STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
“Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life” is on view through Jan. 10 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Curator Mark D. Mitchell collected works that illuminate the simple beauty of everyday things. More than 100 works by artists including William Michael Harnett, Arthur B. Carles, Georgia O’ Keefe, Charles Sheeler, Horace Pippin, Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella, and Roy Lichtenstein, and others are displayed.
The exhibit is divided into four chronological sections mirroring still life’s periodic resurgence in the United States, according to the press release. Each era was characterized by a prevailing way of seeing and relating to objects. The eras are: Describing (1795-1845), Indulging (1845-1890), Discerning (1875-1905), and Animating (1905-1950).
Mitchell said in a telephone interview that the four areas emerged with great speed and then disappeared at the end of each period.
“There are these distinct periods of time when still life is made in America,” he said. “They each have a distinct culture – how we related to objects, what meaning they made in the lives of our people and our culture. It’s striking how each is so different.”
The Describing era shows how connected science and art were from 1795 to 1845. It shows how artists portrayed things and how scientists did. “They were discovering objects and exploring them through vision,” Mitchell said, “exploring with their pencils and brushes, whatever tools they used.”
The Indulging era, from 1845 to 1890, has a feeling of slight intoxication, he said. Scientific culture gave way. Control and order became “a sense of vividness and sensuality and color and texture,” Mitchell said. “The colors are a little too bright. Flowers from all seasons, which never would be found in nature at the same time, are shown together. The order of nature is completely broken.”
This time frame also featured the rise of industry so “objects become indulgences and consumables,” Mitchell said. “They’re there for your delight. Flowers just for you to enjoy, fruits in perfect ripeness, filled people’s homes. People were entertaining and wanted to have pleasant spaces.”
The Discerning era, from 1875 to 1905, focuses on a painting that was displayed in a bar and was a huge tourist attraction.
“This is not something we would find acceptable today,” he said. “We see art in museums and galleries. To imagine a painting and the bar getting this much interest is mind-blowing.”
The era’s atmosphere was one of self-reflection.
“It was an era of great social change – the culture of the country after the civil war,” Mitchell said. “There were population dislocations. The whole country was realigning itself and trying to figure itself out.”
The sensibility focused on taste, he said.
“You demonstrated yourself to be a member of the discerning class by appreciating beauty and recognizing truth,” Mitchell said. “Things teach us lessons. We can explore them and come to understand the culture that created them and ourselves better.”
The Animating era, from 1905 to 1950, found American artists travelling to Paris and encountering modernist styles, Mitchell said.
“They embraced progressive aesthetics and energy,” he said. There was a sense of “how the mind governs the perceptions of the world and that things have lives of their own. Inanimate objects seem to interact and have subconscious meanings.”
Still life was the primary vehicle of modernists, he said, and “it remained a central component to American artists even as Europeans leaned toward abstraction.”
The common thread through all the eras: intimacy.
“That’s the language of still life,” Mitchell said. “Personal connection and closeness.”
The genre “traverses the threshold of art and life and connects them together in a compelling way,” he said.
Mitchell thinks of the exhibit as 1,000 stories gathered for people to see, study, and learn. They are “things that have such insight to offer and each is so remarkable and fascinating in their own way.”
He hopes that people will spend time with the exhibit, making personal connections with it and seeing the works up close.
“There’s a sense of opportunity here to continue to explore, and this is a jumping off point,” he said. “People should look and keep looking and see in what other directions they could go.”