Impressionist Still Life
The exhibition at the Phillips
Washington, D.C. - until January 13, 2002
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
February 17 - June 9, 2002
Get the exhibition catalogue from Amazon.com,
Article added in November 2001
Eliza Rathbone et al.: Impressionist Still Life, Harry N. Abrams,
2001, 240 p., 150 illustrations, 120 in full color. Get the exhibition catalogue
The exhibition catalogue, the basis for this article, comes not only with the reproduction of the 92
exhibits and commentaries regarding them, but also with five essays by five different scholars,
bibliography and concise biographies of all exhibited artists. A
publication not to miss.
Article added on
November 4, 2001
Still life is a genre popular among art
historians, critics, educated art lovers and "the common man"
alike. The Phillips Collection has put together a sensational exhibition
not to miss with some 80 still life paintings on display among which are at
least two dozen masterpieces (at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, some
additional works will be presented; in total 92 paintings). The exhibition title Impressionist
Still Life is somewhat misleading since the exhibited works range from
Manet to Gauguin, van Gogh and Cézanne.
Both the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists claimed Edouard Manet
(1832-1883) as a source of inspiration and leadership. Therefore,
it is only logical to include eight of his paintings in the exhibition.
Many of Manet's still lifes have a meaning that goes beyond the object
depicted. He approached many of his late still lifes with specific
individuals in mind. They express his sense of fragility and brevity of
life as well as his desire to communicate his joy of life. (Eliza E. Rathbone)
Manet, the eldest son of a wealthy Parisian family, once said: "A
painter can express all that he wants with fruit or flowers."
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one out of five of all the
paintings he produced are still lifes, in total 78.
Manet had two periods in which he concentrated with particular intensity
on still life, 1864-69 and 1880-83, the last years of his life. His first
paintings in the genre date from 1862 and were probably inspired by the
1860 exhibition at Louis Martinet's gallery which featured work by Jean-Siméon
Chardin (1699-1779), the most important figure of still life painting in
the minds of collectors, critics and the larger public, whose reputation,
after years of oblivion, increased dramatically after 1840. By the way,
Martinet was one of the art dealers who sold Manet's works.
The exhibition at the Phillips Collection also features still lifes by
"the quintessential Impressionist landscape painter", Claude
Monet (1840-1926). During his career, he produced almost 2000 catalogued
works, including 64 still lifes. Despite their tiny proportion (just
3%) in his oeuvre, Monet told the Duc de Trévise late in his life:
"What I need most of all are flowers, always, always."
Logically, more than half of his still lifes depict flowers.
When he was about five, Monet moved near Le Havre with his family. There,
he made a name for himself as a caricaturist and, in the mid- 1850s, he
was introduced to out-of-doors painting by Eugène Boudin. In 1859, Monet
moved to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Suisse. He became a close
friend of Renoir, Sisley and other famous Impressionists.
Monet experimented with the range of contemporary still-life styles
especially in the 1860s and early 1870s. Although they were not at the
center of his work, almost from the very beginning of his career, his
still lifes fetched highs sums and were sought after by collectors, among
which Paul Durand-Ruel was the most notable. In the 1880s and 1890s,
Monet's reputation as a leading artist was well-established. In the early
1880s, he began to distance himself from his Impressionist colleagues. He
continued to produce only a few still lifes with the exception of 36
decorative panels of fruit and flowers commissioned by Durand-Ruel for his
dining room doors. These compositions presage the decorative impulse of
his famous water lily canvases. In his late years, until his death
in 1926, Monet focused his
still-life production almost entirely on outdoor flowers.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is in my eyes the greatest of modern still-life
painters who has created unsurpassed works. The irony is that the man who
changed the course of the history of painting and presaged cubism was
actually trying to, in his own words, "make impressionism something
solid and durable like the old masters."
Cézanne was not only interested in the avant-garde art of his days,
Impressionism, he also copied the old masterpieces in the Louvre. His debt
to tradition, especially Chardin, can be felt in his 12 earliest still
lifes, created in the 1860s. Cézanne met Pissarro, who had a decisive
influence on his forays into Impressionism, at the Académie
Suisse. In the 1870s, Cézanne experimented with Impressionist techniques
and painting out-of-doors in Northern France with Pissarro. However,
Cézanne later removed himself from the Impressionists after the third
group exhibition where critics once more denounced his works.
In the 1870s, apples surfaced as Cézanne's favorite subject of painting,
which had become a patchwork of short, overlapping brushstrokes which
became later structural, even architectural. He invested the apples with
an aura of significance that would lead Meyer Schapiro in 1968 to make
connections between their formal properties and the artist's psychological
state. Cézanne's working method was labor intensive. His flowers often
wilted before he had successfully captured them in paint. Therefore, the
fruit still lifes outnumber studies of flowers in his work. In the last 25
years of his life, Cézanne was mostly occupied with compositional
problems in his still lifes, a genre which accounts for nearly 20% of his
These are just a few remarks on three painters exhibited at the Phillips
Collection. Other artists included in the landmark exhibition are Courbet,
Caillebotte, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir and van Gogh. The works from 55 public
and private collections around the world document the development and
transformation of late 19th-century still life painting from Courbet's
realism to the late work of Cézanne which presages the cubism of Braque and