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Still Life with Fruit and Champagne

Not on view

Still Life with Fruit and Champagne

Artist: Severin Roesen (Prussian, 1815-1872)

Date: 1853
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 30 x 44in. (76.2 x 111.8cm)
Framed: 36 x 50in. (91.4 x 127cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'S.Roesen / 1853'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 82.53
Text Entries

Severin Roesen chose to sign and date very few of his canvases, a fact that can be interpreted as an indication of the artist’s satisfaction with a particular work. Only two canvases from 1853 are recorded, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art’s Still Life with Fruit and Champagne and Flower Still-life with Bird’s Nest (Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr., Los Angeles).

Both paintings were executed five years after Roesen’s arrival in New York City, where he, like many other German artists, had fled to escape the political turmoil of mid-century Germany. Roesen came to this country at a time when the Dutch still-life tradition was becoming popular in New York through exhibitions of the work of artists such as Johann Wilhelm Preyer. Following his arrival, Roesen’s paintings appeared regularly in the exhibitions organized by the American Art-Union, a contemporary indicator of the popularity of the artist.

While Still Life with Fruit and Champagne contains motifs from his first known paintings, it is one of Roesen’s earliest New York pictures to exhibit both stylistic and thematic elements characteristic of his mature period in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, c. 1860-72. These include the use of a horizontal format and the arrangement of two dark, marble tiers extending from the right side of the canvas and ending just before the left side.

The white epergne appeared in Roesen’s work as early as 1850 but with an unornamented stem; in the Utica painting Roesen decorated the pedestal with carved cabbage roses and morning glories, whimsically alluding to their living counterparts in his floral compositions. Another painting, dated 1851 (The White House, Washington), includes an open-work basket, which would become a standard motif in Roesen’s fruit still lifes, sometimes filled with peaches as in the Utica example, and at other times containing an assortment of fruits.

Roesen’s first dated work, a floral still life of 1848 (Corcoran Gallery of Art), depicts a profusion of flowers composed around a gentle s curve. His later work is more robust and compact, while at the same time more stable and frontal. As in the Utica painting, the objects are lined up along the picture plane with more emphasis on shape and color, and less interplay between foreground and background. Here a unifying diagonal, which also serves to enliven the composition, is created by the wonderfully elegant line of the grapevine, which runs from the upper right to the lower left of the painting.

It is certain that Roesen did not work directly from life; too many of his themes reappear throughout his career of twenty-four years, while few new motifs are introduced. In the Utica painting, Roesen’s willingness consciously to alter nature to enhance his composition is apparent in the cluster of purple grapes at the lower center, which appear as if they have sprouted from a vine of white grapes.

Evidence of Roesen’s early training as a painter on enamel can be seen in this picture’s precise execution, polished surface, and glowing color—characteristics that are all reminiscent of that decorative medium. The rendering of detail on such a large scale is remarkable as is the effort to evoke textures and qualities specific to each element in the composition. The lemon rind, for example, is realistically pockmarked and rigid, while the thin, luminescent membranes of each grape look strained and ready to burst with juice.

At the same time, however, Roesen’s close observation of the structure of strawberries results in a schematic presentation resembling tiny, unappetizing pinecones. The flourishes of the vine tendrils and the ubiquitous dew drops seem somewhat contrived, but certainly add to the sensory delight of the picture.

This dichotomy is typical of Roesen’s work, causing some critics to feel that he successfully imitates nature, while others feel that his work is artificial. In actuality, he epitomizes what Barbara Novak has described as the American ability to be creationist and evolutionary (1) by romantically celebrating the mystical side of nature while simultaneously subjecting it to close botanical scrutiny.

Notes

1. Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism and the American Experience (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969), pp. 213-14.

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