Exhibition Review: Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life

Posted on November 14, 2015

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Georgia O'Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby, 1938, oil on canvas, 36 x 40 1/8 inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art © 2011 Artist

Georgia O’Keeffe, From the Faraway, Nearby, 1938, oil on canvas, 36 x 40 1/8 inches (Metropolitan Museum of Art © 2011 Artist

 

“O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked

analogies! not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning

duplicate in mind.” –Ahab

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

Roman, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French. These cultures all developed uniquely mannered still-life traditions that so codified the cultural gestalt of each that the works carry associations far beyond visual culture into political, economic and religious history. What about American still-life painting? Have we ever witnessed a stylistic zenith in which our culture’s most critical ideas were codified in the still-life? Are there American painters who captured the cultural zeitgeist the way our greatest novelists and musicians have? Do we have a Zurbarán, a Chardin or a Cézanne? These questions, and many more, come to mind while viewing The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, an ambitious, scholarly show that traces American still-life painting back to its roots at the birth of our society.

Audubon to Warhol gathers the works of nearly one hundred still-life painters, spanning two centuries, and separates them both chronologically and thematically into four groups: Describing (1795-1845), Indulging (1845-1890), Discerning (1875-1905) and Animating (1905-1950). These categories give the show some structural support, and help one navigate a sea of images, each of which offers a compelling glimpse into American cultural history.

Our early still-life painters worked from one of two imperatives: a scientific approach to describing discrete natural elements as faithfully as possible, or the more painterly approach of rendering entire scenes illusionistically. Both approaches have their roots in European painting, but a triumph of the show is its suggestion that these modes of working were distinctly American, too.

read the full review, as originally published on Painters’ Table

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