The Unusual Still Life

Benjamin Champney's Still Life Sold for $1000 at Brunks Auction
Benjamin Champney's Still Life Sold for $1000 at Brunks Auction

The “Dean of American Still Life Collection”, William Gerdts loves to tell his story of a still life painting by David Johnson. He didn’t have one hundred dollars back in the 50’s, therefore bought one out of a pair of Johnson’s still life.  It remains one of his favorites and also pointed one direction for his comprehensive collection: still life by artists who normally did not paint them.

At Brunks Auction yesterday, a still life painting by Benjamin Champney caught my eyes. Widely known as a painter of White Mountain School, Champney was very fond of still life, especially in his later years. He wrote in his autobiography:

Mrs. Champney is very fond of flowers and her fondness gives her skill to make them flourish, so that we have masses of gold and purple and white swaying in the wind. ..

Having these flowers before me n later years has been a great fascination to me, and has led me to devote a good deal of time to the  study of flower painting, and with some little success, as anyone with the ability to draw and arrange a picture with contrasts of light, shade and color might have if backed up with enthusiasm and ardor to accomplish what nature has given tone to do. it is a difficult problem to solve the lessons that nature gives us in flowers, with their great variety of flowing tints and delicate forms. I would not care to see the forms delineated with the exactness of the Dutch flower painters where cold details overpower the general effect of brilliant color and softness, and mar the breadth of the  composition, and where the skill in imitating a drop of dew is one of the chief things to admire.

Neither would I go to the other extreme, and in trying to give breadth lose the strong individual characteristics of each flower, or slur over the forms to make the work more decorative. The trouble is to find the just milieu between slouchiness and too much exactness of form – to make a suggestive picture rather than a positively realistic one.

The lot offered at Brunks is not a flower painting, but a group of apples, grapes and a cup of water.  It has a LaFarge suggestiveness and color tone. What amazed me is that a note on the verso says “”Born New Ipswich, N.H. This painting came out of the house in which the artist was born, the John Preston Homestead, New Ipswich, boyhood home of the artist”.  It was, based on the photo, an old note. Although I was curious of whether this note is correct, Champney was in fact born in New Ipswich.

Estimated between $400 to $600, it went for $1000 plus premium despite its relative small size (6 by 10 inches).

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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