Finding the Beauty in American Still-Life Painting at the MFAH

Raphaelle Peale, Orange and Book, c. 1817, oil on canvas
Raphaelle Peale, Orange and Book, c. 1817, oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection

Because they’re beautiful. That’s the main reason for most of us to go see the paintings that make up the exhibition “Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection,” now on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Because the collectors have been such generous lenders from their collection over the years, you may already know many of the pieces, which have hung in the galleries at MFAH often. And because they continue to be so generous, generations of museum-goers into the future will be able to enjoy and learn from these beautiful paintings, since the Hevrdejses have pledged all the works in the show as a gift to MFAH.

Just the facts: 68 paintings by 60 artists; all still lifes, or other genres with major still-life elements; all by American artists, though some were born elsewhere and immigrated; the earliest one painted circa 1817, and the most recent in 2014; the best available works by the most significant artists in the field, brought together in 30 years of astute collecting. The gift will increase the MFAH permanent collection of pre-midcentury American painting by more than a third.

At first glance, an exhibition of American still-life painting would seem to have at least three-strikes-you’re-out against it from the beginning. Yes, they’re American, but they’re not Abstract Expressionist or Contemporary, so who cares? And then they’re still lifes, which land right down at the bottom of the centuries-old hierarchy of the Western painting tradition: history painting, then portraiture, landscape, genre, animal and finally still life crushed underneath. And, as I said at the beginning, they’re beautiful, sometimes elegantly, lushly, cloyingly so, and for a while now beauty, in some circles, has been anathema for serious painting in our brutal modern world.

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If the show isn’t an automatic strikeout for you and you actually go, you will encounter artists whose paintings you likely have never seen, in Houston anyway: Harry Wilson Watrous, who captured shockingly well on canvas the iridescent sheen of Roman glass in The Jar (1920s?); Carducius Plantagenet Ream (you may not have heard that name, but now will you ever forget it?), whose diaphanous grapes in Honeycombs and Grapes (c. 1870) must have still been on the vine just moments earlier; and Walter Pach, whose modernist Progression No.1 (Flowers) (1913) puts a painting to a name familiar to those who know about the momentous Armory Show of 1913.

The famous artists are here too. Marsden Hartley is represented by the lovely little monochromatic Rope and Shells (1936); and there’s a Georgia O’Keeffe, From Pink Shell (1931), that gets a wall to itself, and is indeed very pink — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even Thomas Hart Benton is here, but with an abstract piece so un-Benton-like that even Benton haters may like it.

It is certainly the case that most of the artists in the show weren’t inventing a new art. They were adapting what already existed elsewhere to the new American context. To know where they found their inspiration, go upstairs or next door in the museum and see works like the ones they saw, either from Europe or sometimes from the Orient.

If you wonder where Raphaelle Peale found the Chardinesque simplicity in his Orange and Book (c. 1817), the earliest piece in the show, go look at Chardin’s Still Life With a Leg of Lamb (1730) in the Blaffer collection galleries. And then go look at Still Life with Fruit and Glassware (1630) by Juan van der Hamen y León to get right back to the Spanish origins of Western still-life painting. All depict mundane objects on tilted surfaces against muted walls — all speak different dialects of the same artistic language.

Working 50 years later, Severin Roesen and others of his period painted with a Dutch profusion for a reason. The chief consumers of these paintings were the burghers of newly rich, mid-19th-century middle Atlantic America, many of them with actual Dutch forebears of their own. They wanted to advertise their wealth and taste through lavish, abundant displays, just as the Dutch of the 17th century had done — and this included still-life paintings. More and richer were great selling points. You can also see paintings by some of Roesen’s Dutch predecessors upstairs at MFAH.

By the turn of the 20th century, Impressionism had reached America and so it infused our still-life painting too, though several of the Hevrdejs paintings from that time are portraits and other genres with still-life elements, a necessary accommodation since still lifes by themselves were rarer then.

The visual leap from the pretty ladies of Impressionism, from Richard Miller’s The Scarlet Necklace (c. 1914), with its still life of orange nasturtiums in a blue pot in the foreground, to the convention shattering of Modernism, to Max Weber’s Cézanne-inspired Still Life with Three Jugs (Spanish Jug) (1929), is a not-to-be-missed event of this art exhibition season. The two are just feet apart.

In one area, at least, private collectors have a great advantage over most museums, if they choose to use it, and the Hevrdejses have: the matter of framing. Too often museum frames are utilitarian and dull. By contrast, the frames on most of the Hevrdejs paintings are fabulous. It’s almost as exciting seeing the frames as it is seeing the paintings.

It’s not just that they’re opulent; many aren’t. Or just that they’re expensive, though probably most were. In almost all cases, these frames are ideally suited for what they surround, and they are beautiful all on their own. Plan a special frame-only tour, and before you take it, do some reading and looking into the history of American frames.

To mention one of many, the subtly carved and gilded frame added to John Haberle’s The Palette (Haberle’s Palette) (1890), for which the artist had already painted a frame as part of the painting, is perfect. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t imagine the painting without it. You won’t get any sense of this aspect of the collection even if you read the entire (admirable) catalog from cover to cover. The framing makes the impact of seeing the paintings on the walls a wallop instead of just a wonder.

The more time you spend with these beautiful paintings, the more you’ll see and the more rewarded you’ll be. It wasn’t until I’d made the circuit many times that I noticed the subtle but deeply pleasing echo of the beginning at the end. I wonder if it’s an accident that the spiral of orange peel in Raphaelle Peale’s Orange and Book, the first painting in the show, which I mentioned earlier, is recapitulated in the spirals of lemon peel in Scott Fraser’s Lemon, Lemon, which, painted in 2014, is almost the last. In such a keenly chosen collection, I doubt it.

This isn’t, perhaps, the definitive collection or exhibition of American still lifes. A look at the catalog of another recent exhibition on the topic, "Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life" (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015), shows that there’s more to tell in the story of American still lifes. But in a way the comparison is apples to oranges, since museums can borrow far and wide, while collectors, even prosperous, discriminating ones, are constrained by what they can acquire. Besides, I suspect that the Hevrdejs Collection isn’t finished telling its story.

Looking around at all these beautiful American paintings, I’m reminded of the wars, injustices, economic collapses and other crises (including presidents) the nation has weathered in the 200 years they span. Decade after decade, the artists painted their beautiful still lifes and we made it through — no cause and effect, perhaps, and not comforting enough to vanquish the night frights in these troubled times, but better than nothing. Maybe we’ll make it through this time too. The beauty helps.

“Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection”
Through April 9, 2017. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.

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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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Houston, TX 77005

713-639-7300

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