Images of Settlement and Exploration
by Lisa Reitzes
Competing with landscapes for popularity among middle-class viewers and buyers in the later nineteenth century were still-life paintings. Just as images of abundant and finely crafted objects rendered in exquisite detail had appealed to prosperous seventeenth-century Dutch merchants, newly affluent American families sought art objects that could express confidence and abundance as well as suitably ornament their architectural surroundings. Although some American painters, especially several members of the Peale family of Philadelphia, specialized in still-life painting earlier in the century, its heyday was catalyzed in large part by the 1848 emigration of the German artist Severin Roesen (Cat. No. 28). Trained initially as a porcelain painter, he favored large-scale combinations of fruits and flowers with exacting attention to the effects of light on natural and crafted elements, creating a trompe l'oeil effect that made a sumptuous and sophisticated addition to fashionable middle-class parlors.
As with landscape, the range of possibilities within the still-life genre was broad, from images of abundant, domesticated nature by Roesen to evocations of the exotic flora and fauna of the South American jungles by Martin Johnson Heade (Cat. No. 29). Best known for his striking luminist paintings of eastern seacoasts and salt marshes, Heade combined meticulous, scientific observation of tropical plants and birds with glowing, atmospheric effects that invoke a sense of mystery, what the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt called "the powerful effect exercised by nature." Furthermore, similar to some western landscapes, visions of an imagined paradise untouched by war and industry appealed to a post-Civil War audience weary of the increasingly nostalgic feel of Hudson River School landscapes and traditional still-life paintings.
Nevertheless, the conventional still-life format maintained an important place in American art throughout the nineteenth century, and artists continued to specialize in this genre even into the modernist movements of the early twentieth century. Exemplifying this continuum was Charles Ethan Porter (Cat. No. 30), an African- American native of Hartford, Connecticut, who was exposed to the work of contemporary American and European still-life painters -- such as Roesen and William Merritt Chase (Cat. No. 38) -- while studying at the National Academy of Design in the 1860s. However, Porter's work in this area was most influenced by the sparse arrangements of fruit and ceramic objects produced in the 1820s by the Philadelphia artist James Peale, with Porter using carefully placed scatterings of diverse shapes and surfaces to evoke a quiet that is deceptively simple and that suited one aspect of American artistic taste in the Gilded Age of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
1. Quoted from Thomas Cole, "Essay on American Scenery," McCoubrey, American Art, p. 85.
2. Quoted from Frederick B. Goddard, "Where to Emigrate and Why" (1869), by Patricia Hills, "Picturing Progress in the Era of Western Expansion," in William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C., 1991), p. 123.
3. Quoted from Boston Transcript, 13 November 1869, in N. K. Anderson and L. S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise (New York, 1990), p. 208.
4. Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, trans. E. C. Otte (Baltimore, 1997), vol. I, p. 27.
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