Skip to content
A Feast for the Eyes: Sumptuous Still Lifes

Still-life paintings are deceptively straightforward. They depict groups of objects as their main subject matter—flowers, food, drink, and the vessels that contain them—yet they are often imbued with symbolic meaning and offer a new way of looking at everyday items. A Feast for the Eyes invites you to revel in lush expressions of beauty, sustenance, and abundance spanning 150 years.

As a category of art, still life traces its lineage to seventeenth-century Europe, particularly the Dutch Old Masters, whose paintings of consumable and material comforts were highly valued by their clientele. Artists not only showed off their skill in capturing light, shadow, and color of the surfaces and forms in their arrangements, but often included objects and details imbued with symbolic meaning. For example, nature’s bounty of cut flowers, perhaps beginning to wilt, or perishable food, attracting insects, signified wealth but also hinted at mortality and decay.

In the nineteenth century, many American artists, often from or trained in Europe, specialized in still life. Among the earliest paintings in the exhibition, the two masterful works by Severin Roesen demonstrate the role of still life in articulating visual and sensual pleasure in consumer goods in mid-nineteenth-century America. In the early twentieth century, Albert Herter painted the gladioli he grew in his garden, creating the illusion of cut stems inside a glass vase, reminiscent of French flower paintings he would have seen when he lived in Paris.

In reaction to nonrepresentational art movements popular in the aftermath of World War II, many painters in the 1970s returned to realism and explored still life. Photorealists such as Audrey Flack painted directly from photos of their compositions, striving to create the appearance, not of everyday life, but of a photograph. They shared earlier still-life artists’ fascination with the play of light on reflective surfaces, which offered the opportunity to display the mastery of their craft. Jane Wilson concentrated instead on a painterly luminosity, softening sharp edges and simplifying forms.

Overall, these examples of a time-honored genre ask us to consider the meanings conveyed by ordinary and extraordinary objects, when seen through the keen eyes and produced with the brush-wielding hands of artists of different times and sensibilities.

Back To Top