The final installment of the American Encounters exhibition series co-organized by the musée du Louvre
, the High Museum of Art, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art, the exhibition The Simple Pleasures of Still Life explores the rise of still-life painting in 19th-century America. In the wake of the exhibitions on landscape, genre painting, and portraiture, this exhibition provides a new opportunity to foster dialogue on American painting.
Featuring 10 artworks from the collections of the four partner institutions, this final exhibition follows on from the previous ones to illustrate how American painters like Raphaelle Peale, Martin Johnson Heade and William Michael Harnett adapted European models to their time and country, and thus contributed to the creation of a national voice.
Despite a centuries-old tradition in Europe, still life was slow to gain favor in the United States. The genre became popular with the major political, economic, and social changes that took place over the course of the 19th century. A new type of patron began to emerge, eager to represent their wealth through certain symbolic objects. Raphaelle Peale, considered the first American painter of still life, won renown for his austere and efficient style with a focus on products cultivated on American soil.
For a long time, American still life drew inspiration from European codes of style. As people's relationship to luxury evolved, the compositions were enriched and the subjects diversified. After the Civil War, American still-life painting renewed with more national subjects and symbolism was used to assert certain specific moral values or to criticize the materialism prevalent in American society at the time, as in Small Change by John Haberle.
At the Louvre from February 5, 2015, the spotlight exhibition American Encounters: The Simple Pleasures of Still Life will then travel to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas (May 16September 14, 2015) followed by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia (September 26, 2015 January 31, 2016).
The rise of American still life
European academic hierarchies placed little value on still life, a genre that began as a rather confidential practice in the United States. The New World painters had a preference for portrait or landscape paintings, which garnered greater interest from patrons, as shown in the previous exhibitions.
At the turn of the 19th century, American economic development gave rise to a new category of buyers who were partial to representations of objects that reflected their daily life and success. In circa 1813, Raphaelle Peale painted Corn and Cantaloupe, appropriating the traditional European format of still life and adapting it to his audience to share his vision of American bounty. Cantaloupe, sweet potato, and corn are used to evoke the great plantations, particularly the one belonging to the painting's first owner, Dr. Benjamin Lee, in Maryland.
From its tentative beginnings, still life went on to flourish towards the middle of the century. The subject matter was more luxurious: fruits and vegetables were joined by flowers and game meats, reflecting the changes in tastes arising from greater wealth and industrial production.
With the emergence of wealthy collectors interested in the Dutch Golden Age still lifes, artists like Martin Johnson Heade (18191904) made a specialty of particularly elaborate paintings with subtle symbolism. Still Life with Apple Blossoms in a Nautilus Shell, painted in 1870, is a clever pastiche of Nordic painting or Abraham Mignon's vases of flowers, one example of which is presented in the exhibition. The virtuoso execution of drapery and the delicate rendering of the flowers portray a context of seduction that undoubtedly marked the beginning of a new relationship to luxury and sociability in American society.
Trompe-lil and symbol
The Civil War led to an abrupt change. Still life painters like William Harnett (18481892) renewed their focus on characteristically American objects, specializing in trompe-lil with a willingly symbolic and sometimes subversive resonance. A distinctive feature of American still life in the second half of the 19th century, the use of trompe-l'il echoed the emergence of popular taste for what were referred to as bric-a-brac paintings, eclectic collections, and exotic objects. Part of the long tradition of visual illusionism, trompe-l'il was also used to challenge the materialist values of society and political corruption. In such a way, Small Change by John Haberle highlights the relationship with money in America at the height of its economic development: demystified, a coin is used to hold a little self-portrait that seems placed there like a challenge to the authorities. The viewer is thus made party to the illusion, but also guided by the artist to decipher the code.