10 Known (and lesser-known) Still Life Paintings and Why They're Great (or not)
Still Life Pop Quiz!
How many of the following ten famous (and not so famous) paintings do you recognize?
How many were you able to identify? Tell me in the comments!
Let's go through one by one and talk about the merits and or problems in each. I'll break these paintings down for you and give you my score for each one out of 10 (you can tell me whether you agree or not).
I hope the following analysis of these 10 paintings helps you to feel more confident in judging still life paintings that you encounter and more able to enjoy beautiful works of art!
1. Still Life with Sugar by Paul Cezanne
Cezanne was, by most accounts, an earnest soul and an extremely hard worker, but he was not particularly talented at the craft of painting. This may have been a primary cause that lead him to seek directions with his painting other than intentional mimesis of reality.
This work is typical of his rift with traditional (accurate) drawing techniques in favor of a jarring rupture with perspective that he claimed to make for compositional reasons. While having a pleasing sense of color and some fun forms and textures, the overall lack of visual unity here is a very serious defect; others, later in the 20th Century, used his work to justify even more serious and ugly departures from the beauty of truth. Because I know his inaccurate drawing was intentional, I am particularly offended by the work of Cezanne.
On a scale of 1-10: 4.5
2. Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio
The early Baroque master Caravaggio's fidelity to light and form is wonderful. This basket glowing with golden light. The form of the subject has an accuracy that shocked audiences of his time and still remains potent for us today. His love of detail particularly is remarkable; his work has a visual unity beyond what the Dutch school painters achieved in painting similar subjects.
A possible flaw to mention is the consistant, cut-out edge that surrounds almost every object. Later, more advanced small 'i' impressionist artists like Valazques and Vermeer would have blurred and softened such edges for the sake of depth and visual unity.
On a scale of 1-10: 8.5
3. Still Life with Lemon by Picasso
Garish colors, vertigo-causing swirls and lines, textures that seem best described as crude and even rude... Picasso takes the errors of Cezanne and makes them the center of his work which is an assault on the tradition of beauty in the visual arts -- and painting in particular. This destruction, enabled by a cabal of artists, art dealers, art critics, and big money, ravaged the practice of painting and caused great confusion in the general population as to the general sense of beauty in the 20th century. Hopeful signs of cultural recovery today are in spite of works like these.
On a scale of 1-10: -10
4. Still Life with Sand and Shells by Robert Douglas Hunter
Hunter: Beautiful, peaceful compositions. Always with a sense of calm and harmonious colors and object sizes, Hunter described his work as "little tunes." Informed by the Boston School tradition of painting, his technical work is usually strong, but can sometimes suffer from a look of shallowness of form and hard-edged-ness in shape.
On a scale of 1-10: 7.5
5. Still Life: Vase with Three Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh
Lovely color contrast and lively shapes. Van Gogh is a "post-impressionist" particularly noted for his thick paint application and his departure from strict realism. Though many claim his lack of realism was intentional, much evidence indicates that he recognized his inability to render the fullness of seen beauty as a shortcoming in his work. His letters seem to indicate his dissatisfaction with his own draftsmanship. A little-known fact is that he worked through the Bargue Drawing Course numerous times in an effort to improve his ability to accurately depict shapes and forms.
I believe that, despite these shortcomings and due to his honesty in striving towards beauty - not making his deficits into virtues - his paintings, including this one, often have charm and beauty.
On a scale of 1-10: 5
6. Still Life with Teapot by Emil Carlsen
An American painter from Denmark, Emil Carlson produced paintings with great balance and craft. He is particularly notable for his atmosphere, where all of the edges are beautifully balanced and the objects pop out and sink into their background just as they do in life. His paintings have magnificent technical strength and often involve beautifully brilliant colors, like those of his contemporary impressionists.
On a scale of 1-10: 9.5
7. Still Life with Blue Bowl by Carl Schmitt
A really underrated American artist from the 20th Century, Carl Schmitt combines many of the experiments of the impressionist and post-impressionists in beautiful lively still life painting. Where Seurat's " A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" feels stifled and stiff, Schmitt is able to take the truths of optical color mixing and make subtle and amazing works with these rather non-traditional methods.
If you are able to see these paintings in real life, their vibrant liveliness jumps off the canvas in a way totally unexpected and far greater than mere reproduction can accomplish.
If his work has a flaw it is a bit of a lack of incisiveness in drawing, shape, and form -- more than made up for by his brilliant sense of depth and color.
On a scale of 1-10: 9
8. The Dining Room Table by Frank Benson
A loosely painted beautiful still life full of color and atmosphere. This is a typical example of a Boston School Still life, with lovely variety of edges and tones that produce depth and visual interest. A bit rougher than many still life paintings, but thoroughly entertaining in its uneven brush marks resolving into a beautiful sense of reality.
On a scale of 1-10: 8.5
9. Still Life with Fruit, Wanli Porcelain, and Squirrel by Frans Snyders
This painting by Snyders is typical of the exacting detail and delicacy of good Flemish painters from his period. The great critique of their work is that while they have drawn every detail faithfully, they often miss a sense of the grand sweep of light, the sense of forms, and the overall atmosphere (I discussed this concept in my post on Breadth). A glaring example in this painting is the way that the plate on the table feels 'flat' - the front and back feel as if they are the same distance away from the viewer due to an evenness in treatment that robs it of its three dimensional sense of projection.
While epic and rich in its subject matter, Boston School impressionists would rightly regard this as a primitive way of painting which Valazquez and Vermeer would later take great steps beyond.
On a scale of 1-10: 6
10. Roses by John Singer Sargent
A seemingly effortless small sketch, this painting is a really impressive piece of visual poetry. The economy of means by which Sargent painted these flowers and arranged this pleasing little composition is so deft as to be almost taken for granted. Visual truth is presented well, if not completely, in its essentials leading the painters of the Boston School to refer with grudging admiration to Sargent as "the greatest of sketch artists." The magic and liveliness of Sargent's sketches so often surpass even the carefully completed work of the other greatest painters in history; it is a truly remarkable accomplishment.
On a scale of 1-10: 9
I mention Vermeer and Velasquez a few times above. They are role models for Boston School painters, though a bit tricky to use in a study like this, as neither was known as a still life artist. Nonetheless, here are examples of the work of each for your reference:
Bonus: The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
Bonus: The Waterseller of Seville by Diego Velasquez
Maybe you agree with my analysis, maybe not - do tell.
The important thing is that you remember that art can and should be judged, and that art should be beautiful.
You may also be interested in: Why Still Life?
To see some of my still life portfolio, click here.
In Memoriam: Tim Cantu
Last month, the community to which Deirdre and I belong felt the painful loss of a young family man, Tim Cantu, to cancer. I knew Tim only a relatively short time but I can say he was truly a friend.
Tim and I shared much in common. We were both about the same age (he was a few years younger). We both were from large families and were the fathers of large families as well. Our reasons for having large families are similar too: they stem from our Catholic faith and the conviction that life is a precious gift and should be shared generously with others. Tim was the dedicated father of 5 children. It was always refreshing to see Tim and Marie with their family in large part because together they were a lot like what my wife and I want to be.
As an artist, one thing that particularly struck me about Tim was his conviction that artistic forms are both meaningful and important. Some of his many friends may not be aware that he was a patron of the arts, making an actual investment in culture that way -- and he was excited about it. I enjoyed working with Tim as artist/patron, and I sensed that he was going to be with me for the long haul in my own quest for Beauty. We also shared some good thoughts on art and beauty over some good drinks.
Tim was willing to take an unpopular position in order to be true to what he believed as far as taste and culture. This is something I respect, because it’s all too easy for any of us to go with the flow on what may seem like minor matters -- the choice of music for a party, say -- but the fact remains that forms form us. Tim knew that. Seeking excellence in the little things -- seeking beauty in all our choices -- is a step forward on the journey toward the ultimate Good to which we’re destined.
Tim’s journey, it seemed last month, was cut cruelly short. Deirdre and I, along with many, many others, were praying for a miracle. We wanted so much for this fun, lively guy to fully recover, to stay by his wife Marie's side and get to watch his children grow up. Learning of his passing was a painful blow. But we trust that God has a plan that will redeem all the suffering. As I think of and am grateful for Tim’s support of my artwork and, more importantly, his friendship, I’m reminded of the deep value of choosing the more beautiful way, in matters both great and small.
Your child is drawing all the time; your child has a gift for cartooning; your child is asking for more materials and opportunities... You're not an artist or have never taught art -- how to respond?
Every so often I get these questions from parents of children who are obviously demonstrating early stages of artistic skill. What would I recommend they do for their child? What worked for me and what did my parents do to foster my love for and practice of the visual arts?
Many people, not having received art training themselves or feeling ignorant regarding the arts, feel ill-equipped to foster their child's talent. I want to take away some of that fear and offer some encouragement So, without further ado -- my thoughts on the matter for those parents who have a child ~5-12 years old and want to know what I think would be best for them to foster their artistic growth as part of a loving family.
I am going to focus on three areas that I think are helpful to think about for parents: lessons, gifts, and a culture of beauty in the home.
Lessons - to do or not to do?
First of all when parents think of fostering their child's artistic growth they think: lessons. The first piece of advice that I have about lessons for young kids is don't "Tiger-mom" it. Think of the mother or father who gets their 4-year old a violin and makes them practice for 2-4 hours a day. Yep. Don't do that. I know this is a pretty obvious exaggeration - most of us in our culture aren't tempted to take this extreme. But we are often tempted to over-program and over-nurture. We have a sense of parental guilt that I suspect is often driven into us for alternative motives (especially monetary, though others as well) that suggest to us that if we, as loving parents, don't give little Jimmy or Jill that extra lesson, that designer outfit, that extra gadget, trinket, or toy they will be forever stunted and it will be all our fault. Most likely something like the opposite is actually the case (see the Oscar acceptance speech by Roberto Benigni). Kids need freedom and time to explore the world, to think, and yes, to be bored! Necessity being the mother of invention, and boredom being a sure impetus to children to recognize the necessity of finding something interesting and exciting to do with their lives, boredom breeds creativity! So, long story short, don't give into the temptation to program your child's artistic interest to death! You are doing something very right if your child likes to draw - and may - for hours every day and has never been given a formal art lesson!
That being said, if there is a week long summer class or weekend workshop on cartooning, calligraphy, or oil painting in which your child has expressed interest and which you have the financial means to facilitate, that could be a good and enriching experience as well. Such workshops were certainly enriching in my experience, but my parents never forced them on me.
One thing that I think was very wise that they did was that they offered many of us 9 siblings the opportunity to go to the local community college for summer camp/day classes for 2 or 3 weeks in the summertimes when we were in grade school/middle school. We eagerly looked forward to these well-run and enriching classes in part because our parents gave us a large degree of freedom to select which courses we took - and guess what courses I chose? Speed reading, electricity/circuitry shop class, computer programming, acting, car repair, debate, and, oh yeah: calligraphy, cartooning, and oil painting.
The way that my parents approached these classes was wise for three reasons: 1) It allowed us children to "buy in" to the classes ahead of time. We were more engaged because we were able to get excited about them and select the ones that appealed to us most. Often this meant those from which we would be most ready to learn. (if your child can earn his way towards such education himself, so much the better as his motivation will be all the stronger for having paid with his own hard-earned cash!) 2) We weren't forced into a narrow course of study or constricted based on what our parents thought were our particular talents or inclinations. Often my mother was surprised by our respective choices and she might advise for or against certain classes, but she generally allowed us to choose despite her own thoughts on the matter. And if it was a dud class, it was only a week or two long for an hour or two a day and we had others to look forward to as well! 3) It helped us to realize our limitations and start to narrow down our interests on our own. There were so many awesome courses to choose from, but we could only get in 3 or 4 per summer, so the decisions sometimes were hard to make, but they also helped us realize what we loved learning about!
I can write another time about the kind of instruction that should happen when the child reaches a more mature age. At this stage, any lessons will be largely introducing the child to the materials of the medium; deeper-reaching critique and honing of skills will come later. My rule of thumb for this younger set is to respect the exploratory stage and not press the lessons.
Supplies & Gifts
The next thing I think parents often do and should be thinking about is the type of artistic tools that they give their children. Again, here it is important not to "over-nurture." Your son or daughter does not need the whole arts and crafts section from Hobby Lobby in their bedroom to be well looked after in this regard. Instead think one or two nice artistic gifts per birthday/Christmas (if you notice that your child has used the artistic gifts you gave them last Christmas/birthday or have asked for new artistic gifts). I think this is relatively easy when they are young: a nice set of colored pencils or markers/crayons and some simple coloring books (or sometimes even better: empty notebooks/sheets of scrap paper) is often a great place to start. A note on coloring books - try to get beautiful & tasteful ones - the Dover Coloring Book series is one that I have been particularly impressed with. Many varied and interesting subjects to choose from your young boys and girls that are generally drawn with good proportion and elegant lines.
As your son or daughter gets a bit older it may get to be a bit harder to think of what those next level artistic gifts for this age range could be. It could be as simple as upgrading their pencils and colored pencils to higher quality brands and materials. These twistable crayons will be more satisfying to the child whose fine motor skills are strong and for whom regular crayons are unsatisfactorily chunky for detailed drawing. Likewise, fine line Crayola markers are much more satisfying for the imaginative 5-8yo than the chunkier version that toddlers enjoy, but are still washable and not too pricey. I find Prismacolor pencils and colored pencils excellent and noticeably better than craft level pencils. Children should learn to treat their drawing pencils will care; dropping them or sharpening too roughly may damage the core of the pencil, resulting in an instrument that crumbles in fragments when sharpened. The next step up from coloring books in my experience was "Paint by Numbers" - I spent hours in delighted concentration as a young child working on mine!
Further gift suggestions for kids exploring different aspects of the artistic process:
A wood-burning set (you could also browse options on Amazon)
Dip pens & ink - carefully prepare and confine a work space with newspaper to avoid damaging ink spills!
A Winsor & Newton basic watercolor set - watercolor is neater and less toxic than oil and acrylic options. You'll need watercolor paper - for beginners, an affordable option like this or what you might find at the craft store is fine! These watercolor brushes are excellent quality for a beginner and should be carefully cleaned, dried, and stored horizontally or upright after each painting session; more economical versions at the craft store will also do quite adequate for the beginner on a budget.
A beginner's kit for pysanky
Model airplane and paints
Some whittling/woodcarving basics
Some Sculpey (this can be bought in a colored set, but the plain white can also be painted with acrylic craft paint after baking)
Many Christmases I recall immediately opening my gift, whether a dip pen, wood burner, or model airplane and spending hours immediately and over the coming months testing the limits of a new and exciting medium. I'm sure this enhanced my creative growth!
Provide a good storage plan for these supplies and emphasize the artistic virtue of craftsmanship, tidiness and care with tools and the whole artistic process. Especially if your child has a future in an art studio, he should start learning now about how to keep organized and manage all these small (and sometimes precious) parts with care. The final step to every painting day in my studio is to wash my brushes and clean my palette for an efficient start on the next day! Orderliness promotes creativity whereas sloppiness detracts from mental clarity and studio practice.
How to know when your child should be upgrading to higher-quality art supplies? One default approach is this: when he, as the the artist, can sense that the materials are holding him back from what he's envisioning accomplishing -- and when he has demonstrated that he can care properly for the lower-level art tools -- then it's time to move up a tier in quality and price.
Home Culture of Beauty
Finally and perhaps most importantly for your artistic child and your family as a whole I encourage you to have a culture of beauty in your home. This doesn't have to be a daunting task, but it does require a conscious decision and effort over time against the current of our largely utilitarian and often ugly culture.
I encourage mothers and fathers to help make their homes a place where their children will encounter and be formed in beauty in two ways that I know my parents did for me.
The first way is to have beautiful images hanging on the wall. If you are fortunate enough to be able to afford beautiful original artwork, I certainly encourage that (and of course I'm always available to help make that happen!). I also encourage framing beautiful prints of both sacred and secular subjects in your home. There is truly a wealth of beauty that our fore-fathers have passed on to us that all too often we don't experience - framed prints of these excellent paintings in the home is a true way to enrich your family. In my experience one of the works that has most shaped me growing up was the painting of St. Joan of Arc by Jean Bastien LePage. My mother had a print of it that was simply and elegantly framed. Over the years that print of that beautiful painting made a huge difference in my life. Over and over again I was drawn back to the loving craftsmanship of the artist who faithfully strove to capture the leaves, branches, twigs, facial expression, mood, mystery, and melancholy of the calling of Saint Joan of Arc, a simple peasant girl in a simple French landscape. The mystery and tension of the moment that LePage captured of the apparition of Saint Michael offering Saint Joan of Arc a sword and Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret with him -- one with her head in her own hands, a sign of her martyrdom and prefigurement of Joan's own martyrdom -- has mystified and amazed me for many years and has given me an understanding of what a great work of art should be and what it can do.
Secondly, when parents give their children books with beautiful pictures, they often give a priceless gift to the child's imagination that lasts long after the books themselves have decayed. I encourage parents to have beautiful books of Western Art in their homes of great artists and architects like Bernini, Michaelangelo, Van Eyke, Peter Paul Reubens, Caravaggio, Valazquez, Rembrandt, Titian, Palladio, Edmund Tarbell, Boticelli, and Vermeer. In addition to these, beautiful story books are extremely important - from the color fairy books of Andrew Lang illustrated by Henry Justice Ford to their Saints and Heroes recently republished by Sophia Institute Press, to the treasures of visual storytelling of Arthur Rackham and N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and many other amazing illustrators from the Golden Age (see The Golden Age of Children's Book Illustration by Richard Dalby for an introduction to some of these amazing men and women and I hope you are able to track down some of their amazing work!). Certainly some modern illustrators are well worth having in your collection as well (I suppose it would be a bit pert to recommend my own work in the Child's Christmas ABC Book and Mr. Mehan's Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals among others, but alas, it seems I have done so already!). I think of Gennady Spirin, Tasha Tudor, Peter Spier, Jesse Wilcox Smith, Charles Santore, Scott Gustafson, David Weisner and many others when I think of excellent modern illustrators whose work is well worth having in your home. For other great children's books inspiration, I recommend the Instagram accounts Pease Porridge Press and The Good Books Last.
Having such works will feed the imagination of your children with riches that will bear good fruit. I know that I encountered works in my home library that I copied for hours and learned a great deal from through admiration and enjoyment that have continued to form me as an artist and a man long after I have moved out of the house.
Treat your child's imagination like the precious clean slate that it is, and - as you do your best to give your child only healthy and nourishing food - offer that little imagination only the best! I'll conclude with a quote from Arthur Rackham, one of true greats of illustration:
"I can only say that I firmly believe in the greatest stimulating and educative power of imaginative, fantastic, and playful pictures and writings for children in their most impressionable years - a view that most unfortunately, I consider, has its opponents in these matter of fact days. Children will make no mistake in the way of confusing the imaginative and symbolic with the actual. Nor are they at all blind to decorative or arbitrarily designed treatment in art, any more than they are to poetic or rhythmic form in literature. And it must be insisted on that nothing less than the best that can be had, cost what it may (and it can hardly be cheap) is good enough for those early impressionable years when standards are formed for life. Any accepting, or even choosing, art or literature of a lower standard, as good enough for children, is a disastrous and costly mistake."
I hope that helps, at least as a starting point and some inspiration! I look forward to seeing a new generation of artistic talent arise!
What other questions do you have? What other resources for beauty formation do you rely upon? Let me know, below!
Beauty is not a luxury.
Guest post from Deirdre Folley, John's wife and studio manager.
During the current crisis, perhaps you've heard from sources in the Art community that Art is now "more important than ever." I've received this line in my inbox from museums and galleries, institutions with special offers aiming to counteract the threat of isolation, loneliness, and meaninglessness.
In a time when millions of people are suffering unemployment, families are grieving the loss of loved ones, and experts in science and medicine are working double-overtime looking for solutions, is Art more important than ever?
Somehow, for me, this message was falling flat.
My reaction surprised me, since art is my husband's business and I try to represent John's artwork to you and the rest of the world. Do I not believe in what we're doing here?
At the same time that I was hearing from institutions in the art world, I was also hearing encouragement from some of you: friends and patrons, people who actively support what John is doing. But what I've heard from you has been different in a key way. The message in this community has been, "please keep doing what you do, because beauty is more important than ever" (my emphasis).
That's when it struck me that the reason that the museum curators and gallery owners weren't really reaching me with their line was because of this very tension: today, throughout much of the Art World, Art does not align with Beauty.
Moreover, even when the art itself is good and beautiful, the Art World tends to separate it from normal life and confine it to elite institutions, available only to a select group of adults who visit museums and attend gallery openings. While museum tours and gallery openings can be excellent, they represent the luxurious side of life rather than the essentially necessary.
But yes, we do need beauty more than ever. Beauty is not a luxury. That is why John does what he does. His aim is not to manipulate an audience with creative hijinks or even to produce works to end up in the sterile environment of a museum: he wants to produce works of beauty for you -- for patrons, for the public, and for the Church.
Just as we need the essential work of the people who provide food for our tables and the true and honest work of those who lay bricks for our buildings, so too do we need the work of those who put in the effort to produce works of beauty. In this way, although the Art World so frequently tends to the pretentious or the detached, the work of the true artist really is essential.
After all, what would be the good of conquering every disease this world could brandish, if we did not have sources of beauty in our lives to lift our minds and hearts beyond? If we shelter ourselves from threats but don't seek to enrich the world with what is beautiful, we are not living life but merely surviving.
So thank you for your encouragement and for your support. John hopes to repay your hope in him with truly beautiful work to enrich the world for all of us.
If you have never had the occasion to read John's Artist Statement, I hope you will take a moment to do so now.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley, an oil painter in the Boston School tradition. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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