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Fruits of Summer: Nineteenth-Century American Still Life
June 6 - September 7, 2009
An extraordinary still life exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum will explore the enduring theme of the fruit still life using the lens of summer, presenting over 40 works featuring lush peaches, watermelons, strawberries and other fruits associated with the season. Fruits of Summer: Nineteenth-Century American Still Life will on view from June 6 through September 7, 2009. (right: Levi Wells Prentice (1851-1935), Bushels of Peaches, not dated, Oil on canvas. Godel & Co. Inc., New York)
Fruits of Summer offers a rare survey of 19th-century fruit still life painting, bringing together works by artists well known in their own time, whose paintings are seldom seen together today. Among the leading still-life artists represented in the exhibition are Raphaelle Peale, James Peale, John F. Francis, Severin Roesen, William J. McCloskey, and Levi Wells Prentice. The exhibition draws from the Museum's own preeminent collection of still life, as well as works borrowed from public and private lenders.
American still life painting first emerged at the beginning of the 19th century in the works of Raphaelle Peale, member of a family of painters from Philadelphia. A son of the venerable artist and museum founder, Charles Willson Peale, Raphaelle's depictions of fruit -- as well as vegetables, meat, fish and other edibles -- brought him recognition from critics and patrons who admired the meticulous crispness and beauty of his draftsmanship, and the elegance and serenity of his compositions. His uncle James Peale also excelled at the theme, taking it up late in life after many successful years as a painter of miniatures. In contrast to the ordered, neoclassical compositions of Raphaelle, James Peale's tabletop arrangements tend to overflow with an abundance of various fruits, each type contrasted against the other to emphasize differing shapes and textures. Additional Peale family members took up still life painting, helping to establish Philadelphia as a major early center of the genre.
In the late 1840s, interest in still life began to surge, and more artists took up the subject as a specialty. This growing popularity resulted in part from Americans looking to European influences, especially 17th-century Dutch still-life painting, the 18th-century French master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and contemporary movements in Germany and England. John Ruskin and the English Pre-Raphaelite movement's emphasis on fidelity to nature were particularly important to American still-life artists. These factors, combined with a growing market of wealthy and middle-class Americans buying art to decorate their homes, helped to propel still-life painting into a period of fertile development and innovation from the mid-19th century onward. (left: John F. Francis (1808-1886), An Abundance of Fruit, 1858, Oil on canvas. Godel & Co. Inc., New York)
Of the many still life specialists who emerged in this later period, Severin Roesen is perhaps the most famous and most prolific. His elaborately staged and brilliantly colored tabletop pictures are typically piled high with fruit or flowers, leaving almost no area of the composition empty. John F. Francis was likewise a painter of the bountiful table, gaining fame for his masterful luncheon and dessert pictures that often incorporated baskets and patterned napkins or tablecloths as counterpoints to the rhythmic arrangements of many varieties of fruit. An alternative to the tabletop still life was the placement of fruit in a natural landscape setting, a trend that evolved from the writings of the English aesthetician John Ruskin. Among the best examples of this type can be seen in the works of Levi Wells Prentice and William Mason Brown.
Fruits of Summer also includes examples of still life in the form of chromolithographs, theorems, and botanical prints which demonstrate the wide-spread popularity of the subject matter and how it reached a mass audience.
Still life painting is also the focus of this summer's tours of the N.C. Wyeth House & Studio in Chadds Ford. Wyeth often painted still lifes to reinforce his technique, his discipline, and his eye. The studio is filled with objects he collected specifically for still life painting. The objects are of many materials because one of the problems that most interested him was how to capture the various ways light reflected from different surfaces. As teenagers, his children Henriette, Carolyn, and Andrew began receiving instruction in painting from their father, including the rudiments of still life painting. The display in the studio includes paintings by these members of the Wyeth family, and by N.C. himself.
Tours depart from the Museum at timed intervals, Tuesdays through Sundays through November 22, and also include the home where he and his wife raised their extraordinarily creative children. Fee.
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For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
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