Notable Objects – A Patriotic Still Life by George Henry Hall

Of many objects auctioned at Estate Unlimited Antiques Fine Art Auctions on Jan 28, George Henry Hall’s Still life of Red, White and Blue flowers in the muzzle of a Springfield rifle truly stands out. In a seemingly simple composition of tri-colored flower arrangement, Hall clashed the feminism traditionally associated with flowers as decorative naturalism with injected illusions of masculinity. The result is a strong image of incongruent elements: vivacity against somberness, fragility against steadiness, and life against death. A curious mind would take the quest of and explore the narrative behind such incongruity; fortunately the clue lies in the dated signature. Dated 1861, the beginning of the Civil War, Hall orchestrated the flowers in the manner of an American flag and sent a clear message to his fellow countrymen that the nation was in peril.

Hall had an extended stay in Spain during 1860 and 1861. By that time, the painter of “A Dead Rabbit” had shifted from painting figurati, historical and allegorical subjects to still life, yet Hall was keen to political turbulence of his times. If, according to some of his contemporary critics, his romantic flowers and fruits images, lacking aesthetics gravity, were just “a domestic adventure to make twilight pleasant by die conversation it engenders,” this patriotic image speaks of what is at stakes for an orderly democracy, not too much different from his previous chosen subject of gangs of New York.

Interestingly, the blue flowers depicted are likely to be Delphiniums. These perennial flowers were used in the Civil War by Union soldiers to close wounds. Given that the painting was probably finished at the onset of the Civil War, whether Hall had intended to add additional symbolism by choosing Delphiniums cannot be known.

The painting belonged to the Late Ms. Delia P. Frissora of Watertown, Mass, who died last year. It was loaned to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1972 (along with another painting by George W. Seavey, also included in the auction) and since then has remained at the hands of its previous owner. Thus it is a true “fresh estate item,” according to Steven M. Fusco, the president of the auction house.

The lot garnered much attention on the auction day. At least three phone bidders were involved in a bidding war that within no time pushed the bid price above $8,000, the high estimate of the lot. It eventually reached the hammer price of $27,500. It sure was not  trifling entertainment for both the picture and the bidding.

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.