“Out into your heart, as onto a vast plain”: American landscape and still life in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

At some point, probably when I was about twenty, I decided that I wasn’t interested in certain kinds of art-work. I’ve been chipping away at those prejudices over the years, but some of my preconceptions are quite stubborn. When I found myself, unexpectedly, with an hour to spare near the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. this week, I decided to forsake the Italian medieval and Renaissance works I’d normally head for, walked past the queue for a (very tempting) Vermeer exhibition, and visited some of the rooms that I’d normally leave off my itinerary: the grand rooms showing nineteenth-century American landscapes, and, beside them, the tiny room devoted to American still life.

There was something about having just an hour to spare that helped open my mind a bit: if I was proved right, and these paintings really weren’t worth any attention, I wouldn’t have wasted long. The National Gallery of Art is free to visit, so I hadn’t risked my entrance fee on subpar art, either. But in the event, these rooms were far from disappointing.

The landscapes are magnificent, and fascinating. Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857) is the biggest draw – now as it was when first displayed publicly in New York, with over 100,000 visitors each paying 25 cents to see it one fortnight in 1876.

Niagara

After breathing in the wide freedoms of the American landscapes, entering the tiny room devoted to nineteenth-century American still life, at the very edge of the Gallery’s West Building, brings a disconcerting change of style and scale. At first sight, the paintings seemed to sum up all my suspicions about still life: flowers and fruit, arranged fussily as fodder for artists to show off their skills. Still life can be deadening, the ephemeral made permanent, mastered, but frozen: nature morte, indeed.

Because of this, I entered the room reluctantly, expecting to head back out quickly. What kept me there, in the first instance, wasn’t the paintings themselves, but the conversations I could hear. People wanted to talk about these paintings: in some cases, just admiring the virtuosity; in other cases, trying to make sense of the appeal of the paintings. It was a quiet room, but loved by those who came to it.

As I got used to looking at the still lifes, I started to notice just how diverse they were. I liked the paintings which seemed most rooted in everyday life: John Frederick Peto‘s paintings of meals, for instance, seemed to embrace real, lived experience in time; the meals he was painting seemed to have been laid out to be eaten, not just arrayed in a studio (although this is doubtless an illusion). John Haberle’s Imitation (1887), a trompe l’oeil representation of money and stamps casually laid out over a framed space, is playful and seemed to offer a welcome commentary on the counterfeit of still life itself. But I ended up spending most time in front of two works by Joseph Decker (1853-1924), who seemed to be doing something quite different. The fruit in Green Plumbs (1885) is perfect, and depicted in exquisite detail, but it has been tipped out of a punnet, as though acknowledging that there is some underlying violence which makes the whole painting possible. But most startling of all, to my mind, was Ripening Pears (1884/85).

Decker pears

Some of the pears are indeed still ripening; some are perfectly ripe; some are already rotting, with wasps crawling over them; and, in contrast to the closed, monochrome backgrounds of most of the paintings in the room, the pears are set against the sky. This painting seems to embrace the particular, the tiny details of the pears, whilst showing their impermanence, and our inability to prevent that; and, beyond that impermanence, there is only the vastness of the sky. It’s beautiful and unsettling, contained and limitless at the same time.

There is a poem in Rilke’s Book of Hours, published in 1905, which helped me make sense of this. It describes how the summer’s certainty, the ability to grasp fruit with confidence, gives way as the fruit ripens and over-ripens. Here is part of a wonderful translation of the poem, by Joanna Macy and Annita Burrows:

You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

Du glaubtest schon erkannt die Kraft,
als du die Frucht erfaßt,
jetzt wird sie wieder rätselhaft,
und du bist wieder Gast.

Der Sommer war so wie dein Haus,
drin weißt du alles stehn –
jetzt mußt du in dein Herz hinaus
wie in die Ebene gehn.
Die große Einsamkeit beginnt.

(Book of Hours, II. 1)

My suspicion of still life had been that it was a facile attempt to escape difficult thinking about mortality and impermanence, a mere exercise in virtuosity. Decker’s painting made me realise that I could not have been more wrong: in his hands, still life becomes an invitation to stare clearly into the condition of change, finitude and impermanence, and in doing so, see the vast plains beyond and within. I stepped out of that modest room, my mind changed and opened, persuaded that those small, still-life paintings had the potential to reveal horizons every bit as vast and inspiring as the grand canvases of the great American landscapes in the halls next door.

Images reproduced courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, thanks to their open access policy. The gallery website is extremely well laid out and includes some helpful bibliography on the works displayed, some of which I’d like to follow up in the New Year. 

This is my personal blog; views expressed are my own.

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