Sunday, July 3, 2011

Still Life ... Still Popular

Several weeks ago when we were in Washington D.C., I found a book in a used book store entitled Impressionist Still Life, A Phillips Collection. This book is a series of essays on many Impressionist artists and their influence on Still Life as a subject for their paintings. This book shed some light on the kinds of still lifes we have been seeing in the museums and pointed out how still lifes had changed from the mid 1800's to the early 1900's. Prior to Edouard Manet, a still life was usually fruit or flowers in some sort of arrangement designed to be decorative in the home. Prior to that, a still life was more religious or historical. When we think of Impressionism, we usually think of plein aire painting, outside in the light, with the landscape being the primary subject. So when Manet began to paint his still life paintings in the Impressionist style beginning in 1860, he was mostly mocked. His still life paintings had personal associations, notes of color, light areas, and strong brushstrokes. In his portraits, he tried to convey the nature of the individual by painting everyday things and he had small still life arrangements on the floor or on the table nearby. Nearly 1/5 of all his paintings were still life. In the painting "Flowers In A Crystal Vase, 1882" to the right, no effort is made to discriminate between the tabletop and the background and the flowers are depicted with strokes of color leaving them unclear and hazy. The ephemeral light casts a gauzy shadow across the table and the whole effect is lush and vibrant, similar to seeing the flowers on the bushes outside in the garden. Contrast Manet's painting with a painting by Severin Roesen (left) just 20 years prior. Roesen's painting is typical of the decorative style of still life and although it is very realistic, it is also contrived. This is the kind of painting that I usually just glance at in the museums and then walk on by. It must be because there is nothing personal about the work. I can see myself having a little vase of flowers, like Manet painted, but I can't see myself having that monstrous collection of fruit on my table for any reason whatsoever. This is a revelation for me.... a painting must have some connection with the viewer or it fails as art. . . . . . . . . Other artists were soon working on still life paintings in Manet's new direction including an American, William Merritt Chase who lived in France for a time and came home with new ideas. We saw his still life painting just this week, and I am including him as an example because he did a very large still life IN PASTEL. To the left is a detail of the above painting which shows the strokes of the pastels. Chase doesn't quite have the lightness of touch in his painting that Manet has, but he is a giant step removed from Roesen. . . . . In the 1890's Cezanne was also interested in still life painting, but he used it as a vehicle to understand color. His earlier paintings were fruit, apples or pears, just dumped on the table randomly, sometimes with an object, and no apparent design to the set up. His only concern was the color of the objects and even his brushstrokes did not follow the form of the fruit. This was in the Impressionist spirit of seizing the moment of a random setting. But as time progressed, he even stopped thinking about perspective and sometimes painted the painting from two different angles, establishing two different points of view. The tables looked warped and the edges would be at different levels. In the painting above right painted in 1900, the bowl seems tilted and the apples look as if they are going to fall on the floor. He felt that the human eye would see the truth. His work was the beginning of Abstraction, although he would have been appalled to think it so. . . . . . .From Cezanne's work came Henri Matisse with his paintings of tables littered with objects and fabrics such as the painting to the left called "Still life with Apples" painted in 1924, 24 years after Cezanne's painting above. And, Pablo Picasso was also greatly influenced by the loss of perspective in Cezanne's paintings and his experimentation led to Cubism as seen in his "Still Life With Fish" painted in 1923 (seen below right). This painting brought back old memories, since the first painting I ever did was a copy of Picasso's "Woman Looking In A Mirror". I took an art class about 45 years ago and felt very drawn to painting. From that time on, I tried to take an art class here or there, and after meeting Allan who had similar inclinations, we both signed up for classes when we could. It wasn't until our working life was over, that we were able to indulge ourselves and now here we are. . . painting pastels and traveling to art museums where we are giving ourselves a personalized art course. I don't know what kind of impact it will have on our painting, but hopefully it will be beneficial. Looking back at the long road of my past almost seems like I Am The Woman Looking In A Mirror.

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