Still Life: Reckoning with Time
By Shantay Robinson
Still life paintings have historically been recognized at the lowest rung in the hierarchy of genres of art. While history painting ranks number one and portrait painting ranks number two, still life is at the bottom, with genre, landscape, and animal painting ranking higher. Given this low regard, still life painting has meandered in and out of fashion over the past five centuries. Its origins, in the contemporary sense, are in the Middle Ages and the Ancient Greco-Roman eras. Though the genre was categorized and popularized by early Europeans, still life paintings can be found in the tombs of Ancient Egypt inspired by the belief the images would become real and available for sustenance in the afterlife. Though less lofty in modern times, still life has taken many formations and variations. Artists like Picasso and Braque brought inanimate objects like musical instruments to life with a Cubist transformation to the traditional still life. Duchamp created 3-D readymade still life artworks. And Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans made still life en masse.
Although still life painting has wavered in popularity over time, African American contributors to the canon of still life paintings have not been highlighted in the way artists of other genres have. When looking at the scholarship on the history of African American artists, still life painting is rare. But a closer look reveals they were there, are there, and have contributed greatly to the genre. Generally regarded as decorative art, African American still life painting may be less favored by collectors and art institutions because so much of the story African Americans tell is not typically represented in still life. But still life paintings tell their own stories. In European traditions, they told the stories of ephemerality and the sacredness of life, as some still life painting show rotting fruit or include images of skulls along with vegetation. The term still life was derived from the Dutch word stilleven and, in Italian, the term used is natura morta, both meaning ‘dead nature.’
Most recognizable still life paintings include fruit, vegetables, and flowers in bounty. They allude to rich natural resources and, in that way, appealed to a certain audience when in fashion in European countries like Spain, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. European cultures regarded the still life for its use of religious symbols, flowers, and other objects. But the beauty in still life painting is further regarded for its trope l’oeil or deceptive nature. The ability to make the inanimate objects in the painting fool the eye is a skill mastered and used before the age of photography. Even today, though photography is rampant, the artist’s ability to trick the eye is a highly valued skill as witnessed through the popularity of portrait paintings by African American artists. Despite its low regard, still life painting can exhibit the superior skill of an artist in the same way as any other genre.
Charles Ethan Porter
One of the most revered African American still life painting artists was Charles Ethan Porter. Born in 1847 to free Black people in Connecticut, Porter gained notoriety by using the genre to gain collectors when the genre was in vogue. After moving to an art circle in Hartford, Connecticut and selling enough art to take a trip to Europe to develop his skill, he returned to a town and a society that had moved past their interest in still life painting. Porter became destitute and for the remainder of his life would barter paintings for food and shelter. But over the past 20 years, his work has been collected by Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others. In 2016, two of his painting were rediscovered in Seattle and hung prominently at the Seattle Pacific University Library. Porter maintained a relationship with Mark Twain, who was one of his collectors. In a letter to Twain in 1883, he wrote, “I am aware that there are a goodly number of my Hartford friends and others who are anxious to see how the colored artist will make out.” Porter goes on to say, “But this is not the motive which impresses me. There is something of more importance, the colored people — my people — as a race I am interested in, and my success will only add to others who have already shown wherein they are capable the same as other men.”
Malvin Gray Johnson
Malvin Gray Johnson, born in 1896, moved from North Carolina to New York City with his family and enrolled in the National Academy of Design. As the youngest of the Harlem Renaissance painters, his Federal Art Projects work documented Black folk of the south. Johnson won several prizes including the Harmon and Otto H. Kahn prizes. Influenced by Cubist and Impressionists, his work is labeled as Symbolic Abstraction. Although Johnson created traditional still life painting that could easily fit into the western art historical canon, he also painted African masks, as he studied African sculpture. The Metropolitan Museum writes, “While these masks might have been intended for the art market from their inception, for the artist they embodied a meaningful and powerful image of Africa.” Johnson used still life painting to connect the African American experience to Africa through his aesthetic choices and subject matter.
William H. Johnson
Another great painter who created a collection of still life painting is William H. Johnson. Born in South Carolina in 1901, Johnson is most famous for his colorful Modernist paintings but also has a variety of still life paintings held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Johnson moved to New York City at the age of 17 to attend the prestigious National Academy of Design. After schooling in the U.S., he traveled to Paris to study and met his wife Holcha Krake. When he returned to the states, he earned the Harmon Foundation gold medal in Fine Arts for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. Johnson’s life was filled with tragedy. His work was trapped in a house fire, his wife died from breast cancer, and he was diagnosed with a syphilis that hindered his mental and motor function. He spent 23 years of his life in Central Islip State Hospital. Fortunately, his work, left unclaimed in storage, was saved by friends who delivered them to the Harmon Foundation.
James A. Porter
James A. Porter, born in 1905, is an artist and art historian who taught at Howard University for more than forty years. He also included still life in his oeuvre. Porter and his wife Dorothy, a librarian at Howard, were partners in his business of historicizing African American art. He is well-known as being the author of the first comprehensive study of African American art, the Modern Negro Art. But he was a celebrated artist in his own right. His painting, Still Life with Peonies, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. According to the exhibition catalogue for African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, and Beyond, “In Still Life with Peonies, Porter combined a background that is, like that in Soldado Senegales, an homage to Matisse, with the small image of one of Porter’s own paintings and the floral acknowledgement of his wife’s professional accomplishments. The work stands as a summative statement of the couple’s life together and Porter’s philosophy of art.”
Contemporary Still Life Painters
Today, still life painting exists among African American artists in diverse artistic iterations. They embody some Cubism, some Dutch influence, and Impressionistic value. Works by Keith Mallett, Brenda Joysmith, Irma Stern and Patricia Clements all share the genre but are distinguishable by their stylistic renderings. Keith Mallett uses musical instruments, African masks, and geometric shapes to create sharp collections of objects that speak to African American artistic identity. Brenda Joysmith’s approach is more traditional. The rendering of the inanimate objects of fruit, sculpture and earthenware are more realistic, but she does infuse African iconography like kente cloth into her paintings to appeal to Black viewers. Irma Stern takes an impressionistic approach to painting vegetation using bright colors and bold brushstrokes reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh. Patricia Clements’ still life paintings are more Modernist with their bold colors and somewhat flat renderings of fruit and flowers.
Though still life painting is a genre that wavers in popularity, African American artists have always had a hand in contributing to the canon of this genre with their own stylistic flair. Still life may not seem to tell the viewer much about the culture in which the artwork was painted, but it does tell us some things. They refer to the stylistic choices of the day. They reveal to us the proclivities of the artists. And they signify the temporality of life. When African American artist create still life paintings, they are not attempting to fit into western norms that dictate what art should be. African American artists have historically created still life paintings that reflect the aesthetic milieus of African American values. Though the market for still life wavers with the needs of collectors, still life paintings are nonetheless timeless.
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Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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