White grapes? Check.
Red grapes? Check.
Peeled lemon? Yep.
More flowers than a bouquet offered by an apologetic husband the day after he forgets an anniversary? Got those, too.
A bird’s nest with three tiny eggs? Wait a minute. A bird’s nest?!?
The next time you visit the American Collections in the Museum’s Lower Level, take a look closely at Severin Roesen’s monumental still life of around 1852. It’s full of all of the objects listed above, from the expected to the unexpected.
And it’s all part of a very elaborate tradition of painting—with unexpected twists—that served this nineteenth-century painter very, very well.
Severin Roesen was born in present-day Germany, probably near Cologne. He left his country for the United States in the revolutionary year 1848, when political upheavals and failed attempts at unification rocked the 39 countries of the Germanic Federation and caused many intellectuals, political liberals, and craftspeople to leave their homes.
Roesen settled in New York. After four years there, he moved to Pennsylvania—which makes a certain amount of sense, as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (established in 1805) was one of the nation’s leading art schools and museums, which regularly exhibited contemporary art. At some point, Roesen learned about Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a small city in the north central part of the state. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Williamsport was one of the centers of the U.S. lumber industry. By 1862, when Roesen moved there, it claimed to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.
For the next ten years, Roesen found his groove working for the wealthy families of Williamsport. He made between 300-400 elaborate still lives, like the Museum’s painting, meant to decorate their elaborate mansions.
Although Roesen’s works participated in the long-established tradition of still-life painting, which dates back to antiquity but had its heyday in the the Dutch Republic (like the Jan van Os painting shown at right), Roesen gave his still-life paintings his own personal spin.
He frequently included signature items, such as the champagne flute and the bird’s nest.
Thus, when visiting one another’s houses, Williamsport’s elite knew that they were seeing the work of their own hometown painter.
And now you know how to spot them, too.
For other examples of European still life paintings, from slightly before Roesen to much later, visit the Museum’s permanent collection galleries to see more
In Gallery #6, you’ll find Still Life with Fish with other works of the Southern Baroque:
In the Upper level Bradley Galleries, you’ll find a Modernist still life with Munter’s painting:
In Gallery #16 on the Main Level, the level of abstraction goes one step further with Ben Nicholson’s 1948 Still Life, Crystal:
William Keyse Rudolph was the Museum’s curator of American art and Decorative arts, focusing on the Museum’s collections of American painting, sculpture, ceramics, glass, furniture, silver, and textiles from the 17th to the 20th centuries.