A group of paintings by A. F. King will be auctioned at Constantine and Pletcher on March 27 and 28, next weekend.
One of my favorite paintings at Carnegie Museum of Art is by A. F. King. When at his best, his still life like “Late Night Snack” reveal a visual pleasure from the keen observation and realistic rendering. The dark ground makes the setting more dramatic than real, and the details of reflection and the texture of cheese and beer defy any intention to call the subject mundane. For me, that summarizes the best of still life in realistic style: It brings such amount of details that we human beings could not comprehend that when being beholden in a mundane room, its beauty is bordering super natural.
In the upcoming auction by Constantine & Pletcher, a group of A. F. King’ paintings will be auctioned starting at very low prices. I have my questions on how the auction house operates the appraisal because every object is estimated between 100 to 200 dollars. In other words, there is no appraisal procedure and every item will be auctioned from the same starting price – 50 dollars. When I called them in the last auction, I was told that items will go to the highest bidder anyway. But will the consignors be happy to see that their paintings start at 50 dollars? I doubt.
Of the eight paintings offered in the auction, three of them are still life and one is water color. King’s still life can be loose or controlled. The latter tend to be painted in his early career. Although the three still life paintings are not dated, based on my observation, possibly the Lot 27 with watermelon and grape was painted before 1900. In the painting, both the watermelon (King’s favorite subject) and cantelope are cut yet no one has started to consume the food. Like most of King’s still life, the setting is frugal to minimalistic. The snack and the fruit are not set for barons or dignitary, yet the allure is more sincere from the sensual texture of the freshness with a solitary backdrop.
The peach basket (lot 80) and strawberry basket (lot 48) have similar compositions. The amaterish background of the pastoral scenes make them less convincing. He may try to combine his two expertise (still life and landscape) in one shot, but the oversized basket with fruits which dominate the painting demand that the landscape can only be suggestive. It is at the suggestiveness that Albert Francis King, as a landscape painter, was less successful. Even when the landscape should only serve to provide moods and atmosphere, his exactness nature would pursuit some sort of depiction of things, which under formless and loose brushstroke, look more like a textile pattern than landscape with space and depth.
I have not grown to love King’s landscape. If George Hetzel, his mentor, mastered the chiaroscuro in both his landscape and still life, King’s landscape looks too contrived with its sharp edged foreground and the light that always renders nature with clarity. In fact, one may appreciate the lucidity and simplicity in his landscape paintings at the first sight, but the formality of the composition and the flatness of scenery will be magnified if a landscape painting by Geoege Hetzel is placed side by side.
In the summer of 2001, Westmorland Museum of American Art had an exhibition “Nature’s Bounty: Still Life Painting In Southern Pennsylvania 1860-1910”. Judith O’Toole, the director of the museum wrote in the catalogue that King’s “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”.
Disclaimer: The article is purely personal opinion and should not serve as auction advice.
PS: The catalogue “Nature’s Bounty: Still Life Painting in Southwestern Pennsylvania 1860-1910“, although out of print, is well written for reading and research of the scalp level painters and their still life paintings. The lowest price so far that I can find is on Alibris for 99 dollars.