Painters Of Plenty

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The 1831 painting exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum was the cause of much rejoicing on the part of the critic for the prestigious North American Review , with a single salient exception: he had no use for still lifes. The painter who copied brass kettles or game might be “somewhat more refined than the tinker or cook who handles the originals,” said the critic, but his efforts were mere mechanical labor, to be valued “very lightly.” The trouble, of course, was that still lifes didn’t offer moral instructions, or grand themes, or the likenesses of people who embodied either. Many shared the critic’s low opinion, and one searches in vain through the old auction lists seeking the name of any collector who specialized in still lifes. But this doctrinaire stuffiness pretty much ended with the nineteenth century: by 1909 the still-life painter Emil Carlsen was getting some of his own back, proclaiming that ”…after all, a two penny bunch of violets in an earthen jug may make a great work of art, if seen through a temperament.” What is fortunate is that throughout a beleaguered century, our artists had faith enough in their temperaments to turn out still lifes of wonderful variety and charm. Recently, the art historian William H. Gerdts, serving as guest curator at Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Philbrook Art Center, selected some of the finest of these for the largest exhibition of native still-life painting ever assembled. His show, “Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life,” will be at the Philbrook (September 27 to November 8) before moving to the Oakland Museum in California (December 8 to January 24), the Baltimore Museum of Art (March 2 to April 25), and the National Academy of Design in New York City (May 18 to July 4). From the 130-odd paintings on display, we have gathered in a bountiful harvest of canvases dealing specifically with food: and we offer them in happy refutation of all those who once would have valued them “very lightly.”