Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life

Portraying a new nation through its objects

Academicians during the Renaissance created the hierarchy of genres and placed still lifes at the bottom, where they remained at least until the 19th century. Genres and approaches got shaken up then — who wouldn’t be happy to contemplate one of van Gogh’s vases of flowers? — but even today, a still life is mostly about the arrangement of the objects and the virtuosity of the artist. As such, it’s an academic exercise of interest primarily to interior decorators and, perhaps, other artists.

“Covered Peaches,” by Raphaelle Peale, who was America’s first professional still-life painter.

Curators thus face a special challenge in putting together a show that will not only honor the genre but also engage viewers; the curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life have succeeded on both points. This lively, well-thought-out exhibit successfully makes the case that the new nation put its own twist on the still life and that Philadelphia was an important location for several chapters in that story.

Arranging selections chronologically — yes, the exhibit literally takes the viewer from Audubon in the first room to Warhol in the last — illuminates both American history and art history. In the early period of the republic, artists were involved in the wider effort to define America (for instance, by portraying its wildlife, as Audubon did) and to develop a distinctively American style of art (as, for instance, Philadelphia’s Peale, well represented in the show, did).

The downside of the chronological approach, of course, is that some connections can get lost. I was struck by Audubon’s painting of a squirrel, which looked very much like something Andrew Wyeth might have painted. (I eschewed the audio tour, so don’t know if I get art aficionado points for noticing that.) Similarly, my companion was struck by the similarity between Robert Spear Dunning’s 19th-century painting of a silver bowl, which shows the artist’s almost-empty studio in the bowl’s reflection, and (Philly-born, PAFA-trained) Charles Sheeler’s 1931 Cactus, which shows the lights and equipment of the artist’s photographic studio.

An inclusive definition

The show benefits from including artists who aren’t big names and defining “American still life” fairly loosely. A work by self-taught artist Robert S. Duncanson, an African American active before and during the Civil War, is hung next to a larger, more elaborate contemporary iteration, creating a strong but subtle political commentary about access not just to training, but to the luxury goods often portrayed in a still life. Amateur artists are represented by a large, beautifully detailed quilt and several oils of the late 19th century. The looseness of the use of the term “still life” becomes even more marked with the 20th-century works in the exhibit, which include a Calder stabile, the PMA’s version of Duchamp’s Fountain, and, of course, the titular Warhol of the show, his 1964 Brillo Boxes.

Should sculptures be considered examples of still life? Should ornithological paintings? Well, yeah, if you want to have a catchy title like “Audubon to Warhol,” but probably not otherwise. Did I feel like the victim of a bait and switch? Not in the least — the art was well chosen, well displayed, and well described. The curators could probably have gotten away with a less extensive sidetrack into trompe l’oeil, but otherwise the choices reflect the relative importance of the show’s themes and subthemes well. I was also delighted by the inclusion of several works I wouldn't have expected to see in the show and quite a few that I was unfamiliar with. (No spoilers — go see for yourself!)

Author’s note: I recommend John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes if you find yourself curious to learn more about Audubon, both as artist and as man.

Our readers respond

Tom Goodman

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on November 24, 2015

This exhibition contains a large number of important and impressive works and introduces us to many little-known or unknown artists. That said, it isn't "well thought-out." Indeed, it reminds me more of a book that is published after an editor reads an article and suggests bulking it out.

Primary among those whose work does not belong is James Audubon, who is in no way a "still life" painter, according to any usual or customary definition. There are also a number of works that are genre paintings (Peeling Onions) or modest landscape paintings (Neglected Corner of the Wheatfield), and finally a hurried, haphazard, and hazy inclusion of abstract and modernist works in the final rooms. Nothing detracts from the wondrous Peale Family, Peto and Harnett canvases, nor from the works of these lesser-known painters who merit attention, but the scholarship is shaky at times and baffling at others.

Author's Response

I can’t disagree with a lot of your points — especially since I’d forgotten those oh-so-forgettable genre paintings.

Overall, though, your critique gets at a much larger issue, which I brush by tangentially in my review. Museums need, for financial reasons, to mount big-name shows that will bring in many bodies. There are only so many ways to spin the Impressionists. Audubon and Warhol are two non-Impressionist artists that “everyone” knows and likes. Neither of them, of course, actually did still lifes — as I state in my original review — so using them to market a show of still lifes can definitely be considered . . . shall we say “disingenuous”?

Rather than experiencing the exhibit as a bait and switch, though — I knew enough going in to be skeptical that I’d be sold on either Audubon or Warhol as a still-life artist (though frankly I’d hoped for a more plausible stab at it than the Brillo boxes in the latter’s case) — I was truly happy to encounter works and artists I didn’t know, and to find works and artists I did know presented in ways that forced me to consider them in new contexts. In that sense, I stand behind my opinion that the show was well-chosen and well-presented.

Was it a still-life show? Enh — maybe, maybe not. Can a show be considered well-chosen and well-presented if it doesn’t entirely reflect a narrow and/or traditional definition of the genre it purports to explore? You say no, which is obviously a legitimate reaction — I say yes, because I was happy and satisfied by the experience.

Tom Goodman

of Philadelphia, on November 24, 2015

I really liked the still life paintings, to which I am very devoted (see my own work and statements about it) and above all to the trompe l'oeil painters (ditto on my website). The museum's desire to mount a blockbuster show failed in this instance. Tickets were being discounted weeks ago, and the museum is even waiving online fees when purchasing them. Audubon is not a big name to the majority of people who go to museums and wasn't going to bring in the crowds. (His work is wonderful.) Warhol's inclusion was a travesty. Pop is not nor will ever be confused with still life. If anything, the museum's marketing of this show, including the title, was both shameless and a huge disservice to the genuine still life painters. I was going to write a piece for BSR, but I think you did a fine job and my voice is not needed.

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