History of Art Home Page
Robert Douglas Hunter is one of the most gifted contemporary still life painters. His work features elaborate compositions, mainly made up of circular objects such as bowls, jars, vases and tables. Their gentle but architecturally inspired compositions recall the spirit of Raphaelle Peale. However, Hunter is not as minimalistic as Peale. His compositions often contain brilliant highlights of red and blue, against a pale cream colored background. Hunter is good at modeling light effects on different kinds of surfaces. However, he uses a delicate touch, and avoids laying in on with a trowel.
The spiraling table leg in Arrangement with a Table and Oriental Rug is especially dynamic. It adds a sense of circular movement to the composition. This is taken up by all the other circular objects in the painting. Also, the way reflections wrap around the gold jar also adds circular motion to the picture - the eye seems to travel from right to left around this jar, following the images. All of these circular motions give the effect of watching a circular dynamo in operation, an energy generating machine full of revolving , circularly moving components. Hunter also gets motion into his painting by having a book be open and its pages turning, in an unstable configuration, as if it were caught in mid flip. Such motion of the book leaves is also circular, around the central axis of the book's spine. Degas often poised his dancers in unstable postures, ones that could only be achieved in mid movement; Hunter gets a similar dynamic effect here. The movement effect is both accented and toned down by Hunter's color schemes. They are gentle, restful, and very easy to view, and give an effect of quiet to the picture. Yet they somehow underline the sense of a circular dynamo in operation. The bright colors in the picture are concentrated on rectilinear objects, such as the books and the rugs; the circular objects are mainly very light and different shades of cream colored or gold or brown like the table and its legs.
Pettit is a contemporary still life painter whose work is in the Peale tradition. Treasures and Treats has a marble ledge, a white cloth, a glass of wine, and a porcelain plate, all in the Peale tradition. There is far more foreground here than in Peale school artists, however; Pettit is making room for his hanging white cloth, reminiscent of Raphaelle Peale's After the Bath (1823). The cloth has a colored line along its edge, just as in Raphaelle. Pettit does use a wicker basket for his strawberries, something I do not recall any member of the Peale family employing, although it was common in much later artists like William Mason Brown. Pettit is careful to include leaves of each of the four types of fruit he paints: peaches, grapes, strawberries and raspberries. These are all fruits much depicted by Raphaelle Peale. Pettit also favors the simple horizontal arrangement of fruit used by Raphaelle. Pettit's composition is more personal. however. Pettit uses many triangles for his objects. The long side of the triangle, the base, is always level with the marble slab. The left hand side is long, and makes a smaller angle with the marble base than does the shorter, more precipitously descending right side of the triangle. The angle at the top tends to be considerably greater than 90 degrees. The strawberries and the grapes make one such large triangle; the wine glass, strawberries and grapes make another. The raspberries make a small but similarly shapes triangle on the right of the slab. The plate, together with the strawberries and peaches, makes a contrasting triangle: one whose left side is slightly steeper than its right. Pettit is strong on composition, and the shapes of his fruits and leaves. Their surface texture is still not quite as rich as 19th Peale school painters, however. He is good with the highlights of light on the grapes. The fruit and wine in the picture are all similar shades of red, with touches of yellow; the yellow is echoed in the pale yellow of the marble slab. This gives a unified color scheme to the picture. The hanging white cloth is balanced by the large white plate at the top.
Exon is a contemporary painter of landscapes with figures. Plein Air (1996) seems to show the artist, from the rear and as a small figure, sketching in an outdoor rural landscape. Even here, we see every detail of the artist's white shirt: Exon is very good at conveying the impression of clothes. Also, we see the figure's musculature underneath. The artist is sitting on a long seat or slab; it is the principal rectilinear figure in the painting, and it draws the eye. It seems to be an extension of his body. The slab extends across the right hand side of the painting. It meets up with a vertically erect wooden post on the right, which echoes the vertical line of the painter's torso. He is sitting bolt upright, and has good posture. On the left its horizontal line is extended by the artist's shadow. These three rectilinear regions superimpose a bit of a Mondrian like grid onto the painting, which is otherwise a landscape. Even in the landscape, the painter follows an elaborate road track vertically, and a series of horizontal furrows or dips crossing the view horizontally. They are much less regular, but break the landscape up into a series of geometric regions or fragments. The road track leads onto and elaborate hole or tunnel leading through some trees. It seems very much a female symbol, a gigantic one contemplated and sketched by the artist.
Mikel Glass is a gifted trompe-l'oeil artist. His painting Tools (1997) is in the tradition of "beloved objects", in this case, mainly drafting equipment and some blueprints. Like his predecessors in the Harnett school, the objects shown are wholly pleasurable - there are no sinister overtones. Just looking at them made me feel pleased, and they clearly represent favorite possessions of some person - also in the Harnett tradition. The tools are all straight edged, with some curved flourishes like the calipers, and they form a series of straight lines and triangles. This gives the composition a very Constructivist feel. Many of the lines formed by the tools' edges are parallel to each other. In addition, the blueprints contain many parallel lines within their surface. Most of the lines, together with their shadows and the grain of the wooden background, are all vertical or nearly so. This gives a strong overall direction to the picture.
Still Life with Fish (1978) is in the tradition of Peale school table top still lifes. It has an elaborately folded white cloth in it, that recalls those of Raphaelle Peale and John Francis; and its subject of fish also has antecedents in Raphaelle's work. This composition is oddly fascinating. It is filled with objects that are visually interesting - a jar of some red spice, two kinds of herbs, two spoons. Each is distinctly non clichéd. They are objects one rarely sees in still life tradition. Yet they are all pleasant and low key - there is nothing grotesque about them. The repeating design on the tablecloth adds a note of geometrical rhythm to the painting. It is an abstract design, and forms a contrast with the real life objects on its surface. The positioning of the objects forms patterns with its geometric designs - for example, the two spoons stick out of one oval region on the table cloth, like the cross strokes of some mirror reversed Q. The jar of paprika also seems strategically placed on the tablecloth.
Anthony D'Elia's March Tulips shows interesting composition. The tulip flowers show too much uniformity in their color and texture - a common fault in modern still life painting - but the leaves and stems make a well done geometric composition. This pattern is echoed by their shadows on the wall, and is continued inside their blue glass vase. The flowers themselves extend this composition, and form visual anchors for the various lines in the painting. The use of red, yellow, green and blue makes a few primary colors. The work is closer to graphic design than painting, with its handful of colors and boldly patterned design. The sheer surface smoothness of the design adds to its dream like effect, as well. These look like flowers one might see in a dream. The huge vase of water seems like a womb symbol. Or of the ocean, symbolizing how all life depends on water and draws its nourishment from it. The shadows of the flowers also seem to convey some meaning, as in a dream. Or rather the bright light which causes the shadow - it is as if the flowers were being artificially highlighted to point out some meaning in them.