early exhibition records indicate that artists submitted both still lifes and landscapes to the same exhibitions. For example, the annual showing of the Pittsburgh Art Association in 1870-71 lists George Hetzel, who was one of the more prolific still life painters, as having entered four landscapes and three still lifes. In the same exhibition, it is interesting to note that Jasper Lawman, by whom we have only three known extant still life paintings, entered four landscapes and one still life painting.
It may have been the particular collecting bias of Pittsburgh that limited these artists in their production of still life paintings. The records of Christian H. Wolff, an influential collector in Pittsburgh in the latter half of the nineteenth century and a dealer in his own right, Mr. Wolff's collection and his transactions tell us much about Pittsburgh's taste in the arts. Wolff made purchases from Philadelphia and New York in addition to commissioning regional painters for specific works. He also made the grand tour of Europe on several occasions bringing back works from Munich, Paris, Rome, Brussels, and, importantly, Dusseldorf. The subjects of these paintings were almost invariably genre and landscape with a few religious pictures. The lack of European examples of still life painting in Wolff's inventory is disappointing in that the presence of these would have established a direct point of influence on Pittsburgh area artists. Since the early exhibitions of the Pittsburgh Art Association included not only pieces by contemporary artists for sale but also pieces from regional collections for the general elucidation of the viewers, this allowed artists access to collections without requiring entre to private residences.
Wolff did, however, collect and re-sell still life paintings by American artists even though these were a minor interest. In particular, he sold three still life paintings by the central Pennsylvania artist, John Francis, whose luncheon pictures were rendered with an exacting attention to detail and a palette that was much brighter than that used by the Scalp Level School. He also commissioned and/or purchased still lifes by Hetzel, Lawman, Joseph R. Woodwell (a flower picture) and David Gilmore Blythe.
Especially interesting was Wolff's commission in 1865 of two still life subjects by Blythe (1815-65), Youth and Old Age. Two similarly paired paintings were exhibited by Blythe six years earlier in the Pittsburgh Art Association show of 1859 - Hard Times and Good Times, indicating that the pairing of paintings with opposites as their subject matter was a format that appealed to the artist. Blythe, whose work in genre painting was characterized by a biting satirical wit, was the only one of the artists in this exhibition to show a primary interest in the tradition of vanitas in his still life subjects. His pictures with these themes also pre-date those of the now more widely recognized William Michael Harnett (1848-92) and John Frederick Peto (1854-1907) who were active later in the century. Harnett and Peto popularized still lifes of ordinary household objects assembled in a shallow picture plane. Blythe was also a generation older than the rest of the artists with whom we are working here and was further distinct from them in that he did not paint landscapes.
An hour glass, clearly referencing the passage of youth into old age, is common to both compositions commissioned by Wolff: the top half is full in Youth and the hour glass is surrounded by the objects of childhood: a pen knife, baseball, and school book. In Old Age the sand has fallen to the bottom of the hour glass which is now seen with a candle burned down to its wick, a book and a pair of spectacles. A second pair of paintings on this same theme is titled Joy of Youth and Joy of Old Age and show many of the same objects arranged in more simple compositions. A third pair may also have been painted since we have in the exhibition yet another version of Old Age for which the mate is currently lost. The paintings in this series are especially poignant in that they were most likely all painted in 1865, the year of the artist's death.
The still life formats employed by the artists who followed after Blythe include popular versions of European and American subjects: the tabletop still life - fruits arranged on a ledge in a shallow picture plane; kitchen pictures - usually a combination of vegetables and game arranged with cooking utensils; luncheon pictures - an assortment of fruits, cakes, goblets, and so on laid out on a tabletop; and dead game - either on the forest floor or hanging against a plain background. There were certainly varieties on these formats, for example, hanging grapes in a shallow picture plane as a trompe l'oeil theme which several artists employed; thematically organized subjects including the fishing tackle pictures of A. F. King; images of fruit or flowers still on the limb in nature, and so on. However, the vast majority of our artists chose the simple tabletop arrangement.
George Hetzel (1826-1899) was a major figure in Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania during the period of time in which we interested. Not only was he influential here, but he had a statewide presence and exhibited nationally on occasion. He was also one of the few to study in Dusseldorf (from 1847-1849) and fully absorb the earth toned palette and penchant for realism characterized by the German school. Further, Hetzel studied still life painting as a subject while in Dusseldorf perhaps even under the tutelage of one of the great proponents of the subject, Johann Preyer. In fact, Hetzel, who had been born near Strasbourg, France, and came with his family to Pittsburgh when he was only two years old, was forced to leave Germany in 1849 because of the same political climate that drove Severin Rosen and others to the United States for asylum.
Hetzel's interest in still life painting was strong and continued throughout his career. It is said that his first important sale was of a still life painting to Mary Todd Lincoln although the painting is lost and there is only oral tradition to substantiate this story. Henry Clay Frick owned two paintings by Hetzel - one landscape and one still life. From exhibition records from the Pittsburgh Art Association beginning in 1859, we have learned that Hetzel exhibited both still lifes and landscapes together. For example, in 1870-71 three out of the seven paintings he submitted were still lifes. Also interesting is that from 1857 until 1882 Hetzel exhibited eight times at the National Academy of Design in New York with one or two entries per year in 1857, 1858, 1865, 1875, and 1879-82. His sole entries in 1865 and 1875 were both still lifes: a game picture in 1865 and pheasants in 1875.
Hetzel's favorite format was a tabletop arrangement of fruit against a dramatically darkened background. He is not known to have painted any floral pictures and, indeed, as has been commented upon earlier, these are rare among this school of artists. An overarching grape vine with outspread leaves often served to complete this artist's compositions which are presented in a rather shallow picture plane. He also painted images of dead game (an odd subject since he was violently opposed to hunting) either hanging against a trompe l'oeil wooden panel or arranged on the forest floor as a nature morte. These narrowly predate the hanging game pictures of Harnett with whom Hetzel became acquainted only later in his career in 1872 when the amateur painter, Henry Lea Tatnall, invited them to paint with him in his studio in Wilmington, Delaware (Chew, Geo. Hetzel and the Scalp Level Tradition). A rare "kitchen" picture by Hetzel shows a cat reaching through a trap door in an attempt to savor a turkey laid out for the evening meal: an amusing combination of genre and still life imagery.
Hetzel's still life compositions sometimes lacked originality once he found a format which was pleasing. This was also typical of his European precedents and, most certainly, of some of the American and expatriate artists of the genre including Severin Roesen who, although brilliant technically, were rather formulaic in their compositional approach. The fact that compositions often relate strongly to one another is an indication that Hetzel and others worked from their own previous paintings in creating new ones. In Hetzel's case, this could also be extended to his landscapes which often bear a strong similarity to one another in subject and composition. Hetzel is actually berated by one columnist in their review of an exhibition in Pittsburgh which complains of the predictability of his still lifes (undated clipping in scrapbook of Agnes Way, Carnegie Library).
Hetzel's paintings, more than any of the artists with whom we are working here, most strongly resemble those of Johann Preyer and the German school. In fact, Gerdts and Burke refer to Hetzel as "the Dusseldorf painter" in their book, American Still-Life Painting. This is obviously due to Hetzel's direct contact with the style in Dusseldorf although certainly other influences could have affected his adhering to this style throughout his career. One exception is Hetzel's interest in the specificity of fruit and the imperfections in their form and surface which was not so much captured by his European counterparts. Apples, especially, have small bruises and black marks, peaches are not perfectly round, and so on. His brushwork, however, reflected the pristine and sharp delineation of objects with attention paid to the texture of objects: tablecloths are crisp and starched, grapes are luminescent, the fur on animals is finely painted.
Hetzel, and his colleagues and followers, often painted watermelons - a decidedly American fruit which would not have appeared in Dutch or German pictures. The large, dark green form of the watermelon usually looms above the smaller, more colorful fruits in the foreground creating a dramatic contrast in color and light. This format was a favorite of Hetzel's and, as we shall learn later, was copied by his colleagues and students.
One of Hetzel's greatest contributions was that of teacher: whether in a formal classroom setting at the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women, or congregating around a table at J. J. Gillispie's, or in the field at Scalp Level with his fellow artists. The curriculum at the School of Design was intended to prepare women to be design professionals rather than practicing artists or teachers. The course work included such offerings as "Elementary Drawing," for which still lifes may have been the subjects, and "Flowers in Color," though it is doubtful that Hetzel taught this particular course. In fact, there was a general dearth of floral still lifes, at least among the male proponents of the subject. This brings us to another reason for the "second class" stature sometimes assigned to the genre, in that it was frequently women who painted still lifes as a decorative process - even painting on china or other functional objects - and many of them did not consider themselves to be, nor were they considered by their audiences, professional artists. Those who did consider themselves to be so and exhibited alongside of their male counterparts were unfortunately uneven in their results. This is true of Agnes Way, Lila B. Hetzel, and, to some extent, Johanna Woodwell Hailman. But I will return to these painters later.
Of Hetzel's contemporaries, the Wall brothers, William Coventry (1810-86) and Alfred S. (1825-96), painted a handful of still lifes. We know of five still life paintings by W. C. Wall, the eldest of the brothers who was the owner of the Joseph Orde (mentioned above) which still life exhibited in Pittsburgh in 1859.
Four of the five still life compositions by W. C. Wall are small, trompe l'oeil images showing envelopes against backgrounds which vary from being plain (to which the letter is attached by a red ribbon), to showing a river landscape where the letter appears to be tucked into the frame of the painting. This last format alludes to the landscapes Wall was known for and suggests an actual scenario where a frame is used to prop up an envelope. The former is as close to a "rack" picture as any of these artists come and is dated 1869, fully ten years before the earliest of the rack pictures by John Frederick Peto who was a master of the genre (Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth, p. 182). The addressee on this wonderfully simple painting is Little & Mechling, Wholesale Liquor Establishment in Pittsburgh and the postmark is Washington D. C. W. Mechling owned a landscape painting by W. C. Wall which was exhibited in 1870-71 at the winter exhibition of the Pittsburgh Art Association along with one of the letter paintings - perhaps the rack picture dated the year before and addressed to the distillery. Other addresses include T. A. Gillespie, Esq. (postmarked Oil City ) and A. W. Wall, Esq., Pittsburgh (post marked from New York).
Alfred S. Wall was a younger brother of William Coventry and was also a prominent member of the Pittsburgh art community who was asked by Andrew Carnegie to be on the founding board of the Carnegie Institute in 1895. He is represented in this exhibition by only one still life painting which is the only one of which we know. It is a picture of hanging grapes against a softly mottled grey background. These pictures of hanging fruit are akin to the hanging game subjects which show the object directly against the flat surface of the picture plane thereby projecting it toward the viewer in a manner that causes the object to appear to be part of real space.
Alfred S. Wall's son, A. Bryan Wall (1861-1935) painted a number of still lifes, including both simple compositions such as hanging grapes and very large, complicated arrangements with shields, rugs, urns of roses, chargers, and other unusual objects in elaborate settings. However, like his father and uncle, A. Bryan Wall was primarily a landscape painter. As was the style by the late nineteenth century, the youngest Wall's brushwork was more fluid and painterly than that of his elders and less exacting than that of his Uncle's whose deceptions in the letter pictures were rendered with a tight, controlled brush stroke.
A. Bryan Wall and his uncle, W. C. Wall, also painted still lifes which are directly related to those of George Hetzel: in fact, they could have been painted from the same arrangement or directly under Hetzel's guidance. At least one by each artist is extant and included in this exhibition. The work by W. C. Wall carries the paper label from J. J. Gillespie Gallery and the A. Bryan has a label from Wunderly, another gallery in the city. Both paintings feature crisp, white linen cloths draped over table tops upon which are situated a centrally placed watermelon over which grape leaves on the vine are twined. Smaller, brightly colored fruits including apples, peaches and pears are arranged in front of the watermelon as was Hetzel's habit, with the light falling across the foreground elements to further accentuate the reds, yellows, and pale greens which appear in them. Purple grapes are also present in both paintings, interspersed as contrasting elements to the more brilliant colors. The younger Wall uses a less precise, more painterly brush stroke, something that characterized his mature style, but goes so far as to place his signature in this still life in the exact location as Hetzel's in that artist's painting from which A. Bryan Wall must have worked.
Little is known about the painter, A. C. Wooster (active 864-1913), who is best known for still life painting, a subject he turned to in mid-career. Favoring simple compositions set against a dark background, Wooster created a warm, brilliant light in his still lifes which pours onto his subjects from a direct and unseen source. He appears to be interested in form and color as formalistic elements, using the still life arrangements to compose compositions that are harmonic and balanced. In fact, the slightly primitive nature of Wooster's style, in combination with his fruits being perfect in their shape and color, further accentuates these formal aspects of painting. The qualities of simplicity and light make Wooster's work akin to the better known still life painter, Robert Spear Dunning (1829-1905) of the Fall River School in Massachusetts, although Wooster is the less sophisticated artist. Like several artists in the exhibition, the quality of Wooster's work can be very mixed.
Wooster, like others of the group, created near replicas of certain subject matter working with a particular theme with which he may have been either very interested or very frustrated. This is true of his Straw Hat with Peaches of which several versions exist with only minor changes in the orientation of the hat or placement of the peaches. The geometry of these pictures with the orbs of the peaches and the concentric circles formed by the interior of the hat and its outer rim makes them very strong compositionally.
In addition to painting still lifes of fruit either spilling out of a container or arranged on a tabletop, Wooster also painted pictures of hanging grapes and game. These were painted illusionistically as were the same subjects by his contemporaries. One interesting composition shows hanging grapes with corn: a distinctly American vegetable which is not frequently used in the still life compositions of these artists.
A. F. King (1854-1945), a generation younger than Hetzel, was the artist who was most prolific as a still life painter and spanned two centuries in his work, bringing the nineteenth century style of still life painting into the first quarter of the twentieth century. Although King is not known for landscape painting he was a close associate of George Hetzel and accompanied him in excursions to Scalp Level. King is shown in many of the photographs of Hetzel and his associates at their summer retreat and seemed to enjoy a special camaraderie with the older artist.
A portrait painter for most of his life, the tradition has it that King would give favored customers who sat for their portraits a memento of their sitting in the form of a miniature still life painting. These measure only about five by seven inches on small canvases and reflect the same subject matter that concerned King in his larger compositions. Whether these were intended to refer the portrait customer to King's still life paintings as a sales pitch or were simply a means of thanking a good sitter, we have no way of knowing. They are however, compositionally similar to their easel sized counterparts and so must be viewed as finished works rather than details or sketches.
King was also uneven in the quality of his work but was the most adventuresome of the group with whom we are working in terms of choices of subject matter. He painted everything from vanitas pictures with skulls and candles to compositions reminiscent of Harnett and Peto using the accouterments of fisherman to simple fruit compositions. A favorite subject was the watermelon which Hetzel also favored. King paints watermelons whole, with triangular cuts in the rind (to permit the pouring in of beverages), split open, and every variation in between. In one example, the watermelon has been cut to create access for a beverage which [is] present in the form of a stoneware pitcher and a stemmed wine glass. In another, he has the watermelon, a quintessentially American fruit, informally placed on top of a wooden crate: a rudimentary prop which also seems very American, reminding us, as does the watermelon itself, of 4th of July picnics and other informal, outdoor occasions. King also executed at least one desert picture which could show the influence of John Francis.
Several fine compositions show elements that seem to refer to a cultured or learned way of life with musical instruments, in this case a violin, books, parchment, quill pen, and musical score. These also have allusions to a masculine life with pipes and stone ware mugs completing the picture.
Some objects in King's compositions are recognizable from painting to painting indicating that he worked from tableau, at least in part. Stoneware pitchers and bone-handled knifes are some of these items. He also uses some of the same fruits as "accent" pieces alongside larger elements; for example his use of a few beautifully rendered cherries in Still life watermelon-Jug, also appear in Geranium.
King tended to paint compositions with only a few elements which demanded exquisite draftsmanship (which is perhaps why he sometimes fell short of the mark) rather than work with many objects as did Hetzel and certainly Roesen and other followers of the German school. In his compositions with just a few objects, or even a single object, he follows the earlier aesthetic of Raphaelle Peale nearly a century later. These pieces are very formal in their conception with shape and color being primary concerns and subject matter being relatively secondary.
King favored a hard edge and a clarity of light that had little to do with the chiaroscuro favored by his mentor, George Hetzel. His brushwork was sometimes imperceptible, sometimes painterly, and often both in the same painting. Frequently the objects in the foreground are carefully rendered while the more generic backgrounds are loosely worked. His worst pieces reveal his method of working to be that of finishing one object before moving on to another resulting in a "compartmentalized" look; in his best paintings he overcomes his own technique by achieving a harmony in the relationships of the objects to one another.
Emil Foerster (1822-1906), Trevor McClurg (1816-1893), Olive Turney (1847-1939), and E. A. Poole (1840/41-1912) are all represented by one still life each. Little is known about Foerster except that he was born in Germany and trained in Dusseldorf. He exhibited still lifes as early as 1860 in the Pittsburgh Art Association and was represented by a fruit picture in the memorial show of the same association in 1914. . McClurg was part of the Scalp Level group although he was best known for historical and allegorical paintings rather than landscapes. Poole was trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and was interested in autumn landscapes but is represented here with one of the few floral still lifes: a vase of Peonies painted with the loose, painterly stroke he favored. Olive Turney, who is represented by a table top fruit piece, was a participant in the Scalp Level excursions after studying at the Pittsburgh School of Design for Women. Jasper Lawman (1825-1906), by whom we know of three still lifes, was very much part of the Scalp Level landscape tradition and painted in the style and palette of his mentor, George Hetzel.
Several artists who were of importance to this period of time in the arena of still life painting could not be included in this exhibition for different reasons. Lack of the availability of representative paintings was responsible for the absence of Agnes Way who was a prominent and influential student of George Hetzel. She was very active in the organization of the Pittsburgh Artist Association, serving in various capacities as an officer of the organization in addition to helping with details of the exhibitions. Several extant still life compositions reveal the influence of Hetzel while others, perhaps later examples, show her developing a more impressionistic, even decorative, style that was similar to that of Johanna Knowles Woodwell Hailman (1871-1958). The latter's work was not included because her style, unlike that of A. F. King who was also among the second generation of artists we are considering here, was so unlike that of the first generation.
George T. Hetzel (1846-1912) and Lila Hetzel (1873-1967) are included with one still life each representing their strong connection to their uncle and father respectively. Both are represented here by hanging game pictures which have a significant relationship to those of their mentor.
Other second generation artists include Fred Demmler (1888-1918), John Donahghy (1837-1931) and Martin Leisser (1845-1940). Demmler was known as a portrait painter but is represented here with a beautifully rendered, pastel colored, simple table top study of fruit. Donaghy's small contribution to this exhibition is a representation of the story of childhood and shows a snack laid out on a china dish, a book, and a well-loved stuffed animal: an appropriate subject for an artist primarily interested in genre subjects. Leisser studied directly with George Hetzel and started his artistic life as a decorative painter of furniture with fruit and flower subjects but became well known for his portrait work.
Seen together in this catalog and exhibition, the work of these artists in still life demonstrates that there was, at least among the artists, a distinct attraction to the subject. George Hetzel's dedication to still life spawned that of many of the other artists - from the casual interest of Lawman and Leisser to the avid pursuit of it by A. F. King - while other artists, including Wooster, may have simply been a part of the general heightening of interest in still life from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century. Cumulatively, they show a strong contribution on the part of the artists of Southwestern Pennsylvania to the American still life tradition.
About the exhibition and the author
Nature's Bounty: Still Life Painting in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1860-1910, an exhibition organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (WMAA), will run through September 2, 2001. Curated by WMAA director Judith H. O'Toole, this is the Museum's first exhibition dedicated to the still life paintings of Southwestern Pennsylvania artists including George Hetzel, the Wall family, Ernest Lawman, A. F. King, A. C. Wooster, and others who were active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibition includes 71 paintings on loan from private and public collections with key pieces from the Museum's collection. The WMAA is nationally-recognized for its research, collections, and exhibitions on the artists of Southwestern Pennsylvania, especially the Scalp Level School led by George Hetzel. The Museum has previously organized exhibitions highlighting landscape painting: Nature's Bounty is the first one to focus on still life painting.
Judith H. O'Toole has also authored the exhibition catalogue that features 31 reproductions. This is the first catalogue authored by O'Toole since her arrival as director in 1994. She is also the author of Severin Roesen, an authoritative study on this artist published in 1992 by Associated University Presses, and is an expert on still life painting in this period. Her background gives a new perspective to the works in the exhibition.
According to O'Toole, "Still life painting has a strong connection to the decorative arts. Some of its first uses were to embellish ceramics and furniture. It is defined as the depiction of inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers, dead game, common household objects and other such things. It is a genre that dates back to at least the fourteenth century; however, it rose to the stature of easel painting in Holland and Flanders in the 17th century. In American art, the richest period for still life painting was the latter half of the nineteenth century."
The Significance of Still Life Painting in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1860 - 1910 (a summary of the O'Toole essay)
In 1848, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from Germany that included many artists who brought with them the still life tradition. The best known of these was a painter from Cologne named Severin Roesen (circa 1816-1872) who, after a decade in New York City, traveled to several communities in Pennsylvania including coming as far west as Huntingdon before settling in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. (left: Albert F. King (1854-1945), Watermelon with Plug, n.d., oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, Collection of Godel & Co. Fine Art, New York)
At the same time, many American artists, like George Hetzel, studied at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf and returned home having learned to work with the dark color palette and an interest in realism that was promoted by the Dusseldorf school, in turn passing these beliefs along to their students and colleagues.
George Hetzel, and the artists both closely and loosely associated with the Scalp Level School, have become best known for their paintings of the rural landscape of Western Pennsylvania. In fact, the very name of their association refers to the geographic area that inspired their landscapes. However, it is clear through existing pictures and surviving exhibition records, many of these artists also produced still life paintings. Hetzel's interest in still life painting was strong and continued throughout his career. It is said that his first important sale was of a still life painting to Mary Todd Lincoln. Henry Clay Frick owned two paintings by Hetzel: one landscape and one still life. (right: George Hetzel, Fruit and a Basket, 1866, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches, Collection of Edward J. Filippone)
The still life paintings of these artists reflect the fruits, game and household objects of the 19th century. In most cases, the objects are depicted life size, with great attention to naturalistic detail: peaches have a soft profile, grapes are iridescent, apples show imperfections and the game are carefully replicated in color and texture.
Of Hetzel's contemporaries, the Wall brothers, William Coventry (1810-86) and Alfred S. (1825-96), and Alfred's son, A. Bryan Wall (1861-1935) painted a number of still lifes. A. C. Wooster (active 1864-1913), best known for still life painting, a subject he turned to in mid-career, favored simple compositions of fruit set against a dark background.
A. F. King (1854-1945), a generation younger than Hetzel, was the artist who was most prolific as a still life painter and spanned two centuries in his work, bringing the nineteenth century style of still life painting into the first quarter of the twentieth century. King was a close associate of Hetzel, accompanying him on excursions to Scalp Level, and enjoying a special camaraderie with the older artist. (left: Alfred S. Wall (1825-1896), Hanging Grapes, n.d., oil on canvas, 17 1/2 x 13 inches, Collection of Stan Mabry)
Emil Foerster (1822-1906), Trevor McClurg (1816-1893), Olive Turney (1847-1939), and E. A. Poole (1840/41-1912) are each represented by one still life in this exhibition. Jasper Lawman (1825-1906), we know of three still lifes, was very much part of the Scalp Level landscape tradition and painted in the style and palette of his mentor, George Hetzel. George T. Hetzel (1846-1912) and Lila B. Hetzel (1873-1967) are included with one still life each representing their strong connection to their father and his style. Both are represented by hanging game pictures, which have a significant relationship to those of their father. Other second generation artists include Fred Demmler (1888-1918), John Donaghy (1837-1931) and Martin B. Leisser (1845-1940).
Seen together in the exhibition and catalogue, the work
of these artists in still life painting demonstrates that the artists of
southwestern Pennsylvania paralleled in both the national preeminence and
stylistic trends of the nation.
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The above essay is reprinted with permission of the author and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/2/11
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