The Peale Family: Raphaelle Peale | Rembrandt Peale | Rubens Peale | James Peale | Anna Claypoole Peale | Margaretta Peale | Sarah Miriam Peale

Peale School: John Wood Dodge | John F. Francis | George Forster | Alexander M. McLean | John Durrie | William Rickarby Miller | Paul Lacroix | George Henry Hall | John O'Brien Inman | Robert Spear Dunning | John Joseph Enneking | Milne Ramsey | Hannah Brown Skeele

Scalp Level and Related Artists: George Hetzel | William Mason Brown | Levi Wells Prentice | Albert F. King

Severin Roesen School: Robert Street | Carl Baum | Severin Roesen | Edward Ashton Goodes

Trompe L'oeil: Simon P. Shafer | Richard LaBarre Goodwin | De Scott Evans | Charles A. Meurer

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I wish to record here the enormous intellectual debt all students of American painting owe William H. Gerdts. His numerous works have had a huge impact on our understanding of this vast area of art.

This article is on American Still Life painting. It references pictures that were published in:

The Peale Family

Raphaelle Peale 1774 - 1825

Most of the above still lifes are reprinted in the excellent monograph, Raphaelle Peale Still Lifes (1988) by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr. I have also listed other publications of the paintings.

The above list tries to group Peale's paintings into a taxonomy both typological and chronological. It is my own point of view - other scholars might group them differently. Still, it might help people think about Peale's work.

Raphaelle Peale is the founder of the American Still life school. His minimalist paintings have been compared to Spanish still life artists. Even more so, they look like the early Italian tradition of the 1600's. His simple baskets of fruit, their horizontal compositions and the presence of grape leaves all remind one of Caravaggio, one of the earliest of all European painters to create still lifes as a separate genre of art.

The Plant Pictures

Peale's Watermelon with Morning Glories (1813) shows a complex 3D design. The watermelon pieces have unusual 3D outlines. Even more complex are the ridges within the larger watermelon piece. These are some of the most complex 3D patterns in American still life. They show ridges of fruit and seeds emerging around the central axis of the watermelon. Such an interest in 3D patterns, together with his minimalist approach, are Peale's most important contribution to the still life tradition.

Peale liked optical effects in his paintings of glassware. In A Dessert (1814), we see the studio window reflected in both the wine carafe and the glass. It is a four paned source of bright light. In Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup (1814), the transparent glass base of the egg cup has an unusual distorted image seen through it.

Peale sometimes uses "wire" effects in his paintings. There are curved stems of plants that pass in front of larger objects. In Watermelon with Morning Glories (1813), the curved morning glory stems are in front of the brilliantly colored watermelon. In A Dessert (1814), the grape branch stems for a cross in the lower right of the painting. There is also a fruit stem in front of an orange, with a small object at its end. This "wire" approach adds unusual effects to Peale's compositions; I don't recall such designs in later members of the Peale school. These two paintings are close together in time (1813-1814); it is not an effect that Peale used much otherwise throughout his career.

Like his uncle James after him, there is something of the biological expounder in Raphaelle Peale. In Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup (1814), we see the strawberry fruits, the strawberry leaves, and the strawberry flower, each in its own section of the painting. It is a complete guide to the genus Fragraria. Both the leaves and the flower are turned so that they directly face the viewer. The Ostrich Egg cup itself is a unique specimen. Peale also noticed the citrus oil glands on the oranges. These are the small depressions or pits dotting the surface of the orange; they contain the citrus oils, which help give oranges their wonderful smells.

Minimalist Fruit studies

In Raphaelle Peale's still lifes, the various kinds of fruit and nuts are all carefully separated from each other. In an extreme example, in the Still Life (1818), there is one each of an apple and a pear, within a bowl. These are the only large objects in the picture, and they are sitting neatly side by side. In front of the apple, within the bowl, are almonds, in front of the pear, some kind of dried fruit. Outside of the bowl on the table, on the right below and to the right of the almonds in the bowl, are chestnuts outside of the bowl. On the left, and in a parallel position, is more dried fruit, perhaps raisins; they too are carefully separate. The six kinds of objects in the picture are in six different regions. Peale was not messy, to put it mildly. In general, all of Peale's objects are restricted to one region of a painting. The objects in the painting often seem to have no clear relationship to one another. They are just there.

Peale liked to show individual leaves sticking out like wings behind his fruit. It makes for unusual compositions. In his "double" piece, Apples and Fox Grapes (1815), the leaf arrangements are similar behind the two apples, emphasizing the doubling going on in the picture: it is if the left piece of fruit were simply a duplicate of the right.

The Shiny Orange pictures

Raphaelle Peale was a gifted ventriloquist. His favorite gag was to made meat and other food seem to come alive, talking and begging for its life to be spared. One wonders if there is something of the subconsciously vegetarian in Peale's still lifes. Aside from A Herring (1815), they feature exclusively vegetable food. Also, Peale's paintings are perhaps another attempt to give food a "voice".

Peale did numerous paintings of fish, according to contemporary exhibition records, but only one seems to survive today, A Herring (1815). When seen in full color, this work is astonishing. The orangish brown of the shiny fish scales is reproduced in the most vibrant colors imaginable. It is the centerpiece of a composition that also includes a brown jar. The color harmony here is superb. The painting has a similar color scheme to Still Life with Orange and Book, probably done around the same time. The many sections of the orange recall the many scales sections of the fish. Both the orange and the shiny fish have a glowing quality, as if they were a source of light. Both the orange and the fish are subjects of wonder. The painter treats them as miracles of nature.

There are echoing effects in Peale's paintings. The right angle formed by the orange peel in Still Life with Orange and Book, exactly echoes the shape of the book's binding. The spiral end of the orange peel reminds one of the circular cross section of the orange. And the orange and book are themselves compared as objects: The orange has a peel, the book has a binding; the orange has sections, the book has leaves. Both of these parallels are reinforced by color harmonies among the binding, leaves, sections and peel. However, the book is rectilinear, whereas the orange and its sections are circular. It is a meditation on two different fundamental shapes, the circle and the rectangle. Both the book and the orange are ingested: the book is read, the orange is eaten.

A Herring (1815) includes vegetables at the right side of the picture. These vegetables are similar to those in Still Life with Celery and Wine (1816), of next year. So I have grouped these paintings together in the taxonomy, even though the later work does not have the glowing orange and brown color scheme of the earlier works.

The Later Porcelain Pictures

The late composition Still Life with Wild Strawberries (1822) seems like a fusion of two of Peale's earlier designs, although done with creativity and really new thinking, as well. It has the strawberries from the earlier Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup (1814). It also has the same distinctive pitcher as the earlier painting, one with a squared off handle forming a right angle. (Just as in Still Life with Orange and Book, Peale liked to introduce right angles into compositions that are otherwise largely curved.) This time the point of view is more elevated, and we can see down into the top of the pitcher; before we could only see a slight part of the inside red rim. The glass jar filled with strawberries in the 1822 work is of the same general two part shape as the earlier egg cup. All of it is transparent, echoing the transparent glass base of the ostrich egg cup in the earlier work. In the center of the 1822 is a bowl with and apple and nuts below it; it is reminiscent of the bowl in the Still Life (1818). There are even raisins to one side of the bowl, somewhat similar to the 1818 work, although this time they are still on the branch. Peale liked larger objects to form a middle level row in his compositions. In Still Life (1818), these medium size objects are the apple and the pear. In Still Life with Wild Strawberries, they are the sugar bowl, the apple, and the pitcher. These middle row objects are larger than the nuts and raisins, but smaller than the large jar of strawberries, or the ostrich egg cup.

Rembrandt Peale 1778 - 1860

Rembrandt Peale is mainly a portrait and figure painter, although he occasionally branched out into other areas as well. His early Rubens Peale with Geranium (1801) includes a virtuoso portrait of a geranium plant. This depiction, while delightful, shows little signs of relationship with the "Peale tradition", as represented by its founder Raphaelle Peale, other members of the Peale family, and the dozens of artists who would continue the tradition through to the early 20th Century. It is not minimalist, it is not trompe-l'oeil, it is not a product of an elaborate compositional arrangement. Peale does make Rubens' head and shoulder, a stem of the geranium, and a fallen leaf's stem all part of a triangular composition. One point of similarity between Rembrandt's portraits and his older brother Raphaelle's still lifes: Rembrandt liked elaborate white collars for his sitters. These include Rosalba's double lace collar, and Michael Angelo's white cloth one. These collars are somewhat similar to the elaborate "white curved objects" in Peale tradition still lifes, which in fact are sometimes white cloths. So is the beautiful red velvet coverlet that Emma Clara is clutching in her portrait.

While Peale's women are often looking to one side, Peale's male sitters are often directly gazing straight out of the canvas. One could interpret this is at least two ways. They are either looking straight at the viewer, or they are looking directly at the artist while he is painting them. Their looks are often extremely emotional. They perhaps record the feelings between Peale and his relatives, who are often the subject of his pictures. They might also reflect the trompe l'oeil technique of Peale's father, Charles Wilson, who painted men that way sometimes to make more of an illusitionistic, "you are there", "this is real life and not a painting" effect to his pictures. Or they could be trying to convey some idea to the viewer. I often have a feeling that they are trying to tell me something, that there is something terribly important that they are trying to convey.

Peale's landscapes are remarkably soft and intimate. Even when he painted Niagara Falls, a subject of huge spectacle in other painters, Peale's tone is close up and gentle. The Niagara Falls landscape is closely framed. It is as if it is seen through a very small window or opening. Similarly, the landscape in his The Court of Death is actually framed by a cave opening. Both landscapes have a somewhat similar composition, with a large, sloping downward boulder or falls on the left side of the picture, and a more or less horizontal edge or horizon along the right side of the picture, nearly half way to the top. The boulders in The Court of Death, and the falls in Niagara, both have a somewhat similar shape, with a two step, projected surface at top, followed by the long downward, angular slope.

Peale further softens his view of Niagara, by making the Canadian falls be seen in the distance, reducing their scale, and by having them silhouette a tree in the foreground. The tree is tiny, bare of leaves for the winter, and extremely delicate looking; the tree and the distant, small scale falls look like a delicate miniature, not the mighty Niagara. This mists generated by the Falls are not shown as the boiling sprays they are in real life; instead, Peale depicts them as gentle mists hanging over the landscape, softly diffusing light. The effect is of softly drifting off to a dream world. The viewer is invited to enter a place very different from daily life. There is an effect of meditation, of reverie, of entering a state of consciousness different from anything conventional. All of the water in the picture encourages contemplation - in addition to the falls and the mists, there is a rain storm in one corner, with a darkening of the light.

There is a meditative quality to Peale's other works as well. The geranium is also something out of the viewer's daily experience. At the time, it was an exceptionally exotic botanical specimen, from the Peale family museum. Even today, most people are unfamiliar with its jointed stems and regular complexly shaped leaves. It seems to be part of another world which Rubens is gently proposing to the viewer. There is a tiny human figure in the Niagara painting, standing next to and touching the tree. He seems very small next to it. Similarly, Rubens is touching the geranium, which is taller than he is on the tabletop. In both cases, the figure of a human touching a plant seems to have symbolic properties, suggestive of human's closeness to and dependence on nature; and also with suggestions of humans drawing strength and emotional support from plants, almost by magic through touching them.

The other major landscape of Rembrandt's I have seen also shows a waterfall. Cascatelles of Tivoli (1830) is a lighter and less intense painting than Niagara. Done a year earlier than his Niagara, it might be a prelude to the more serious work. It shows a very intricate design, of lacy falls interweaving itself, combining and recombining on various levels. It has the same sort of design pattern as Peale's other landscapes, with a falls sloping downward on the left side of the picture, and a more horizontal horizon on the right.

Peale spent much of his career as a portraitist. One can see structural similarities between Peale's heads, and Peale's landscapes. The cave in The Court of Death is bounded by boulders on both sides; so are the heads of Peale's sitters bound by hair and the surrounding space. Hair often forms ringlets coming down in Peale's paintings, as do elaborate collars around their necks; such cascades rather recall Peale's waterfalls.

Peale's portraits are often full of celebrations of the fabrics his sitters wear. Partly this is a painterly love of fabrics, as strong in Rembrandt as his brother Raphaelle's love of simple food objects. But partly this is a celebration of an imaginary world. The woman in Idealized Portrait (1845) wears all sorts of exotic clothes like a fairy princess in a story. The General in General Samuel Smith (1817-18) is decked out in extraordinarily shiny gilt epaulettes and sword, ribbon, and other uniform paraphernalia. These people are happy looking. They are inviting both the artist and the viewer to enter their world.

Rubens Peale 1784 - 1865

Rubens Peale's watermelon studies uses slices of watermelon, not chunks or whole fruit. Each painting shows two slices of watermelon elevated for display, sitting on a third piece horizontal, flat on the table. The slices form complex geometric curves along their top boundaries, the part away from the rind. The slices tend to have notches in them towards one side; the notches are curved, like the holes in a jigsaw puzzle, and are of different shapes in the two paintings. Aside from the notch, each top is nearly horizontal, although continuously curved. In each picture, the shape of the watermelon, and the seed cavities within it, is the main focus of the painting. Since there are two elevated slices in painting, the viewer is urged to compare the two slices for similarities and differences. In Still Life: Watermelons and Grapes, the right hand of the rinds of the two slices each form a distinctive, similar curve, something like the prow of a ship. They are slightly S shaped.

The grapes in each picture tend to be linear bunches, of near constant thickness up and down the stalk, and fairly thin bunches to boot; Peale does not go in for the pyramidal bunches of grapes that are so popular in "abundant" still life painters. Instead, the bunches add a linear, almost cylindrical branch to the composition of each picture. They are always near the watermelon slices, and seem designed as counterweights in the composition with them. So is a knife, posed upwards at an erect angle, that moves towards the direction of the watermelon slices. It is a male symbol, just as the watermelon pieces seem female. The grape leaves in each picture are small and beautifully rounded. They add a grace note to the composition. In Still Life: Watermelons and Grapes, Rubens uses a dark, reddish colored board that echoes the bright red of the watermelon slices. The dark red grapes also form a color harmony with this.

The many sided plate containing the wedding cake in Magpie Eating Cake (1865) is especially beautiful. It shows the Peale tradition interest in geometrically complex objects. However, it is more symmetric than the irregular objects in the center of Peale paintings. Instead, it is closer to such more regular objects as the ostrich egg cup and pitcher in Raphaelle Peale's work.

James Peale 1749 - 1831

Triangular Composition in James Peale

James Peale's composition in Pears, Grapes and Melon is purely triangular. The main body of fruit in the painting forms an equilateral triangle, turned on its side so the hypotenuse is horizontal at the bottom, and the right angle forms the apex at the top of the picture. This apex consists of the end of a branch of grape leaves. Within this triangle, there is a second, lower triangle, whose apex is the peak of the dish of pears. In the lower right hand corner, Peale has provided the final extensions of the right hand sides of both triangles. The taller, right triangle is continued by a bunch of grapes. The lower, wider triangle is completed by the stick like stem of grape leaves.

Peale's Still Life with Watermelon also shows his double triangle construction. Here, both apexes are formed by the large watermelon itself. The higher apex is from the peak of the watermelon. The lower triangle's apex is formed by the jagged slice of watermelon, in the melon's center. The jagged cut is of unusual shape; it is clearly designed to serve as a triangular apex. The composition of Still Life with Watermelon is different from that of Pears, Grapes and Melon, in that the two triangles in the Still Life with Watermelon overlap each other, whereas those in Pears, Grapes and Melon are nested.

Peale also used a multiple triangle construction for his portrait The Artist and his Family (1795). There are numerous overlapping triangles here, centered on his head, his wife's head, and that of his eldest daughter, with the younger children making up the lower points. Even a little girl with an infant on her lap forms a triangle. Some vegetation in the foreground of this painting forms a predecessor to Peale's later still lifes. Each plant is painted individually. And each plant shows the sprawling vigor of form that will later mark the contents of Peale's still lifes. There is no minimalism here; Peale likes each plant at its most dynamic and expansive.

Color in James Peale

Still Life with Watermelon shows beautiful color harmonies. There is the deep pink of the melon, pink peaches, and pink flowers. The whole effect is very rich and beautiful.

Many of Peale's still lifes show a three color harmony. They range from bright red, to orange to yellow. Each color is blazingly brilliant, and emerges heavily lit, from a background of green leaves, often darker and in relative shadow. Sometimes the red, orange and yellow exist in pure form. Other times they are intergraded along the way, with a series of shades along this continuum. Also, sometimes an object will be all red or all yellow; other times a fruit or vegetable will share two of these shades.

Basket With Grapes seems different from much of James Peale's work. The design is gentler and more regular, with a rounded bowl of grapes at the center of the picture, surrounded by leaves. It is still very rich compared to Raphaelle Peale, but its design is simpler and less aggressively flamboyant than much of James Peale. The beautiful colors are gentler, too. They are still very vibrant. The table has three different colored kinds of grapes. The three colors work together in a color harmony.


James Peale was plainly interested in the cucumber family of plants. The still lifes discussed here contain a Balsam Apple, a watermelon, and a regular melon, all members of the cucumber family. He is very good in all cases on picking up on the rich colors of the fruits.

The leaves in James Peale's pictures show a common sense of shape. They tend to be structured somewhat like an open hand, with a central "palm" like region radiating off to smaller extensions, somewhat like fingers. This type of "hand" construction shows up in many kinds of leaves in James Peale, whether grapes or rhubarb. Comparing such leaves' structure to a palm of a hand is a botanical cliché. The shape of such leaves is conventionally described as "palmate", for example. Still, Peale's painting emphasizes this aspect. Many still life painters show a grape leaf all curled up, or from its side. It's basic palmate nature is not especially visible in such a work. By contrast, in James Peale, it is uniquely visible. There is perhaps a "Botanic consciousness" in Peale's work. It tends to show plants in the same sort of richly detailed structure we see in botanical illustrations. For example, the Balsam Apple is showed both outside, with its rind, and peeled back, showing the bright red seeds arrayed inside. This is the sort of inside/outside illustration that would occur in a botanical reference book. Similarly, his melon painting shows both an outside view of the melon, and then slices of the melon in front, complete with seeds. The bright green flesh of these slices is one of Peale's richest color symphonies. They melon slice look delicious to eat, and are very inviting. They also play a brilliant part in color design of the painting. But in addition, they are also the sort of view a botanist would want of the melon. One can see in detail, the fruit and seed structure of a cross section of the melon.

James Peale had much family tradition backing up a devotion to botany. The Peale family ran museums. Rembrandt painted a geranium as a botanical illustration, and Titian Ramsey made a career out of zoological illustration of American animals.

James Peale loved the rough surfaces of fruit. He painted the network of dark lace work on a melon, or the raised yellow and green bumps and ribs on a gourd. He also like pears, with their rough dark skin. Unlike his nephew Raphaelle, he was not as interested in glowing or translucent objects such as blackberries or grapes. He painted grapes well, but not as glowing jewels, as some Peale school artists did. The vegetables in Still Life: Balsam Apple and Vegetables look especially solid and 3D. A cabbage has a network of ribs running along it; this emphasizes its curved nature as a 3D object. The vegetables look almost as if they are the product of engineering, like a bridge or tower.

Anna Claypoole Peale 1791 - 1878

Anna Claypoole Peale was a miniature portraitist.

Margaretta Angelica Peale 1795 - 1882

Margaretta Peale's Catalogue. A Deception (1813) shows some interesting 3D design. A trompe-l'oeil painting, it shows an exhibition catalogue hanging straight down by a string. Although the catalogue is a tilted rectangle, its cover is curling. It forms a spiral around a straight line running vertically downward from the point of the string. The other pages are beginning to curl too; they also have their center of curling around this straight line. Their degrees of curling are staggered and progressive, so we see planes curling more and more around this vertical, culminating in the most curved surface, the catalogue cover itself. A second set of progressive curves are at the bottom of the painting; they curve around a horizontal line, perpendicular to the first. The vertical line is a long axis, the horizontal line is much shorter; together they form a reversed L. The pages are off white, while the catalogue cover is a light red, to emphasize it. Many Peale tradition paintings have at their center a series of "Light colored, unusually curved 3D objects", around which the composition is built. These can be pieces of cake, letters, cloth or a book. Here the objects are the ever more curling catalogue pages. As in other Peale school works, there is a whole series of them, and their interlocking curved structures form a whole intricate design. In this work, there is almost nothing but these curved objects; it is minimalist, which is also a Peale tradition.

The holes containing the watermelon seeds in Still Life with Watermelon and Peaches (1828) show the same sort of rhythmic, geometric regularity as the book pages in the earlier Catalogue. A Deception (1813). The holes are each arranged at a slightly different angle, one that progresses along a curve running parallel to the rind. The holes are long, straight, and of different lengths, and they are arranged parallel to each other, just like the corners of the book pages. The watermelon has a strong, straight line axis running along its top; this axis shows a 3D cut along a right angle (at least it starts out as a right angle at the left side of the watermelon). Both the axis and the right angle recall the central axes of the L of the catalogue.

The grape leaves on top of the watermelon are not the small leaves of other artists. Instead they stand up, are large, and stick out in series of harmonically planned directions at the top of the painting.

Sarah Miriam Peale 1800 - 1885

Peale School

John Wood Dodge 1807 - 1893

John Wood Dodge was a painter of miniature portraits. Towards the end of his life, in the 1880's, he took up still life painting in the Peale tradition. At the center of Gourmet's Dessert (1886) is a cake with a piece cut out of it; this sort of cake, with its frosted conical roof, is exactly in the Raphaelle Peale mode. It is the "light colored, 3D curved object" at the center of Peale paintings. At the left of Gourmet's Dessert, we see bananas and pears, that are nearly exactly the same color yellow. This is echoed by the lighter yellow of the cake. There is also a series of red and pink roses and a red apple, forming a similar color harmony. And there is a light blue vase. Red, yellow blue: Dodge paints using the primary colors. It gives an effect of almost child like simplicity to the still life.

One might note the presence of bananas here, at this late date (1886). Robert Spear Dunning also included them in his Still Life (1882). They do not seem to appear in earlier American still lifes; presumably they just became available in the United States in this period, although I do not know this factually. Dodge is interested in the complexly curved tip of one of the bananas; it is another 3D curved surface in a Peale school painting.

Dodge builds his painting up out of a series of triangles, which is the most popular construction in a Peale school painter. The cake has a separate piece sitting on top of it; if one ignores the piece, its apex is the top of a triangle that also includes the apple, the bananas and the lower rim of the pitcher of milk. If one includes the piece of cake perched on top of the main cake, we see a line formed that points to the spout of the pitcher, as the apex of a triangle. The pitcher spout in turn points to the lower right of the pitcher, where the handle joins at the bottom. There is also the big over all triangle formed by the flowers as the apex, and which includes everything in the painting except the milk. The bananas and pears at the left of the painting take part in a whole series of smaller triangles.

In his early miniature portraits, Dodge sometimes includes still life in the backgrounds (and foregrounds) of his paintings. Felix Grundy Eakin (1846) shows a little boy and some of his toys. It is utterly different from the Peale school. In fact, Dodge's design seems different to me from that of any other American painter. Dodge likes circles in this work: the green wheels of the child's toy wagon, another wooden object that looks like a yo yo, but which is perhaps another, unpainted, larger wheel, and the child's circular hat, lying on some steps. All of these are circular objects with some narrow depth, making them short cylinders. There are also regular rectilinear patterns: a series of steps, a checkerboard floor, regular facing stones on the window sill. Interspersed with these geometric figures are rose, both a plant growing over the sill, and some cut flowers in the toy wagon. Dodge's liking for bright, whitish colors with little darkness shows up again in this work: the main scheme is pink, with light blues for the child's clothes.

John F. Francis 1808 - 1886

The Curved Objects in Francis

Some of Francis' later paintings such as Luncheon Still Life (1860) and Cherries from a Basket (1866), feature baskets with cloths attached to their handles. These are highly unusual in American Still Life, and seem to be restricted to Francis. The baskets are always wicker ware, and are always filled with fruit. The baskets are always round, and are designed to add circles and other complex curves to the composition. The basket in Cherries from a Basket is tilted forward, so that its brim forms a perfect circle. In addition, its handle forms a semicircular arc, when projected onto the 2D surface of the painting, a perfect half-circle, considered as a 3D object. In addition, there is the strip of cloth tied to the handle. This forms a subtly S shaped curve, tangent to the circle of the rim. It is an especially interesting part of the design, and catches the interest of the eye immediately. It is covered with light blue stripes, the highlight and emphasize every curve and twist in the whole S curve of the cloth. These curves are fully three dimensional; the cloth is not at all flat, but keeps subtly twisting and turning in three dimensional space. This object is perhaps Francis' version of the "complexly shaped, irregular, 3D, light colored object" that is at the center of so many Peale tradition canvases. The knot, where the cloth is tied to the handle, also echoes other artists in the school. Paul Lacroix' Asparagus, Tomatoes and a Squash (1865) shows a knot in the string tying up the asparagus, and Harnett would often have knotted strings in his compositions.

The basket in Luncheon Still Life (1860) is much less symmetrical. It shows a beautiful, complicated S curve in its lip, descending from the right to the left. This gives it immediate visual fascination. It also has not one but two handles, whose differently tilted angles, and separate points of attachment also aid in the geometric complexity of the figure. The basket is not as purely symmetric as the one in Cherries from a Basket (1866), but it is still a purely geometric construction, one formed of mathematically perfect curves. Attached to the handles is a piece of cloth. Unlike the strip of the later Cherries from a Basket (1866), this is an entire rectangular piece of towel. Like the other strip, it is white with pale but conspicuous blue lines running through it, lines that help the viewer understand its 3D structure. It is draped around the back of the basket, and forms a highly complex 3D surface. Like the strip in Cherries from a Basket (1866), it is the Peale tradition "3D central object". In both pictures, Francis has a combination of the pure curved geometry of the baskets, with these 3D irregular shaped pieces of the cloth. It gives an object of great visual fascination for the viewer.

Just as the basket in Luncheon Still Life (1860) contains curves that are both regular and non-symmetrical, so too are various china pitchers and bowls in Wine, Cheese and Fruit (1857). The pitcher in that work has a curving spout that rises to another horizontal level, just like the two level basket in Luncheon Still Life. The top of the pitcher is at one horizontal level; the top of the spout is at a higher horizontal level; there is a region of transition between the pitcher top and spout the raises the level, using a complex but geometrically regular curve. Objects like the pitcher and the basket are a Francis addition to the Peale tradition. They are like the "irregular 3D objects" of the Peale school, but are more regularly geometrical. They form a half way house between the 3D irregular objects, and the Constructivist style cones, cylinders and spheres also often found in Peale school paintings.

The bowl containing fruit at the right hand side of Wine, Cheese and Fruit is more purely a complexly curved object, in the Peale tradition.. The viewer has to work to deduce its shape, from the various fragmentary clues given.

Francis and the Peale School

Francis often used triangles in his compositions. The triangles are often numerous and overlapping. They are not as obvious or as dominating as the pyramidal compositions of James Peale, where one large triangle starts at the apex of the picture, and proceeds to contain the whole composition under its sides.

The wine glasses, nuts, raisins and crackers in Francis' work come directly out of some of the paintings of Raphaelle Peale. Peale's A Dessert (1814) is especially close to Francis. It is hard not to see Francis as descending directly from the Raphaelle Peale tradition. In fact, he seems to be one of the first painters in the generation after the Peales and outside of the Peale family to echo this master. Francis was already producing Peale like paintings with A Luncheon Table (1852), while other Peale school artists seem to begin en masse in the early 1860's. Francis is less minimalist than Raphaelle, however. He has multiplied the elements of his still lifes, so that they can make elaborate "abundant" compositions. Within his pictures, however, the elements still form Peale like compositions and visual patterns.

Another element in Francis found in Raphaelle Peale is the branch of grape leaves arching over the top of the picture. This is always sitting on something, and forms a nearly horizontal curve near the top of the painting. In Peale, it sits on a watermelon, for instance; in Francis' A Luncheon Table (1852), on top of a bowl of fruit. One sees similar effects in later paintings by George Hetzel.

Francis liked to include a plate with cheese in his work. Raphaelle Peale made a still life that centers on a piece of cheese. However, Peale showed the cheese from the side; while Francis tends to show it from the top. Francis' cheese is viewed from the same perspective as one of Peale's cakes. The cheese is to a degree an "irregularly curved object" in the Peale tradition. However, unlike Peale's cakes, it is not cut into a series of pieces, but rather is just one large slice. Also, its curvature is not much emphasized, and it is not really so complex, or so much the focus of the composition, as a genuine Peale school "curved object".

Recurring Subjects in Francis

Francis uses a series of glasses filled with liquid in his pictures. These often seem to reappear from painting to painting. There are fluted, conical champagne glasses with cut glass panels on the side, filled with a light brown fluid, either champagne or beer. It is probably champagne, because there are open wine bottles in the pictures, but no beer bottles. There are glasses with shorter, rounded, cylindrical bodies above their stems. The bottom of the cylinder is rounded, and the glass as a whole has an "inverted bell" shape above the stem. These have a glowing, red wine in them. It is a wonderful orange red, and seems to glow as if it had an inner light source. One recalls the glass of milk in Alfred Hitchcock's film Suspicion (1942), in which he put a light bulb to call the viewer's attention to it. Finally, there are water glasses, a tumbler with cut glass sides and no stem. These have a clear fluid in them, probably water. There are variations on these pattern's in Francis' paintings. In Wine, Cheese and Fruit (1857), the reddish wine is also in the same low tumblers as the water.

At the center of many Francis compositions is a circular bowl of fruit. Cutting diametrically through the top of this fruit display are bunches of grapes. They bisect the entire bowl. On one side, we sometimes find a peeled orange, sitting amid its quarter-sectioned peel. In Wine, Cheese and Fruit (1857), a bunch of grapes and a bunch of raisins both cross the bowl diametrically, and at right angles to each other, dividing the bowl into quadrants. Francis' bunches of grapes sometimes include bunches of raisins. One also sees these in other Peale school painters. In real life today, I have never seen raisins in bunches, still attached to their grape stems. Raisins have always been removed from the stalk before being put into a box and sold, today. This must be a different approach to creating raisins in the Nineteenth Century.

Francis liked white table cloths on his surfaces. These are immaculately clean, but not especially fancy, compared to some later Peale school artists. Francis' table cloths have been folded into small regions, before being opened up and spread on the table. Every regular fold is meticulously painted. Some of the folds go up, and some go down, just as in a real table cloth. The folds occur at regular intervals across the surface of the cloth. Not only is this realistic, but it adds a "pulse" of regularly repeating elements, flowing across the surface of the picture. The folds recall those in Raphaelle Peale's Venus Rising From the Sea - A Deception (After the Bath) (1823).

George Forster 1817 - 1896

Forster's Gooseberries in a Bowl (1870) shows signs of the minimalist Peale tradition. There is a single white bowl with some gooseberries, two grapes, and three small strawberries on the plain wooden table. Mainly, this still life is interested in the gooseberries. They rarely appear in still lifes en masse. Forster's painting shows both their leaves and fruit. The fruit is shown in all kinds of light, with different translucency and surface light effects. There are also different colors. They look like the clear, colored "pierie" marbles I collected as a kid. This little picture reminded me, of all things, of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). What do Melville's huge novel and Forster's small picture have in common? Both are interested in exploring a part of nature that is not frequently looked at or thought about - Melville with whales, Forster with this neglected plant. Each discovers a world of wonder and beauty in this obscure corner. Both celebrate the power of nature, its ability to illuminate our lives with things utterly original and unthought of. Modern science is discovering new facts about gooseberries, too, and their near relatives, the currants. Both are members of the genus Ribes. They turn out to be unrelated to many of the plants to which they have traditionally been linked. Instead, they are part of an obscure branch of the evolutionary tree that produces little else in the way of edible fruit or food plants. So far all their humble qualities, gooseberries and currants are representatives of a branch of the evolutionary tree that humans otherwise do not much encounter at their table.

Forster uses as unusual composition too. Above the gooseberry fruits, he displays a row of leaves. So far, this is not too unusual. Hetzel showed rows of grape leaves above Still Life with Watermelon, Cantaloupe and Apples, and other artists often showed individual leaves, at least, at the top of their pictures. However, the shape of Forster's arrangement is distinctive. The leaves and fruit together almost make up a pure rectangle, seated atop the curve of the dish. Triangular compositions are very common, perhaps typical in the Peale school; circular patterns occur not infrequently; this sort of rectangle is much less ordinary. It is not quite a true rectangle. The row of leaves is wider than the fruit, and the vertical lines of the rectangle actually slope inward somewhat, in trapezoidal fashion.

Alexander M. McLean

McLean's Apple and Wine Glass (1865) is a very minimalist work in the Peale tradition. It contains one piece of fruit on a plate, a knife, whose handle only is visible, and a full wine glass. The picture is full of curved surfaces: the cut open apple, the plate, the glass. All of these surfaces are of perfect geometric regularity. The work seems Constructivist before its time, with cones, spheres and circles making up its geometry. There are two sets of concentric circles in the picture: One on the left containing the plate, with the apple at its dead center, the other and smaller on the right consisting of the wine glass, and its circular rim and stem and base. The cut away portion of the apple is in a beautiful curve, that I am not clear how to describe. It is perhaps somewhat parabolic. In the real world, it would be hard to cut an apple with such regularity and precision, but it makes for an interesting painting.

The lighting is much darker than in a typical Peale work. Even allowing that the glaze might have darkened over the years, there seems to be just a edge of light on one side of the wine glass, with the rest in relative darkness, and the plate seems to be in relative shadow over much of its surface as well. This sort of dramatic lighting effect seems somewhat innovative in Peale school works. The apple and wine seem to be part of someone's evening supper, in a dark room lit only by a feeble candle or lamp. The light along one side of the glass looks like a comet, with its tail extending up from the bottom of the glass to the top. There are also interesting lighting effects at each 90 degrees along the surface of the glass. They seem like abstract art patterns, as well as giving the illusion of light.

McLean's still life reminds me of the Solar System. The huge apple in the center represents the Sun, the small seed to one side of it Mercury. The rings of the plate suggest the orbits of the planets, and the side of light on the glass looks like a comet. Even the darkness of the picture reminds one of the darkness of outer space. Perhaps I am just imagining all this, but the sheer geometric regularity of McLean's world is suggestive of all sorts of geometric engines in real life: the Solar System, the Atom, the electromagnetic field of a charged particle.

McLean signs his work along the lower right front edge of the table. This is the same position in which Levi Wells Prentice signed his work.

John Durrie 1818 - 1898

Durrie's rich dark colors are especially vivid.

William Rickarby Miller 1818 - 1893

Miller's still lifes of 1863 have very simple subjects: fruit, with leaves and stem attached. The fruit is round, while the leaves are straighter, and fly out at all angles from the fruit. The combination of fruit and leaves together forms an elaborate, complex composition. It is highly geometric. The leaves often form semi-circular arcs. These arcs often make closed chords: while the stem of the leaf is attached to the branch, the leaf will curve until the branch is touching a piece of fruit, or the branch again. The semi-circular curve of the leaf, and the straight line of the branch linking both ends, form a circular chord. Miller also forms chords by having a branch flow across the front of a circular peach: it cuts the circle of the peach into two chords. Miller also interrupts the perfect circles of his fruits, by having one piece of fruit hide behind another one. Despite the small number of pieces of fruit on his canvases (two peaches, three apples) they are bunched together so that one fruit is concealing another one. This converts the circles of the fruits' outlines to circular chords. Within all these circular patterns, the straight long lines of the branches and the table edges form a contrasting part of the composition. The whole picture looks like it has been made up out of circular arcs and straight lines. Just about everybody in the 19th and early 20th Centuries studied Euclidean geometry in schools. Such geometry was full of constructions using straight edge and compass. The deep impression that such geometric figures made on people shows up again and again in Art, such as the geometric patterns underlying the work of the American still life painters, or the use of circles and lines by such Constructivist artists as Rodchenko and El Lissitzky.

Miller tends to use only one kind of fruit in a picture, such as all apples or all peaches. They are displayed on a very plain surface, such as a wooden board or table, with a shadowy background. He tends to like warm rich colors in his fruit, such as yellows and reds. The use of leaves tends to make his studies seem closer to "nature", he seems part of the Ruskin movement in the US. However, his extreme realistic technique, and the arrangement of his subjects horizontally on a bare board, are part of the Peale tradition. The leaves seem realistically wilted, as they would be in real life after having been plucked from a tree. In both pictures, at least one leaf has fallen from its branch, and is lying isolated on the board; these leaves are the most wilted looking of them all. In both pictures, the board is painted with a great deal of warmth of color, and a concern with its texture and appearance as wood. The apple picture is unusual among US still lifes in that not all the apples are the same size: one is much smaller than the other two.

Paul Lacroix

Lacroix' Asparagus, Tomatoes and a Squash shows signs of the Peale minimalist tradition. There are some subtle features of the composition. The pale yellow stems of the asparagus seem to be in the Peale tradition of light colored, unusually shaped objects that are in the center of many Peale tradition paintings. We see the bottom of the cut stems, each with its own unique shape; the light is centered on these lower stems, making them the most conspicuous element of the painting.

This apparently minimalist work has some subtle features. The stalks form a strong left to right diagonal, part of the tradition in many Peale artists of diagonal lines in the paintings. A diagonal line in the other direction is formed by the string that is tied around the center of the asparagus. These two crossing diagonals form a strong contrast. The string also separates two parts of the painting. Below the string, for example, the asparagus are mainly yellow stalks, brightly lit. Above the string, they are largely green heads, much darker in lighting. The string ends below at a point that is exactly between the two tomatoes; one is above its line, the other below. This gives an effect of symmetry, and ingenious design. Similarly, the string ends at a point above directly above a position on the front of the large, rounded squash. This position is exactly on the mid point longitude line of the squash. It divides the squash into two exact halves: a left and a right half. In other words, the strings end position is above a point on the squash that is on a longitude line that exactly faces is viewer, and is closest to them. So the string separates the asparagus, the squash and the tomatoes into two parts.

There seems to be a further vegetable in the shadows on the right side of the picture. I can see its outline rising up the back edge of the table, but its is too dark to determine what it is. I don't know if this is ambiguity on Lacroix' part, or merely an artifact of age and a small reproduction. Perhaps it is some curly cabbage.

Whenever I see tomatoes in a 19th Century American still life, they seem to be the kind made up of ridged sections. Such tomatoes are still available today, but store tomatoes are more likely to be smoothly round. Once again, I don't know if artists simply preferred to draw the more richly geometric ribbed tomatoes, or whether these were the only kind available back then.

George Henry Hall 1825 - 1913

Hall's paintings are extremely sensuous. The open, ripe, spilling fruit seems full of female sexual symbolism, like the later flower paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe. Hall's favorite color for his fruit is a burning, brilliant red. He uses this both for the ripe skins of peaches, and the seeds of figs and pomegranates. Each pomegranate seed is painted as a translucent, shiny object, with a white highlight of light on it. They are like edible jewels. Hall's table surfaces are polished, and reflect his fruit. Such a polish is part of his sensuous splendor. Hall liked richly brocaded fabrics for his backgrounds. He also liked circular bowls and platters, which themselves can be seen as female symbols. The elaborate bunches of grapes in his paintings recall the photographic still lifes of British Roger Fenton.

Hall liked metal objects in his paintings - the brass plate of Figs, the metal gauntlet of Raspberries. These firm metal images of strength make a contrast with the soft perishable fruit. They also add a sense of fantasy and fun to his works - most men like to think about knights of old.

John O'Brien Inman 1828 - 1896

Inman liked to paint vases full of mixed flowers. These could either be alone, or mixed in with fruit in his still lifes. The vases tend to be low, and less emphasized than the flowers they contain. Both his flowers and his fruit arrangements tend to have large objects in their center, such as roses or pears, surrounded by smaller objects in their borders. They objects are all crowded up next to each other. They form one unified composition, a single mass. This composition has a distinctive Inman style. It tends to be around twice as wide as it is tall. The large objects in the center tend to be light colored, with yellowish or pink tones, while the great mass of small flowers or fruit surrounding them tend to be darker. Individual members of the mass of flowers or fruit tend to jut out at odd angles from the edge of Inman's masses.

Robert Spear Dunning 1829 - 1905

Dunning's still lifes show two favorite groupings of fruit. One is a combination of grapes and peaches. The softly fuzzy peach skin is especially well painted. Dunning used this combination from the 1860's to the 1890's, with little apparent change. It is apparently a subject of great personal interest, almost a signature. Even when they are combined with other kinds of fruit, the two make a unit, tending to occur together in the picture.

The second grouping is a watermelon, with a piece cut out of it. We see both the large fruit itself, with a section gone and the bright red flesh showing, then the matching section lying on the table in front of it. The two show complex geometric patterns. It is interesting to see the hole, viewed from one angle, and the piece, viewed from another. The viewer is encouraged to think about and try to visualize, the exact 3D shape of the piece. It involves mentally merging the two clues provided by he picture. The viewer actually has to try to align the two shapes in his or her head. It is an active process, not a passive one. Most American Still Life seems designed to encourage "active viewership": to actually look at and think about the shapes and subjects it paints. Dunning's paintings also encourages mediation on the two complementary shapes, the piece of fruit and its hole. Such complementary states, matter and its absence, form a basic part of the 3D structure of our universe. The viewer is encouraged by Dunning to think about this complementary as a subject or principle in its own right. It is a "Yin and Yang", a basic principle of two kinds of things, shaped matter and shaped space, that always go together. Both shapes are as complicated as possible. They are not symmetric; instead they are unusual 3D shapes.

Dunning gets a similar effect in his Still Life (1892). This picture shows a glass dish. We see both the inside of the dish from above, and the outside of the dish from the side. Both have the same shape, but are viewed from different angles. The glass dish, just like the watermelon piece, is of a complex, non straightforward structure. There is also a similar "complementary principle" of inside/outside present here. Just as with a piece and its complementary hole, the viewer has to combine the two shapes in their mind. Such a picture also encourages thought about the basic structural principle of inside/outside: how two shapes are the inside/outside reverse of each other. It is a meditation about the whole idea of "shape" what it means, how it is constructed, how such factors as inside/outside and pieces/holes affect it.

Dunning's The First Cut actually shows the knife sticking into the fruit. It is hard not to see the knife as a male symbol, and the watermelon as a female symbol. This sort of symbolism is consistent throughout the whole Peale school. But Dunning pushes it to a hilarious extreme. It is so obvious, so flagrant, that it makes the viewer laugh. But also think. Understatement can be overrated, especially by modern critics. At least Dunning has made a vivid, hard to forget image. This is much closer to artistic accomplishment than some whispered nothing.

There are other kinds of fruit in Dunning's work. He is one of the first American still life painters to show bananas, for instance, in the Still Life (1882). One wonders if they were a great novelty in the 1890's United States. Dunning's also shows a marvelously painted honeycomb. This is one of only two I know of in American still life, the other being in John Joseph Enneking's early The Honeycomb (1869). Honeycomb is an object available to all classes of Americans, at least in rural areas, and is delicious. So it seems a natural for still life. But it rarely shows up at all.

Dunning rarely showed leaves in his still lifes. Instead, he often showed the curly branches of the grapes. These branches form delicate, curving but wiry clusters. They make intricate curvilinear patterns. Dunning's metalwork pieces often have handles and other figurations that form similar complex curves, curves that echo the grape bunch branchlets.

John Joseph Enneking 1840/1841 - 1916

The honeycombs in this picture are in a large glass; there seems to be four of them. They have unusual, complex shapes. They seem to be in the Peale tradition of "a series of light colored, complexly curved objects" at the heart of so many Peale still lifes. Just as there are often four pieces of cake in Raphaelle Peale paintings, all made out of the same substance, but each with its own highly complex, distinctive shape that is yet a variation on the shapes of the others, so are the four honeycombs in Enneking's work are in shapes that are related but different.

Enneking was mainly a landscape painter. From its date, this seems to be an early work that shows Enneking experimenting with the Peale tradition. Like many young artists, he is still trying to find his identity, trying on different schools of painting, looking for one that will fit. This is very similar to the process of adolescence in real life, when teenagers try on new roles and personas in an attempt to find one of their own.

Milne Ramsey 1847-1915

Ramsey produced still lifes directly in the Peale tradition, including such favorite objects of Raphaelle Peale as flute glasses of wine, and nuts. But he also did darker looking still lifes of objects that recall to a degree his contemporary Emil Carlsen. Even in these, his technique was not at all impressionistic. He was faithful to the extreme accuracy of detail of the Peale tradition.

Ramsey liked vases and pitchers with complex design on them. These are different from the uniformly colored, plain geometric shapes of the Peale school. These designs often spiral up the sides of the objects. They make a very pleasing abstract pattern, but they are often turned to one side, so that it is hard to see what they figuratively represent, if anything. This allows Ramsey to sneak abstract design into his paintings. Yet to do so in a way that seems just like an everyday object viewed on edge. Ramsey was one of many artists of his generation who were "pre-abstract". These artists often make paintings full of abstract patterns and designs, but they are always purportedly such realistic object such as clouds, flowers, etc. In Ramsey's case, he takes advantage of the long tradition in crafts work of abstract patterns. Crafts were abstract, and commonly accepted as so, long before "fine art" painters dared to make abstractions.

Instead of the bare boards of Peale tradition, Ramsey liked to put his objects on a piece of cloth. The cloth, while often a common looking household washcloth or tablecloth, is painted with marvelous trompe-l'oeil realism. Every fold of a table cloth is rendered with complex 3D effects. This reminds one of the illusionistic cloth paintings of Raphaelle Peale.

Ramsey liked knives or swords in his paintings. They serve as male symbols. They nicely complement the female symbols of jugs, vases and pitchers that are often found in his works. While knives are common in the Peale school, such male symbols as swords are largely unique to Ramsey. The jutting knife is not only a male symbol in Still Life With Apples. It also forms an echo to the triangular piece of cloth hanging down on the front of Ramsey's table. Together with the knife, the knife and cloth form the outlines of a square, tilted at a 45 degree angle to form a diamond shaped region at the heart of the composition.

Peale school illustrators often use triangular compositions. Ramsey pushed this to an extreme in Oriental Still Life, however, by including a wall paper or wall hanging in the background that is tessellated in large, diamond shaped panes. The diagonal lines of the diamonds align exactly with the triangular lines of the still life composition. Oriental Still Life seems closer in some ways to the paintings done by Ramsey's contemporary Emil Carlsen, than it does to the Peale tradition, with its dark tone and it objects d'art. However, it does show the strong geometric qualities of the Peale school.

Ramsey includes an unusual amount of table front in Still Life With Apples. This forms another large rectangular region in the picture. Ramsey has chosen a piece of wood with a beautiful grain for his table. While still a plain board treated with extreme visual realism in the Peale tradition, the wood is more polished than is common in many other Peale artists. It is a show piece of wood with grain.

Hannah Brown Skeele 1829 - 1901

Raphaelle Peale Tradition

Skeele has an unusual compositional sense. It reminds one directly of Raphaelle Peale, and his ability to make unusual geometric patterns out of the most spartan objects. Skeele is nowhere as minimalist as Peale, however. She is not an artist of "abundance", as in the Dutch tradition, concentrating on a handful of objects in the Peale tradition. But these objects are full of detail.

Raphaelle painted both morning glories and strawberries, so Skeele's subject matter also echoes the Peale tradition.

Still Life with Strawberries

The oval shape of Still Life with Strawberries (1863) itself is a striking geometric form. Other still lifes by Skeele also have oval frames, including Fruit Piece, her earliest known work.

Both paintings have polygonal glass vessels: a pitcher with milk in Still Life with Strawberries, a bowl of strawberries in Fruit Piece. The pitcher modifies its basic polygonal structure with curved sections.

Still Life with Strawberries develops a striking harmony of red and silver. Even the pineapple is drawn as red: perhaps a form of artistic license.

My sister Alexis Quinn has seen this painting in real life. She says: "The silver glows in the light, and is remarkably gleaming. The strawberries seem translucent. The painting is remarkable for its accuracy in conveying objects as they really are. It is a celebration of life, light and color."

Carved Bowls with Nature Sculpture

Skeele is unusual among American still life painters in that she uses elaborately carved bowls: One wonders if there are philosophical implications: These are virtually still lifes within still lifes. Her painting has a modular quality, with the contents of containers seeming like separate regions within the larger painting.

Critic John Ruskin's book Modern Painters (1843) argued that a main goal of art was the accurate, truthful depiction of nature. His views were widely influential in 19th Century art. Lots of painters strove to imitate nature accurately - Skeele included. Skeele's painting is unusual, though, in that it is a self-reflexive look at art imitating nature.

Vase of Morning Glories

In Vase of Morning Glories, there are three different kinds of morning glories. Each has a different colored flower, white, pink or blue, and each flower has a slightly different shape. There is also a variety of leaves. All three varieties have the same size bloom, so the variations are subtle. They add interest and complexity to the work. Skeele also shows what the flowers look like in unopened buds. She captures many different stages in the buds' growth, virtually a whole botanical guide to the growth of morning glory flowers. All three varieties of morning glory are white outside, so all the buds are principally white, but several also have markings of blue or pink related to their inside colors. This too shows detailed botanical observation.

Skeele loves to show the geometric patterns formed by the curved tendrils. They make complex curves. One remembers the patterns formed by Peale's Watermelon with Morning Glories (1813).

Playing with Yarn

Playing with Yarn is a cute portrait of a kitten. It shows Skeele's interest in curving forms: The yarn recalls the bowls in Skeele's still lifes: a complexly curved but inanimate subject within a painting mainly devoted to biological subjects.

Scalp Level and Others

George Hetzel 1826 - 1899/1906

Hetzel's paintings feature large, elaborate curves. One still life has a huge watermelon. Its curved boundary is accentuated by a grape vine laid on top of it. The vine seems to follow a logarithmic spiral. Hetzel also painted landscapes; one has a pond in the foreground that is curved in a similar way. There is also a curtain in the still life background that produces strong vertical lines; similarly, in the landscape tall straight trees complement the curved lake in the foreground. The still life has a wallpaper full of green leaves in sprays of straight lines; they are similar to all the tree leaves in the background of the landscape.

Hetzel's pictures have some common design patterns. In the center is a large object. In Still-Life with Watermelon, Cantaloupe and Apples (1882) it is a watermelon, in Melon, Grapes and Peaches on a Tabletop (1863), a cantaloupe. This object has a spiraling effect. In Still-Life with Watermelon, Cantaloupe and Apples, it comes from the grape leaf stem that is laid over the surface. This regularly puts out branches, giving a marked spiral effect. The cantaloupe is positioned so that its grooves form an upperward spiral; these grooves form a mathematically regular pattern. Since only part of the cantaloupe is visible, they create an effect of lines starting at the lower bottom, and spiraling up counter clockwise to the upper left. Around these large objects with spirals, Hetzel has arranged a group of smaller objects that "rotate" around them. These are pieces of fruit spread on the table cloth. They radiate outward from the large center, each in a separate direction around it. In Melon, Grapes and Peaches on a Tabletop, small bunches of grapes are positioned so that each bunch's axis points directly away from the cantaloupe. This emphasizes the "radiating" effect. All of the small objects are directly on the cloth. All seem to be nearly touching the big object at the center, which dwarfs them.

In each picture, there are two contrasting, and pleasantly complimentary, axes. The objects are spread out on the table; they "revolve" around an axis pointing straight upward from the table cloth. By contrast, the large central object has a spiral; this spiral revolves around an axis pointing horizontally out, directly towards the viewer. These two axes are at right angles to each other. They produce two design patterns at right angles, as well, and add very nice visual variety and complexity to the composition. "Composition" is perhaps the wrong word for this effect. The word tends to imply that a 3D group of objects have been projected through perspective onto the flat panel of the canvas. This process has resulted in a "composition", a visually pleasing 2D design. Hetzel's work is different from this. Instead of a 2D design whose plastic properties he is asking us to admire, he is instead presenting us with a 3D pattern that he is asking us to contemplate. True, this 3D design is conveyed to us through the medium of an illusionistic painting with Renaissance perspective, but still, it is the underlying 3D design in which he is most interested.

Melon, Grapes and Peaches on a Tabletop has a further axis. One of the bunches of grapes itself forms a spiral; its axis would be pointing to a direction fairly to the right of the viewer. This gives a third whole aspect to the 3D construction of the pattern.

Hetzel is good at representing the fuzzy skins of the peaches. These are the most realistic textures of his still lifes. In both pictures, the big green apples have little droplets of water on them, painted with considerable skill. None of the other fruit is wet, however. One suspects that Hetzel is making up compositions out of standard elements.

William Mason Brown 1828 - 1898

Circular Shapes in Brown

Brown's still lives are full of complex geometric patterns. They stress circles. They are full of small round fruits, such as apples or peaches. Each grape in a Brown painting tends to be perfectly spherical, unlike the elongated grapes in an artist such as George Henry Hall. Brown also uses large, perfectly circular objects in his compositions. These include a large basket, tilted toward the front, displaying its circular opening to the viewer; or large round fruits such as cantaloupes. He also like spherical nuts such as walnuts, and perfectly round leaves.

The Overturned Basket Pictures

His "basket of peaches spilling out among grass" pictures, The Overturned Basket (c1860) and Still Life with Peaches, have round white daisies and spherical heads of pink clover. The baskets in these paintings are shown with extreme geometric regularity, and clarity. Every weave in the bodies, both on the inner surface, outer surface, and lip between, is painted with geometric accuracy. The baskets do not quite look real - no surface is this uniform, this free from accidental changes or wear - but they do have an almost hypnotic geometric effect. The grasses in Still Life with Peaches are in flower, and nearly straight, whereas those in The Overturned Basket are highly curved, and look as if they have been blown about by the wind. They too are almost artificial looking in their pure uniformity, but their complex geometric patterns are beautiful, and recall those on Japanese screens.

Brown's style is cheery, and stresses the everyday. The use of man made objects such as baskets and pitchers gives an effect of human intervention; this is not pure nature, but rather the daily life of people using fruit for meals or harvesting. The use of pure circles for his paintings indicates that the fruits are to be admired for their beauty. They seem like part of an abstract visual composition. They seem cheerful, with an almost child like interest in pure, pleasing form.

A Small Composition

Peach and Grapes in a Basket is one of Brown's most minimalist works, in the Peale tradition. It contains just one solitary peach, which seems huge. It dominates the composition the way the sun does the solar system. It is perfectly round, in the Brown tradition. The basket is extremely tiny, but its geometrically perfect wickerwork recalls those in Brown's "overturned fruit basket" pieces. The neatness of the circular basket makes a pleasing contrast with the elaborate fruit composition above. A beautifully rounded handle moves from the back of the basket to the front. The handle is an inverted U shape. It is not perfectly circular at all, unlike so many of Brown's subjects. It gives the effect of movement to the picture: it is like a moving sidewalk or escalator handle that up then down, back to front. Centered along it are two bunches of grapes, purple and yellow. They are wrapped around the handle in intriguing compositions. Their relative positions along the handle are fairly similar, and carefully balanced: the lower yellow grapes are also right shifted compared to the higher purple grapes. The two bunches of grapes, and the handle, all make one unit. The handle provides geometric coordinates to the grape bunches: where they are is determined by their position along the handle's path. All of this aids in the effect of motion along this handle, because we see each piece of fruit "moving" along with the handle into a position determined by the handle's path. The second, lower set of grapes looks like where the first set of grapes will "end up" when it has finished its "movement". If the position of the grapes were not defined so entirely by the handle, we would not be able to see the grapes "moving" along with the handle. The circular basket itself below sets up a contrasting circular motion along the bottom of the picture.

Larger blue grapes, off the stem and branch, sit in front of the peach on the left hand side. The two sides of the picture form a contrast. The left has larger fruits, the peach and blue grapes, each individual. The right has bunches of grapes all connected to the stem, and the connecting handle. The fruit on the left is all resting on the bottom of the basket, or on other lower fruit sitting there; the fruit on the right is supported by the handle, and also by the rim of the basket, so it is elevated to a higher level. The curve of the handle seems to project the curve of the peach's sphere. It is like a planet's orbit, echoing the curve of the sun-like peach. Also, the peach and the handle next to it are precisely the size of a croquet ball and a wicket it needs to go through. The central axis of the peach is positioned horizontally, so that it is pointing directly through the hoop of the handle.

Levi Wells Prentice 1851 - 1935

Prentice's Apples in a Tin Pail (1892) shows his virtuosity as a painter, especially on composition. First, one might note that the apples tend to be imperfect, with holes and other depressions. This is a tradition in the Peale school. The apples tend to be round. You can see them from every angle in Prentice's picture. This gives them a multitude of shapes, as we see them from the top, the side, and with the bottom end up. Prentice's pictures of plums also have a multitude of shapes. Secondly, the range of shapes is further greatly extended by the reflections in the mirror shiny tin pail. This reflective surface is curved - it is a perfect circle - and it distorts the apples' shapes in mathematically precise and visually pleasing ways. This produces even greater variety in the picture.

The sheer redness of Prentice's apples is noticeable too. Each is bright red, almost purplish is spots, with a spot of yellow where the light hits. In Prentice's compositions, the fruit is often the only thing that has any color; everything else is somewhat neutral toned, including the wooden table and the pail. The fruit seems an insistent reminder of the colorful possibilities of life, something that totally stands out in an otherwise too gray world. It is like a spiritual messenger, or perhaps a reminder of rich joys.

Green and Red Plums offers a further continuation of Prentice's ideas. The vibrant contrast of the two colors offers an electrifying effect. The plums are not two colored - no, there are two kinds of plums, each one either intensely red or intensely green. The picture has a sort of vibrating optical illusion effect, of the kind more often achieved by juxtaposing bright blue and red. There is something of an optical showman in Prentice, a desire to explore new modes of visual experience. There are also symbolic meanings suggested by the painting. Both kinds of plums are the same shape, but they differ completely in color. It forcefully suggests we think about the meaning of color, how it adds a whole new dimension to our lives.

In both of these pictures, the fruit is spilling out over the edge of the frame. This is different from most Peale painters, who frame their compositions so that all of the objects are contained within its boundaries. Here, however, their are fruits half in, half out of the picture frame. Their are also fruits concealed and partly concealing within the baskets and the pail, and which also contribute to the "partly seen" effect. In any case, the frame here serves as a Bazinian window on a larger reality. It is not the full world, just a partial view into a larger whole.

Tea, Cake and Strawberries shows some of the features of the Peale school. The cake is similar to those used by Raphaelle Peale: the cakes used by each artist have a yellow, light colored cake, with a white glaze of frosting on top. The cakes are cut into pieces, and rearranged: Peale used four nearly square pieces, and set them into a new grouping, whereas Prentice cuts his cake into eight slices, and only separates two from the rest. John Wood Dodge also used cut up, rearranged yellow cakes with white frostings in his pictures. In all three artists, the cake pieces form an instance of a certain category of objects in the Peale tradition. Objects in this category are always light colored. They include the cake pieces, books, pitchers and other large bowls. These objects are always fairly large, large than many kinds of fruit or nuts, anyway, and have interesting geometric shapes. The artist paints these shapes lovingly, and with great vividness. The geometric shapes of the object are one of the main subjects of interest in the painting. They are often at the focus of the composition. Their unusual, off kilter shapes are often what gives the picture its unique compositional interest. Or rather, the unusual shapes are the start, the nucleus, the core, the kernel, around which the whole interesting composition is built up. Other more conventionally shaped objects such as fruit, plates or wine glasses are added to the composition, around the cake like asymmetric objects, and the whole composition is built up around them, with the cake or pitcher as its starting point.

This category of objects is always light colored in the Peale tradition. Often times they are books, with light bindings, and white or buff colored paper. If they are china, they are often either white, or white with blue designs on them (a favorite of John F. Francis, and also used by Prentice). Or they can be a clear pitcher, filled with white milk - what else? It is always something as white or as light colored as possible. An object in the paintings of William Michael Harnett that fills a similar role is the inkwell. Harnett's inkwells tend to be pyramidal, having an unusual shape like all of these objects, and light colored in tone. One might also include here the crumpled newspaper of Simon P. Shafer, which also makes unusual geometric patterns, and which is nearly white.

Tea, Cake and Strawberries also has non Peale features. While the objects on the plain wood table are clearly in the Peale tradition, they are simply the foreground of what is a whole room. The room is friendly, middle class and low key, and not at all opulent or conspicuous. Yet it comes as a real shock in the Peale school, where the objects tend to be placed against a flat background: think of a sideboard against a wall. In real life I wonder if anyone actually uses sideboards. I've often thought they were just invented to give people the proper settings for still lifes. I've occasionally seen them in peoples homes, but I've rarely seen them actually contain food. Perhaps they were more popular in the 19th Century, or maybe this has always been simply a painterly convention. Getting back to Prentice's painting, this brings his work into accord with traditions that were popular among his contemporaries: that of showing a whole room, filled with numerous objects, the whole interior functioning as one giant still life. This is the most common mode in William McGregor Paxton and De Scott Evans, two painters that seem mildly Impressionistic, and also in such non-impressionistic genre painters as Louis Charles Moeller.

Prentice used a shiny, reflective table top for this picture, just as he did for Green and Red Plums. It allows him to create mirror effects, just as the mirror like Tin Pail of his earlier picture did. Such shiny surfaces were not as common in the pure Peale tradition - more commonly, the Peale painters used a sharply observed, plain wooden surface for their tableaux.

Prentice liked to show two containers for his fruit in each picture. These two containers, both similar and contrasting, form an anchor to his compositions. There are both a tin pail and a tin bowl in Tin Pail, a upright basket and a tilted basket in Green and Red Plums, and a large china bowl and a low china bowl of strawberries in Tea, Cake and Strawberries. Both containers always contain similar kinds of fruit. Both containers might be differently shaped, but they are always made of the same kind of material: tin, china, basketry. One is upright, and holds its fruit piled up high inside, like the tin pail, the upright basket and the large china bowl. The other is either very low, like the tin bowl or the low china bowl, or made low by being overturned, liked the second basket of plums.

Albert F. King 1854 - 1945

King's work Still Life With Apples and Chip Basket falls into the most minimalist traditions of the Peale school. This minimalism recalls Raphaelle Peale himself, and not the more exuberant James Peale. The apples are two colored, red and yellow, and King is imaginative in showing the different ways the two colors align themselves of the pieces of fruit - some in rings along the top, others in streaks up the sides. These are remarkable pieces of pure color design. They show King is a "pre-abstract" painter, like many of his generation. However, they also show King's fidelity to nature. The two color patterns look totally similar to those which occur in real life fruits, and King is perhaps as observant here as he is inventive. My own favorites in this department are mangoes, which often have three colors on them, red, yellow and green, which spread themselves in fascinating geometric regions over the fruit. Would that the American Still Life painters had seen them, what great paintings they could have made of them! However, mangoes might well have been completely unknown to most 19th Century Northern Americans (King lived in Pittsburgh).

Another abstract art anticipating element of King's picture is the background. This is a brown haze of light. It seems completely "painterly" somehow, being the typical sort of neutral dark background painters often put in, and no one who saw it would object to it in the slightest. However, close observation suggests that it is full of subtle gradations of light and color, and forms an abstract picture of its own.

King's work also show real compositional skill. Although it has merely six apples and a basket, they are all placed in such a way as to form an intriguing pattern.

King was a Pittsburgh based disciple of the Scalp Level group, led by George Hetzel. Like Hetzel and Brown, King's picture shows a basket tilted forward, with fruits spilling out of them. This is also a design pattern used by Prentice.

Roesen School

Robert Street 1796 - 1865

Street was a Philadelphia based portrait and history painter. His Still Life With Champagne shows the same approach as many of Severin Roesen's still lifes: the fruit in piled high, in a huge mound; their are many bunches of grapes, with their stems and leaves still attached; there is a cut open citrus fruit on its side, sitting directly on the table at the lower left of the composition; the still life is not on a simple rough board, but on a more elaborate slab. This painting is undated, at it is unclear to me who influenced who, although Street was apparently born about twenty years before Roesen. Street's painting lacks the brilliant jewel like colors of Roesen's. There is also much less emphasis on the fruit being translucent, although some grapes and what seems to be a plum, both on the far right, darkened side of the painting, seem to have these properties.

Street's painting has both a bottle of champagne and a fluted champagne glass on the left side of the picture. This glass has a curve to it; it is not the strictly conical glass that appears in so many Peale tradition still lifes. It also has a more elaborate base. The picture shows the huge, opened champagne bottle. The bottle's white wrapper along its neck shows all the tears where the paper opened; this is the aspect of the picture that is perhaps closest to the trompe l'oeil tradition of the Peale school. The paper also resembles somewhat the "white objects with unique, 3D shapes" that are so prominent in Peale school paintings. However, Street is less convincingly illusionistic that many Peale painters, and less virtuosic with any sort of visual "deception" than they are. This is perhaps an unfair comparison, because there is no evidence that he is actually trying to be illusionistic in the Peale tradition.

There is a Bacchic quality to this painting. The grapes dominate the composition and the bowl of fruit, the way they rarely do in a Roesen work. There are grapes sticking out on every corner of the table. Street emphasizes the grapes' tendrils; it is as if they are trying to reach out and grab the viewer, and draw him into the world of drinking one can see in the painting. The tendrils and leaves even surround the champagne glass. This painting has a subject and a theme, in the way that most American still lifes do not. They might celebrate the beauty of nature, or of color, or the everyday, but they are usually not about "drinking" or some other topic. There is an aspect of genre painting to Street's work.

While many Peale school works have a triangular composition, Street uses a circular mass of flowers in his painting. To complete the circular composition, Street introduces a slice of watermelon at the bottom of the work. Its curved rind forms the bottom of the circle. Outside of this circle, the champagne bottle, the glass, the citrus fruit, some bunches of grapes, a curved extension of the table, and the plum seem to be orbiting the circular mass of "flowers + watermelon" in the center of the picture. They are all in an equidistant, circular ring revolving around the central circle of flowers and watermelon.

Carl Baum 1812 - 1877

Baum is another American artist whose work resembles Roesen's. American Still Life has a marble table piled high with an extravagance of fruit. There is also a bird's nest. The picture is especially full of round fruit - hardly anything is elongated. Even the bunches of grapes make the grapes look fairly rounded, although still oblong. Most of the fruits in the picture are small, on the order of cherries. An orange looks positively huge. Baum also likes reddish fruits.

Severin Roesen 1815/1816 - c1872

Roesen used a bright range of brilliant colors for his fruit. The colors are so glowing that they look artificial. There are a number of super cheerful elements that tend to recur in Roesen's pictures: the half peeled citrus fruit, showing the peel hanging off, and the translucent interior of the fruit revealed. The glass of wine. The leaves and branches still attached to the bunches of fruit. Roesen's fruits are arranged in richly beautiful, complex compositions.

While Roesen's work is often seen as a contrast to the Peale tradition, one can find still lifes by Raphaelle Peale that are strongly similar in subject matter to Roesen's paintings. For example, Raphaelle Peale's XXX shows the mounded piled up masses of fruit we associate with Roesen, the grape leaves, the fruit still attached to branches.

Roesen also did flower paintings. Flowers in a Glass Vase is a gorgeous jumble of every kind of brilliantly colored flower. It resembles Goodes' Fishbowl Fantasy.

Edward Ashton Goodes 1832 - 1910

Goodes is today known for a single picture, Fishbowl Fantasy (1867). The flowers in this work resemble Roesen; the fan, a still life by Samuel Marsden Brookes. The flowers in the picture are exotic. They include the Tiger Flower (Tigridia), in the Iris family, which is the large orange spotted pink and red, 6 petaled flower in the upper right corner; the nasturtium (Tropeolum), with the wonderfully painted round green leaves at the bottom of the fish bowl, and the orange flowers; and the Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra) in the poppy family, the small pink heart shaped flowers hanging over the right of the fishbowl. There is also an Evening Primrose, the 4 petaled yellow flower in the right of the picture.

Trompe L'oeil

Simon P. Shafer

Shafer's Still Life with Newspaper and Grapes (1895) seems influenced by the trompe l'oeil school, especially in its crumpled up newspaper at the bottom of the picture. This newspaper seems especially 3D. It is full of every sort of fold and bulge, all faithfully observed and recorded by the gifted artist. The dark blue grapes themselves are recorded with unusual realism. There is a tendency among many still life painters to make each grape into a shiny, translucent jewel. This can be very beautiful, but it is not as realistic as Shafer's grapes, which are opaque in color, mildly shiny at a realistic level, and painted with great accuracy as to the feel and texture of their surfaces.

It is hard to tell what is in the back of the painting. It looks like a number of small statuettes of monkeys, with glowing eyes, but I am not sure.

Richard LaBarre Goodwin 1840 - 1910

LaBarre Goodwin is best known today for his trompe l'oeil still lifes of hunting cabin doors. However, he also did table top still lifes as well, in the Peale tradition. Strawberries shows a heaping pile of such fruits. There is little in the painting other than the strawberries and their leaves. It resembles, in this degree, the Ruskin inspired looks at pure fruit found in such artists as William Rickarby Miller.

De Scott Evans 1847 - 1898

Evans' trompe l'oeil still lifes tend to show animals in boxes. The boxes are made out of wood, and are rough packing crates. The wood is painted with extreme accuracy of detail, with many kinds of rough finish. Evans liked to show the box with some sort of front, through which we see the animal. In Cat in a Box, these are thin strips of wood making slats; in Homage to a Parrot, it is a broken glass frame. The repeated top to bottom cracks in the glass echo the vertical wooden strips of Cat in a Box. The surface of the glass, and the different kinds of light each fragment transmits, are painted with virtuosity. Inside the box is the animal itself, always some sort of cute pet. The focus of the animal is the eyes. They are painted with an intense, emotional gaze that suggests that all sorts of thoughts are going on inside the animals' heads. Such a gaze tends to fascinate pet lovers, who always what to know what an animal is thinking. The animals look basically happy, and in repose. The second greatest focus of the animals is their mouths. The eyes and the mouth are the two greatest expressors of emotion. The whole body language of the cat and parrot is also expressive. The cat's body language suggests he is alert. He is not quite ready to spring - he is watchful and in good form, but casually resting. The fact that is monitoring the situation does not mean that his body should not be comfortable, or that his haunches and paws should not get a good rest. Cats have "levels" of concern, just like the US State Department viewing some foreign situation. The cat is exactly at one level of feline monitorship. He is not at the stage of what the State Department calls "viewing with alarm", or even "concern". He is looking straight at something which interests him. Any moment he might get up and investigate, or he could jump up at something. He looks well rested and full of vitality.

Many of Evans' impressionistic interiors also have a still life aspect. Evans' impressionistic technique is close to that of William McGregor Paxton. Both painters' work is full of china jars, flowers and Victorian bric a brac. The soft impressionistic outline is never allowed to obscure the detail of all these objects. The objects are always "pretty"; they are part of an upper middle class decorative scheme. They are never the homely everyday objects of traditional still lifes. They are in fancy living rooms, not kitchens. They might be beautiful roses, but they tend not to be food.

Evans' paintings usually show beautiful young society women in these homes. They are often shown from the side, or even from behind. A cynic could suggest that a society woman in a decorated room, and a pet animal in a box, are not really two different subjects. The analogy between women and animals was a common one in Victorian literature and art. The woman in Arranging Roses (1892) has a level of absorption, just like the cat. She is concentrating on sorting the roses into meaningful arrangements, and her level of interest and intensity of thought is appropriate to such a task, and no more. There is a certain pathos to all this. She is probably an intelligent woman, and one wonders if this is all she could be doing with her time and brain power.

Charles A. Meurer 1865 - 1955

Morston C. Ream 1840 - 1898

William Joseph McCloskey 1859 - 1941

It was apparently a common practice to wrap citrus fruits in paper in that era. It suggests that each orange was a precious jewel, sold separately as a special treat. Today one sees huge piles of oranges in a grocery; such an approach was apparently not favored then. Apparently this is still how the Japanese sell apples: each one wrapped as a gourmet delight. One sees wrapped citrus fruit in John F. Peto. However, they did not emphasize the details of the wrapper the way McCloskey did. The endless folds and curves of the paper are painted with detailed observation. In some ways the papers are in the tradition of the "curved white objects" that are so important in Peale school art. However, they tend to be even more elaborate. Peale school "curved objects" tend to have one over all form: non symmetric, but still one whole pattern. The papers in McCloskey have many regions and folds, each with its own detailed network of creases, tears and curves. The overall pattern of each paper is far too complex to be easily seen as a single gestalt. Instead, the eye wanders over each very detailed section. It is like a map of the world, with each region representing a different country. It is so like, and unlike, the Peale school objects. It might have its roots in them as a visual object, but it has also grown, multiplied and become more elaborate.

It is impossible to wrap a flat object, such as a piece of paper, on a curved surface, such as an orange. This can be stated and proved in mathematically rigorous fashion, by invoking the Gaussian curvature of the surface. We see the practical results of this in McCloskey's pictures, with all the numerous small folds and creases used to get the paper to wrap around the sphere of the orange. We can see the bulge of the orange inside. In Apples (1896), McCloskey also looks at papers lining baskets. These have similar difficulties, lining the inner curved surface of the basket, and McCloskey also shows all of their folds in detail.

McCloskey also like big projecting folds of paper, sticking out either from the rim of a basket, or serving as handles to wrapped citrus fruits. These protruding bunches of paper have a vigorous propulsive quality. They can be centered around a series of straight lines, formed by folds in the paper. If the baskets and rounded oranges are female symbols, these straight protrusions can be seen as male imagery.

McCloskey often worked within the Peale tradition of fruit on a table. He also used the Split Level convention of fruit spilled from a basket. Even his Peale-like fruit on a table looks as if it had spilled and rolled from some now not visible container. It does not look as if it had been arranged by someone into neat geometric patterns, as in the work of the Peale family. McCloskey liked highly reflective surfaces. They tend to be very dark, and just reflect back a hint of the color of the fruit placed on them. He also used inky black backgrounds, which form a dramatic contrast to the white of the paper.

Louis Charles Moeller 1855 - 1930

Abbott Fuller Graves 1859 - 1936

Although Graves has some signs of being an impressionist in his landscapes, a still life like Roses in a Wicker Basket is quite sharp focused. There is a bit of soft focus in the background leaves, in some of the small bunches of blue flowers, and in some of the fallen petals, but most of the main roses are clear as crystal. Even here, however, the focus is not as sharp as the Peale tradition. The flower petals that have fallen on the polished, reflective surface of the table are marvelously rich. Graves seems to have studied such predecessors as William Mason Brown, when it comes to the painting of the wicker basket itself. The basket is flawless, has a uniform surface, and is made up of rhythmically repeated geometric elements of the weave: all Brown traditions. Just as in The Chrysanthemum Show, there is an effect of a great abundance of one type of flower, a joyous overflowing far beyond a person's expectations of floral richness.

William Sidney Mount 1807 - 1868

Martin John Heade 1819 - 1904

John La Farge 1835 - 1910

Charles Grant Beauregard

The La Farge school often painted beautiful, slightly soft focus flowers, whose stems were in a clear vase full of water. They were not the only still life painters to do so - Severin Roesen used glass vases too, on occasion - but such an approach seems paradigmatic for their school. The glass vases and the water are usually painted in virtuosic fashion, and yet in a manner that emphasizes sheer visual beauty. The whole point of the school is to please viewers as much as possible with the joy and beauty of the flowers. The spirit is similar, and somewhat parallel to, their contemporaries the Impressionists. Everything in La Farge school paintings is pleasingly irregular. Geometry is not emphasized. The flower arrangements tend not to show obvious symmetry. Vases and glasses are not shown at angles that makes them into pure geometric patterns. Instead, they are shown gently to one side. This makes them look like real life glasses.

Beauregard's painting is the simplest possible of all La Farge school paintings, in terms of its design pattern. It shows just one flower, on a long stem. And the "vase" is just a simple glass with water in it. Despite this ultimate reduction in terms of Design Pattern, there is nothing minimalist about Beauregard's actual painting. Both the flower and the water are painted with the sensuous splendor and detail we associate with the La Farge school. The flower head is titled on one side, showing the elegant irregularity of La Farge.

Lucy Drake Marlow 1890 - 1978

Marlow's picture sets up a series of echoes: the flowers, the vase and to a lesser degree, the background tapestry all have the same sort of brocade like design. Irises are especially good at making linear patterns. They have beautifully branched stems, and these branching patterns can be the focus of attention in any picture that contains them. The irises themselves make geometric patterns, as so do the pointed leaves. One can see a series of triangles in the irises' arrangement.

Clara L. Deike 1881 - 1964

Deike's Still Life (1931) shows some similarity to the work of Blanche Lazell. Both painters take flowers, and turn them into abstract geometrical shapes, rounded in both cases. Both then leave these shapes in recognizable patterns of bouquets and vases - there is no cubist rearrangement of space. Both painters also favor bright primary colors.

Carl Sprinchorn 1887 - 1971

Henrietta Shore 1880 - 1963

Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe 1899 - 1961

This composition shows banana leaves erupting like a fountain from the stalk. It monumentalizes these leaves, in the Georgia O'Keeffe tradition. The background of the painting is in green, yellow, brown and black, the colors used for the leaves and stalks. These are also the archetypal colors of "Mammal Fruits", fruits designed by nature and evolution to appeal to the eyes of mammals such as monkeys, horses, pigs and bats. There is much sense of mystery from the darkened regions of the background. They look as if a storm were brewing in the distance, a huge tropical thunderstorm. The leaves have the buoyant quality that banana leaves have in real life. The leaves are slightly abstracted. They have tremendous variety if shape, being sometimes cut, and crinkled up underneath, just like real banana leaves. O'Keeffe has also picked up on their slight waviness, where the edges of the leaf sometimes curved slightly downward then upward over their length. The curves occur over large distances, just as in real bananas. They also have great variety of color. She also gets their ribbed effect, and the way some sections flap right over the rest of the leaf. However, this painting slightly changes their shape to fit in to O'Keeffe's abstract design. A painter like Raphaelle Peale would have been more exact with the leaves' shape, and also with their glossy surfaces.

Robert Gribbrock 1906 - 1971

Gribbrock's work shows the close ties that exist between the Monumental Flower painters, and the abstract painters. Artists like O'Keeffe and Dove belonged to both schools. Gribbrock was a student of abstractionists Emil Bistram. He painted Epiphyllum, a giant cactus flower floating in space over the Southwest, like one of O'Keeffe's large flowers. Gribbrock's flower is fairly realistically rendered. It is not subtly distorted, like O'Keeffe's, to form abstract patterns. I have seen it dozens of times, on the cover of the American Art Review, and never get tired of looking at it. For a painter today who is entirely obscure, it certainly is a beautiful image.

Jessie Arms Botke 1883 - 1971

Cornelis Botke 1887 - 1954

Cornelis Botke's work looks much more conservative than his wife's. Untitled Still Life shows zinnias in a brass bowl. The painting is especially good at capturing the texture and shape of the zinnia petals, which stand out stiff and slightly curved in the many layers deep flower heads. Botke is far more clear focused than his Impressionist predecessors, or the Carlsen school. The use of a brass bowl and tapestry backgrounds vaguely recalls Carlsen, but the shininess of the bowl and the clear focus and bright colors of the zinnias seem much brighter than Carlsen's palette. Zinnias, like other members of the Compositae, have their own, special pigments that are chemically distinct. They give zinnias a unique color range, and Botke has caught their colors with considerable flair. Botke has been careful to include many different shapes and colors of zinnias. This is following an American still life tradition of including numerous different varieties of a plant in a single painting. The picture becomes virtually a botany lesson; and the interest of the picture is greatly expanded by all the variation from flower to flower.

The shininess of the bowl seems designed to give pleasure. People love looking at really shiny objects, and Botke is trying to recreate this experience on canvas. The Peale school tended to use porcelain, La Farge and his followers glass vases, and the Carlsen school duller brass objects. So Botke's brass bowl is one of the shiniest brass vessels in any American painting. There is not a tradition of representing this sort of brass bowl, despite their popularity in real life. Botke is of a later generation from any of these schools; one wonders if this sort of object were newly available during his era.

The tapestry behind the flowers also shows flowers. It is a 2D design, that recalls to a degree the essentially 2D quality of his wife's paintings. The long vines hanging down on both sides of the tapestry recall the many pendant objects in Jessie's paintings, such as the peacocks' tails.

Leon Carroll 18? - 19?

Carroll's paintings are far more Constructivist than most others of the Monumental Flower School. Tiger Lilies (c1930) is made up of circles, ellipses and straight lines. In fact, the composition is so vibrant considered purely as an abstract design, that it is a bit difficult to see what the painting actually represents. Carroll's uses of natural forms to make geometric patterns recalls the Art Deco of his time; not the paintings labeled Deco, but the furniture, clocks, screens, pottery and other geometric objects in the Deco tradition. Carroll worked as an interior designer, so presumably he had plenty of contact with Deco furnishings. Carroll's work also recalls that of the Russian Constructivist Rodchenko, who also loved circular arcs in his paintings. Carroll's work is a dazzling expression of high energy, and it amazing that his work could be largely forgotten for so long. His painting fits in as much into the traditions of abstract art, as it does into that of flower or still life painting. The brown circular spots on the petals look like the "regions within regions" that were a key part of Kandinsky's aesthetic. His painting also reminds one of Arthur Dove's abstractions based on plants.

The way the lily stamens rise up and fan out, recalls the Fountain motifs that were so popular in Deco grillwork. The painting is made of similar objects, that repeat in regular rhythmic patterns: the anthers, the petals, the stamens. These rhythmic effects look like an attempt to capture the rhythms of music visually. Such visual symphonies were an important part of abstract art. The circular petals look like a freeze frame from an abstract color film by Walter Ruttman or Oskar Fischinger, showing geometric objects on the move. In fact, all the objects of the picture look dynamic, as if they are in the process of rapid movement around on the canvas.

Charles Courtney Curran 1861 - 1942

Francis Day 1863 - 1942

Francis Day liked pictures of upper middle class women playing music. In Symphony the beautiful young wife is playing the piano, while her handsome young husband and little girl look on listening. Both the wife and husband are dressed to the teeth in fancy clothes, and they are in the family's well appointed library. Day's pictures certainly convey an image of idealized life. The family images and feelings are universal, so is the love of music, while the upper middle class trappings are a fantasy of security. Day's women look far more intellectually accomplished than those of Paxton. They are musically skilled, and suppliers of culture to their grateful homes.

Samuel Coleman 1832 - 1920

Samuel Coleman was a spectacular landscape painter. Many of his works are in the same Turner inspired tradition as Edward Moran's.

Coleman occasionally did still lifes. They are flower paintings, and do not seem close to the work of any other painter. Morning Glories shows a mastery of composition.

William Momberger 1829 - 1895

This painting shows the Indian as a heroic figure, fighting for his life against a ferocious bear. His pose recalls those of the fallen warriors in Benjamin West's historical canvases, such as The Death of General West (17XX). The Indian also has the huge muscles of a noble hero, such as those in Michaelangelo. The Indian's horse is also a noble animal, worthy of its heroic rider. His frenzied look and angularly twisted torso also remind one of the horses in West's paintings, such as Death on a Pale Horse (17XX). The foliage of the grasses seem to be wracked by winds, and in the background a storm seems to be coming on.

Lilly Martin Spencer 1822 - 1902

Spencer was a genre painter, like William Sidney Mount. Like him, the objects included in her paintings can often be considered as a "still life". The objects in The Jolly Washerwoman (1851) are relentlessly circular, although they are mixed in with the rectangular wooden washboard and tabletops. Like Mount, Spencer depicted a world made out of wood. There is also something Chardin like about Spencer's painting of homely kitchen items.

Louis Ritman 1889 - 1963

Louis Ritman's Lady by the Window (1918) has the rich color of a Fauvist painting. There is both a large plant, and a vase of flowers; Ritman's work has the aspect of a still life. Such large plants are very rare in the European Fauve tradition; apparently European painters were scared of such large trees indoors. Ritman is made of sterner stuff, and shows us a tree which is central in the composition.

Rhoda Holmes Nicholls 1854 - 1930

Nicholls' painting The Clothes Pin (c1890's) captures a wonderful moment, that of people playing with animals. Despite the popularity of such events in real life, they are rarely depicted on canvas. Pictures of dogs tend to show them all alone, and imply that they are part of someone's hunting retinue. I've never especially cared for this. Nicholls' work shows a woman moving a clothes pin along on a string. Her pet dog is just fascinated by this, and watching every movement with intensity and joy. The woman is clearly moving the pin slowly. She is balanced and braced by her other hand, resting on a rock; this is the sort of bracing humans do, when they are trying to hold their bodies still. You have to do this when playing string games with animals; keeping your body still emphasizes the slow motion of the clothes pin. Humans do this unconsciously, when playing. Nicholls has also caught the titled head of the dog, paused in inquiry; and his curved tail, which is probably wagging joyfully. The woman is nice looking, and dressed in a bright blue dress that is of pleasing color. But she is not the dressed to the teeth society beauty of so many painters of this generation. Instead, she looks like a nice young woman, taking a break from her washing work to play with her dog. She has a big smile beaming down on the dog.

Nicholls' work is a riot of color, in the impressionist manner. In addition to the blue dress, there is the red ground, perhaps covered by autumn leaves, and the yellow and green background. The white dog and the woman's black shoes and stockings add white and black areas to the painting. Otherwise, it is mainly in primary colors. The painting is not made up of impressionist dot work or blurred focus; instead it is composed of many small regions, almost like Cézanne. Each has its own color, slightly different from its neighbors. Together they make up a huge mosaic. Many of the regions seem to be horizontal brush strokes, of various shapes. They repeat colors throughout on section of the painting; i.e., the lower foreground if full of repeated purple brushstrokes, and other of a salmon or coral color. This use of repeated color brush strokes rather recalls Monet.

The basket work is depicted with more geometric precision than in many parts of Nicholls' work. This suggests she was influenced by the many precise paintings of baskets in American still life tradition, such as William Mason Brown. Even here, the actual wicker of the basket is painted with the repeated strokes of many colors. Combined with the detailed modeling of the black lines separating the weave, this is a marvelously colored portrait of the basket.

Earl Horter 1883 - 1940

Earl Horter is perhaps best known for his Precisionist paintings. But his still life is a cubist work in the style of Picasso. Horter like tall, thin, vertical rectangles in his compositions - and lots of them. While many cubist paintings feature triangles or nearly square rectangles, Horter favored the vertical. Even the handle of a pitcher curves up and forms a vertical rectangular hold. I've never seen a pitcher do this in real life: the effect in the picture is as if the handle has been distorted for the sake of geometric style. The wine bottle in the picture also forms a sharp vertical. The lettering on the bottle is elongated to form similar rectangles. Horter includes two different outlines, both the left and right side of a table leg, and two different outline shapes for the stem of a wine glass. These lines are curved ornamentation on basically vertical structures, and fit in with the grammar of Horter's composition.

Stanton MacDonald-Wright 1890 - 1973

Still Life Synchromy (1917) shows the S like curves of undulating color, familiar also in the Synchromist works of Morgan Russell. His paintings are also full of overlapping colored triangles.

Paul de Longpré 1855 - 1911

Paul de Longpré loved bees, and often showed them visiting flowers in his work. Unlike the memento mori of Raphaelle Peale showing flies visiting peaches, one feels that de Longpré intended such inclusions to be upbeat and joyous. It is an attempt to make viewers almost imagine the smell of his roses or lilacs, suggesting that they small so sweet that they are attracting bees. The bees can be in full flight, and look like the vigorous representatives of a fantasy world. The viewer is also encouraged to wonder what it would be like to be a bee, visiting flowers that look big enough to be houses. After all, this is part of the effect of still life painting: to monumentalize flowers. It is also fun to dream of flying around between them.

There are often delicate color harmonies in de Longpré's work. He liked white, pale green and pink together.

Lydia Field Emmet 1886 - 1952

The woman in The Red Kimono seems to be holding a beautiful bunch of red roses that match her dress. Their red is just a bit more intense than the red of the kimono; the green of the leaves is also just a bit sharper than the green lines that interlace the red of the kimono. This gives a beautiful color harmony to the picture.

Samuel Marsden Brookes 1816 - 1892

Brookes' still lifes lack the clean geometric purity of the Peale tradition. Instead, his pictures are a riot of geometric forms. He likes long, pale colored tubular objects: the vase and closed fan in Still Life with Fan and Pendant, the necks of the birds in Still Life (1862). The many intertwined forms of the later work look like nothing so much as the biomorphic abstractions loved by the Dada (Arp), Surrealist (Miro, Masson, Dali), Abstract Expressionist (Gorky, De Kooning) tradition. Even in a picture like Still Life with Fan and Pendant, which has geometric, not biomorphic forms, the pale color and the complex shapes suggest biological objects. The hole in the fan base where the tassel cord passes through looks like an eye for example, staring out from a head supported by the long "neck" of the fan. The small angel on the vase adds a genuinely biological form to the mix. Brookes also likes his picture with a riotous mix of textures. The many kinds of cloth, string and tassel on the fan produces a great many different surface textures in a very small space at the bottom of the picture. Brookes also likes a great variety of light colored tones, mainly shades of light gray, silver, off white, tan and colors in between, as well as light pinks and pale greens. These make a detailed color harmony in his pictures. His liking for such tones recalls Paolo Veronese, who also used silver colors in his works. Both Veronese and Brookes have a very off trail and unconventional color sense.

Brookes' plant still lifes seem odd. The cut plant branches look as if they are beginning to dry and wither up, just like the dead animals in his pictures.

Still Life (1862) has a two part composition. The left side consists largely of a triangle. The right side of the picture, which is more complex, is made up of a spiral. It starts in the lower right corner, in which a series of vegetables is strangely arranged along the curve. It continues up along the right hand side, and then down towards the center of the picture along the neck of the bird. The whole pattern forms a spiral, similar in shape to the shell of the nautilus. The unexpected spiral itself seems surreal. It adds to the effect of strange abundance in the painting.

Charles Ethan Porter 1847? - 1923

Franz Bischoff 1864 - 1929

Bischoff's painting tends to emphasize the rose heads themselves. They are huge 3D objects, bulging with many petals. They tend to be painted either from the side, or head on, with few intermediate angles. He achieves variety among the many roses painted from the side, by varying the angle of their tilting, from either straight down, all the way up to horizontal. Within each rose there is much modeling of light and shadow, with the outer or higher petals casting shadows on the inner. This further enhances their 3D effect. Bischoff arranges his roses into rows. They make slightly curving lines in his picture, usually diagonal.

Carle J. Blenner 1864 - 1952

Asters is painted in an Impressionist style. Blenner's picture is of asters. Monet, too painted chrysanthemums, and Van Gogh sunflowers. These are all in the Compositae: plants with circular flower heads. They are especially appropriate for an Impressionist work. The basically circular flower heads make beautiful clear designs, even when painted with impressionist blurred focus. By contrast, think what a soft focus picture of fuchsias, say, might be like: just a confused mass of lines. In Blenner's picture, each flower head becomes a glowing mass of color, while its circular outline remains clear, and part of a complex geometric design of circular heads and linear stems.

Blenner has put bright white asters at the center of the picture, facing the viewer head on. Surrounding them are the pale purple asters. The red asters, which are the brightest of the three colors, are all seen on an angle, either turned to the side or hanging down. The colors range from whitest to most intense, white to purple to red, from the center of the composition to its periphery. Blenner gets a 3D effect, by having asters turned in every direction. The flowers are facing all 360 degrees of the circle - it is a radially symmetric arrangement.

Robert Jenkins Onderdonk 1852 - 1917

Onderdonk's still lifes are in the tradition of Emil Carlsen.

Onderdonk's brother Julius Onderdonk was also a well known Texas painter. It is an unfortunate fact that there are dozens of movies about the James Brothers, and none about the Onderdonk Brothers.

Minerva J. Chapman 1858 - 1947

Chapman's still lifes are in the tradition of Emil Carlsen. She also painted interiors filled with many objects, which function in many ways as gigantic still lifes, in the tradition of many of her contemporaries. In Banana Still Life, the yellow color of the bananas, large and small apples is quite similar, and they all echo each other. Similarly, the oranges and the yellow grapes towards the left have somewhat related colors. The painting as a whole is made up of a few shades of yellow, orange and brown, with just a hint of purple in the purple brown grapes. Everything is quite dark, and dimly lit, as in Carlsen. The yellow grapes at the left glow with light with a special beauty. There is a pleasing emphasis on the round forms of the apples, the oranges, and the circular plates, as well as the curve of the bananas. Chapman makes the corner of the table jut out into the picture, in a way rarely found in the Peale school tradition. It adds a further geometric element to the composition. The tilted rectilinear coordinates of the table are further underlined by the boards that make up the table top, and two knives that are aligned with the two axes of the table. The position of the fruit also follows the tables grid, with the two front apples aligned with it, the position of the bananas parallel to it, and two of the plates more or less in a row along it. All of the fruits are nearly the same height, with a gentle sloping from right to left.

Hobson Pittman 1899 - 1972