In Depth | The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from the Phillips Collection
In their quest to create a new art suited to new times, many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists rejected the official hierarchies of the French Academy, which privileged epic narratives of history, mythology, and religion, choosing instead to paint still lifes—depictions of the humble objects of daily life. Traditionally considered the lowliest of genres, the still life provided artists with the means for experimenting with pattern and abstraction and investigating the tensions between the reality beyond the frame and the complex visual structures within it, and thus for pushing the boundaries of painting itself.
Paul Cézanne proved a pivotal figure, famously laboring over images of fruit, ceramics, fabric, and furniture to create ideal harmonies of light and volume and providing an inspiration and challenge to those who followed. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Giorgio Morandi, and Stuart Davis would likewise turn to the still life to hone their own explorations, rethinking their relationships to the past as they attempted to create work relevant in a world transformed by technology, new media, and, ultimately, two world wars.
At the same time that artists explored commonplace subjects, they also experimented with different techniques. One of these was collage, the attaching of found material to a two-dimensional surface. Early examples, from 1912 onward, incorporated paper, cloth, and other materials into the fabric of the work of art. Juan Gris, who had a close relationship in Paris with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, embraced the Cubist interpretation of form and space in order to develop his own interest in abstract compositions. In particular, starting around 1915, Gris focused largely on still lifes, alternating between natural representations and flat silhouettes of familiar objects. In Still Life with Newspaper, he used a smooth finish and dark palette with dramatic passages in white to depict a bottle, bowl of fruit, lemon, glass, and newspaper on a table. The clipping from L’Intransigeant recalls the artist’s first collages in which he used actual pieces of newsprint to allude to ordinary events.
Gris followed the example of Braque, who had employed the still life—and the tactile and transitory world of everyday objects—to conduct a lifelong investigation into the nature of perception. Along with collage, Braque began mixing sand and other particulate matter into his paints to enhance the surface texture. In Still Life with Grapes and Clarinet, an assortment of recognizable and abstract forms, set against simulated wood and marble surfaces, is transformed into a lyrical exploration of the relationships between line, shape, color, texture, light, and shadow.
Artists also employed various supports, or surfaces, for their compositions. For example, Marsden Hartley’s Wild Roses, with the white paper surrounding the flowers set against a brick-red background, was painted on Masonite, a board generally used in the construction business and often seen in the artist’s late works. The hard, smooth material was coated with shellac to create a nonabsorbent surface, making the layers of paint applied with brushes and a palette knife appear richer and glossier.
An array of novel arrangements and innovative techniques are presented in The Artist Sees Differently, which takes its title from the collector Duncan Phillips’s observation that “the artist on his way through the world really takes his time to look at it with rapture and wonder, to absorb its aspects to the utmost [so] that he may use them for their own sake or as material for abstract pattern.” In 1921, Phillips founded the first museum of modern art in the United States in his family home in Washington, DC. Phillips and his wife, Marjorie—herself an accomplished painter whose work is included in the exhibition—together presided over the museum for the next five decades, collecting and cultivating the work of forward-looking American and European artists whose work embodied new ideals of excellence in painting.
The Artist Sees Differently: Modern Still Lifes from The Phillips Collection has been organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. This exhibition at Princeton has been made possible with generous support from the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; and William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher through the Sakana Foundation. Additional support has been provided by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Betty Wold Johnson, through the Robert Wood Johnson III Fund of the Princeton Area Community Foundation; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Barbara and Gerald Essig; the Rita Allen Foundation; and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.