Silence of a Still Life

American Still-Life Painting from the Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection at MFAH

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” — Georgia O’Keeffe

Otis Kaye. What a Hit!, c. 1932, oil on canvas, the Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection.

“This lucky bastard must have won the bet,” I said to myself thinking about the bet I had lost during the last Super Bowl game. Even though I knew that I was standing in front of a painting, I could not help casting a quick glance at the label, which identified the artist as Otis Kaye and the medium as oil on canvas. Everything in this work defied my knowledge that this was a flat surface covered with paint. My eyes kept telling me that I was looking at real objects: a wooden board with banknotes, newspaper clippings and a baseball thrust with a great force into the planks above them.

This amazing trompe-l’oeil reminded me of the famous story of the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, two great artists of the ancient Greece, narrated by Pliny the Elder. Parrhasius won, having painted a curtain with such truthfullness that Zeuxis tried to pull it aside. The latter admitted his defeat saying that while he, Zeuxis, succeeded only in deceiving the birds with his portrayal of grapes, his rival deceived him, the artist.

It is amazing how two and a half millennia later, we still are fascinated by the images that teeter between artifice and reality. The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, “Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection” provides an opportunity to enjoy a number of excellent trompe-l’oeils by such well-known masters of the genre as William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto, as well as lesser-known artists, like Otis Kaye who revived the tradition in the 20th century and excelled in painting cash and guns. Ironically, he coud not sell his paintings of banknotes since the U.S. law of 1909 prohibited copying of the currency.

But the exhibition is not limited to trompe-l’oeils. It features 68 works which showcase the history of American still life painting from the early 19th century to the present day. The earliest work in the exhibition is Raphaelle Peale’s “Orange and Book” (1817), a carefully constructed composition which reminds of the Golden Age of still life painting, the Dutch art of the 17th century. The latest works on view are from 2014: “Lemon, Lemon” by Scott Fraser and “Magnolias” by Sarah K. Lamb.

“To have an exhibition with a singular focus on a specific genre is very extraordinary,” says Kaylin Weber, assistant curator of American painting and sculpture and organizing curator of the exhibition. “This is a way to experience the history of American art, a story that has not been told before.”

Raphaelle Peale, Orange and Book, c.1817

How different is American still life painting from European? One feels the strong influence of European masters throughout the exhibition. There is a Victorian opulence in such paintings as “Still Life with Fruit” (c. 1865) by Severin Roesen. This kind of “over-the-top” abundance was appreciated by wealthy patrons who decorated their homes with paintings that emphasized their status and wealth. William Merritt Chase succumbed to the popular “Japonisme,” which was introduced to the European art world by French Post-Impressionists, in “The Japanese Book (The Open Japanese Book” (c. 1900.) Max Weber paid homage to Paul Cezanne in “Still Life with Three Jugs (Spanish Jugs)” (1929.)

At the same time, distinctly American overtones sound loud and clear in many works. “Cherokee Roses” by Martin Johnson Heade (late 1880s) convey a more profound meaning than the traditional allegory of the transience of life. Although brought from Asia, these flowers got their American name from the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears, in memory of the forced relocation of the Cherokee tribe from Florida in the 1830s.

And who else but an American artist would find inspiration in such quintessential American subjects as baseball and Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s demise, as Otis Kay did in his superb trompe-l’oeils “What a Hit!” (1932) and “Custer’s Gun” (1950.)

Scott Fraser, Lemon, Lemon, 2014

Along with traditional still life paintings the exhibition features a number of works that may puzzle a stickler for a clear-cut definition of the genre. There are garden views, portraits and interior scenes, all of which contain a still life as a compositional element.

“The Scarlet Necklace” (c. 1914) by Richard Edward Miller features an elegant lady looking pensively at her reflection in the mirror as she tries on a long string of bright red beads. The foreground is dominated by the dressing table top covered with flowers and dainty accessories of the lady’s toilette. The string of red beads runs, like a snake, all the way from her neck to the table top where it rests in a shiny mound next to the flowers. Is there a hint of a romance? Are the flowers, as well as the beads, a gift from an admirer?

A still life exhibition cannot be complete without O’Keeffe, and this one is no exception. However, it is an unusual painting for the artist known for her special interest in flowers. “From Pink Shell” (1911) is a harmony in pinks and purples, with a few yellow highlights. O’Keeffe did not paint shells too often; about 28 total works featuring this subject matter exist today, most of them from 1926. Mysterious and evocative, the painting escapes a definite interpretation, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination.

In contrast to O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton is probably the least likely artist to be featured in a still life show. Nevertheless, this macho Regionalist is there, represented by “Abstract Still Life” (c. 1923.) This small and intricate work goes back to the times when the young artist looked for inspiration to Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cezanne, as well as Synchronism, due to his friendship with Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Benton’s still life looks like an arrangement of mechanical parts of an obscure purpose, although it also could be flowers in a vase – as they may appear to a robot’s eye. Whatever the subject matter, the painting is an exploration of colors and shapes, not nature.

Modern and contemporary examples of still life run the entire gamut from highly realistic to nonfigurative, from symbolic to a pure self-expression. “Magnolias” (2014) by Sarah K. Lamb may be mistaken for a work of Martin Johnson Heade, whose “Magnolias on Gold Velvet Cloth” are in the permanent collection of the Museum.

Janet Fish, Jacob Collins and Scott Fraser put a modern twist on old Dutch masters known for their love of the material world with an occasional touch of metaphysics. A canning jar filled with marinade and eggs in Fish’s “Pickled Eggs” (2008) enchants with a magnificent play of light, not unlike wine goblets in a panting by Heda or van Alst. Fraser in “Lemon, Lemon” (2014) appropriates the ubiquitous trope of the Dutch still life – a juicy lemon with a cascading curly peel – and magnifies it out of proportion. The two lemons perched on a shelf look like Rapunzel whose golden tresses seem to be running forever into the unfathomable depth.

A skull, battered pages of the sheet music and an almost empty decanter in “Vanitas with Kentucky Bourbon (Kentucky Bourbon Vanitas)” (2013) by Collins point to the transience of the material world and human mortality, like traditional Vanitas paintings do. At the same time, there also are allusions to life’s pleasures. The skull with a detached mandible leads our eyes to the shiny cut-glass decanter as if saying, “Memento mori – enjoy life before it’s over!”

Andrew Wyeth evokes a haunting memory of his favorite model of many years, Christina Olson, in “Christina’s Teapot” (1968) painted shortly after her death. No less disquieting than this lonely cracked teapot are the objects in Marsden Hartley’s “Shells and Ropes” (1936). Conveyed in the pearly grey color scheme, they look like an octopus lying in wait at the bottom of the sea.

Richard Edward Miller, The Scarlet Necklace, c.1914

Playfully oversized “Jelly Rolls (For Morton)” (2008) by Wayne Thiebaud remind of the repetitious images of consumer goods from the 1960s. Thiebaud indeed exhibited at the groundbreaking Pop Art exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects” in 1962. Nevertheless, he adamantly refuses to be described as a Pop artist, insisting that objects in his works possess individuality and tactile quality, unlike flat and identical images of Warhol.

“…In a still life, there is no end to our looking, which has become allied with the gaze of the painter,” poet Mark Doty says,”we look in and in, to the world of things, in their ambiance of cool or warm light, in and in, as long as we can stand to look, as long as we take pleasure in looking.” 

Let us take advantage of this rare opportunity to feast our eyes on the masterpieces of American still life painting showcased at the Museum galleries this spring. Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs have pledged the collection to the MFAH in honor of Frank’s mother, Bernice Hevrdejs. The exhibition will remain on view through April 9.

Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer