A Pastel Painting at Doyle

Sale 09FD05 Lot 10 at Doyle Auction
Sale 09FD05 Lot 10 at Doyle Auction

There were no still life collectors in the 19th century, says William Gerdts, the famed art historian. Although Mr. Gerdts is better known for his books on American Impressionism, since the 1950’s he himself has focused on collecting still life paintings of the 19th century. In his own words, one can collect a certain type of American art without being wealthy, provided he does not want to fill the gaps. And time has proved his words and his taste: Like Herb & Dorothy, his collection is going to the National Gallery of Art.

The genre of still life is hardly regarded as a form of fine arts throughout American art history because of its apparent decorative and imitative nature. Even artists didn’t take the genre seriously. For example, Charles Wilson Peale admitted the merit of scientific investigation and documentation of still life yet did not think it worth of singular devotion.

In the past, many houses hung such paintings, only in the dining rooms. On the one hand, you don’t want to start your art appreciation at where you eat so that you don’t put your best paintings in a room where people mostly look at the table. On the other hand, there are an austere truth of the realistic still life: They not only fool the eyes as Mr. Gerdts said, but also reflect the brevity of temporal life with objects of skulls, candles or flowers  (Judith O’Toole) or the danger of the pursuit of sensual pleasure with bright, fresh food against sombre background.

The abundance of still life paintings in antiques stores had made them invisible to me. Most of them are very amateurish, lifeless or awkwardly arranged that  you wish the painter would claim they painted them from gaudy Italian bakery stores. (I do love Italian bakery though.) Even Severin Roesen could not impress me. There is too much of luxury in the super hi-fied food porn pictures that both the representation of materialistic wealth and the dexterous skills of the artist are overdone.

The true revelation of the power of still life came to me this Summer at Frick Museum where I was totally mesmerized by the painting “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose”. I was puzzled by the contradictory between its extreme clarity and its extraordinary complexity. How could such ordinary subjects fall into a supreme myth such that the harmony, balance and the rhythm would have been totally destroyed if one single object were nudged out of its relationship with others? The tangible textual and pale color of lemons dissolves under the strong light. Yet no detail is needed. It transcends beyond a sensual beauty to testify wonders and awes lie in the beautiful minds.

Learned from this single painting, I feel the charm of still-lifes. It is the fact that they are of common daily objects that enable us to easily distinguish and identify  those of true artistic values: The greatest still life does not imitate the nature but demands eyes to revisit and reexamine the familiarity in the subconsciousness of unknown and challenges our minds to see the world with freshness and inspiration.

Partial of "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" by Francisco de Zurbarán, collection of the Norton Simon Museum
Partial of "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose" by Francisco de Zurbarán, collection of the Norton Simon Museum

One nice painting came upon Doyle Auction on Wed, July 15. During the preview, Geo and I spotted the painting in a meticulous gilded frame. It is in the style of  Raphaelle Peale from its tightly grouped objects arrangement. This superb rendered fruit still life,  to my surprise, is a pastel painting. The bright peaches and the apple are separated by dark grapes so that the main focus point — the striking red and yellow on the apple’s skin is echoed by the secondary focus point of the less glossy peaches. One large grape leave, apparently withering from lack of water, sprawls over the two peaches as if the freshness could be gone momentarily. (The coloration of the peaches turned somewhat gray at the highlight, which I was not sure was caused by fading or artistic choice.)

Geo and I both loved the rendering of the marble and the textural richness of the back of the leave. The catalog said it was of American School of the 20th century. But when examing the back of the frame, we found an old hand-written notice dated in 1860’s, which seemed more appropriate.

Because it is a pastel painting and there is a new paper cover glued on the back of the frame, to take the picture out means to destroy the paper back-cover and endanger the fragile pastel. But my intuition told me that quite possibly there is a signature on the right side of the marble top which is hidden by the oval frame. From several still-life paintings that I have seen, a calligraphic signature on the hard wood or stone surface as if being inscribed is very common. But eventually I decided not to further investigate to avoid turmoil. I told myself if I ever won the painting, I would destroy the paper  back-cover (while keeping the old label) immediately and take the picture out.

Unfortunately, the picture must not like the idea of breathing the air of the 21th century. We  underbid (to great extent) by a bunch of other enthusiastic bidders. Estimated between $200 to $300, the pastel painting went sold for $450 plus premium. Mrs. Gerdts occasionally complained that her husband was taking food out of the mouth of their son. Well, we have four (who said cats demand less?), and only publish articles on blogs, better save money on real food.

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