There’s an amazing show featuring the best still life paintings spanning more than a century currently at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth. It’s not just still-life paintings in the exhibition Art and Appetite, it was also a reason to bring in some blockbusters like Edward Hoppers Nighthawks and Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, but the food becomes froth at the exhibition’s edges.
Still Life paintings from museums around the U.S. begin with several from the Peale family. Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) Still Life-Strawberries and Nuts, c. 1822 arrived with Nighthawks from the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibition was organized. For the better part of a century still life painting continues in a certain tradition. Other masterworks include Robert Spear Dunning, Harvest of Cherries (1866), the museum’s own Wrapped Oranges, 1889 by William J. McCloskey and A.F. King’s Midnight Snack from 1900.
There are only 40 or so still life paintings by Raphaelle Peale. Three are in the show. The famous large watermelon picture from the Smithsonian Museum of American Art is a state of wonder, with an almost surrealistic quietude. He rendered highlights with a translucent quality and near scientific precision, which seemed to be lost in the mid-century still life painters (except perhaps A. F. King’s Late Night Snack from the Carnegie Museum of Art). Although the first still-life specialist did not fare well in his life time, his legacy, together with the Peale family, gives still life genre a prominent status for future generations to pursue.
Fall River, Massachusetts, may be far from Texas, but Robert Spear Dunning nourished a generation of painters, who are now considered to be the Fall River School, a regional group specializing in still life. Dunning’s typical subject contains a table-top still life, with an emphasis on elaborate carving or other Victorian design. However, one of the two at the show, Still Life with Root Vegetables (1879) from David and Laura Grey Collection, has an astonishing originality. Vegetables are generally considered too mundane, unattractive and undecorative; but Dunning was capable of making vegetable paintings a notable sub-genre in his own. There is no heavy impasto in his painting, yet the hazy focus and impeccable soft light create poetic rhythms of spatial and textural arrangement.
There’s something basic and wholesome about food. It’s central to our lives, but usually deserving of more thought than we give it. Just as we often fail to recognize its value, the art world has often overlooked it.
While most still life paintings get to the core of domestic life and what sustains us, it is not free of social commentary. Joseph Decker’s 1887 painting of a box of candy instead aims for the frivolous. I could image some sense of sugar shock in the art world when they were unveiled.
I didn’t spend much time with the dead animal paintings or the Trompe l’oeil. The latter has always seemed to me to be hyper-realism void of much meaning, something that might has as well been in an early arcade. Still they fit well enough into the exhibition, and it’s interesting to learn about unscrupulous art dealers mis-attributing works as was the case with a work by Peto signed Harnett.
Traditional still life painting extends into the 20th Century with a still life by Luigi Lucioni that also appeared in the recent 1920s show organized by the Brooklyn Museum. Here however the apples in the painting seem incidental to the scene which includes a telephone, tablecloth and exterior view.
Marsden Hartley’s Fishermen’s Last Supper, Nova Scotia from 1940-41 holds food closely to the heart of the work, but moves far beyond a simple still life.
Wayne Thiebaud’s Salad, Sandwiches and Dessert from 1960 seems to be a natural extension of the exhibit and takes us from a time when most hours in the day were spent in some way preparing to eat, to a mid-century cafeteria where a moments thought was all that need be involved to choose a meal.
But its the paintings that keep food as the heart of the home that are most rewarding. Doris Lee’s Thanksgiving from 1935 speaks to the preparation for what in the United States must be the most involved meal of the year. It’s the one time we return to spending the day almost entirely thinking about food.
The shortcomings here, if we must look for them, are the paintings of places where we eat. Paintings of breakfast rooms, genre paintings where the food might as well be bubble gum and the blockbuster work Nighthawks, which is not only a painting many of us have seen too many times, it’s hardly a painting about food and any appetite is for a loss of connection to other people.