Object Story: Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers, and Cornucopia

Object Story: Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers, and Cornucopia - Body

What Is a Still Life?

A still life is a painting or other depiction of an arrangement of objects. The objects in a still life are often small enough to fit on a tabletop and traditionally consist of household items like vases, flowers, fruit, and other food.

Still lifes became a popular subject for Dutch artists in the seventeenth century. In the Dutch style, subjects like fruit, animals, and shiny objects often symbolize the temporary nature of life. Sparkly treasures are shown to be impermanent in many paintings, which is meant to impart moral lessons to viewers. A painting may be a warning that life is short, death is inevitable or a warning not to be seduced by wealth and vanity. For centuries, artists working with still lifes all around the world have repeated or referenced these same themes from Dutch still lifes.

Painting with spray of flowers in a vase at the center top above a watermelon and basket, with various fruit like grapes and peaches spread around the bottom.

Many of the objects in the Fielding Collection such as Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers, and Cornucopia attributed to Joseph Proctor are often considered “folk art.” Some people prefer to use related terms like “naïve,” “vernacular,” or “nonacademic” instead of “folk.” All of these terms describe work by artists who may not have had extensive, formal training or decided not to follow the teachings and ideas of traditional art instruction. Often, these artists rely on their own experimentation or local knowledge about how to make things.

This still life is attributed to Joseph Proctor, which means that we are currently not certain that he made it. While not much information is known about Proctor, records show that he was an African American artist born in Maryland in 1786 and that he married a Sophia Plater (also born in Maryland) in Washington D.C., in 1814. Their whereabouts are not known until 1850, when Joseph and Sophia appear in the New York City Federal Census with a seven-year-old named George Stewart, born in New York City, as part of their household. Proctor's occupation is listed as "artist" or "painter," which is how he characterized himself in the New York City directories at various addresses on Mercer, Laurens (now West Broadway), and Elizabeth Streets in Lower Manhattan from 1851 through 1856, then again from 1858 through 1862. Little George is no longer listed in the 1860 census, perhaps suggesting that he died in the intervening years. After 1860, the family is no longer to be found in the New York City census records or directories.

Tiered counters with abundance of fruits in bowls and baskets and spilling onto the surfaces.

This still life by Severin Roesen includes many of the same elements as the still life attributed to Proctor. Both include slices of melon, grapes, and other fruit overflowing from baskets and dishes. They both even have a pineapple resting off to the side. Birds are also part of each painting, with a delicate yellow bird perched on grape branches in the painting attributed to Proctor and a small nest with eggs on the table in Roesen’s painting. Despite these similarities, the paintings look very different.

While art historians do not know a lot about Roesen's early life and training, his work is not considered folk art like Proctor's. Some of the characteristics that distinguish his painting style include his treatment of perspective. All of the objects in the painting are proportionate to each other as they would be if someone was looking at the scene in real life. In comparison, in the folk art painting, some objects are too large or small in comparison to other objects nearby. Roesen also pays close attention to light and shadow, applying and blending paint precisely to make the objects seem like they have weight and volume. In the folk art still life, the light and shadows are less true-to-life and more uniform.

Still life watercolor on paper made from stencils; a white footed basket holding grapes, pears and other fruit that fills and overflows out of the container.

Theorem Paintings

Proctor's still life is one of three strikingly similar still lifes, suggesting a common source for the compositions, though differences in technique and spatial manipulation indicate that two artists were at work. Given the close similarities, it seems likely that whoever painted Still Life with a Basket of Fruit, Flowers, and Cornucopia was using a pattern or template.

Using stencils of baskets, fruit, and other objects was a popular way for even amateur artists to make their own still lifes. Paintings made with stencils were called “theorem paintings.” In nineteenth-century America, young girls often made theorem paintings as part of their education in the arts. Although many critics thought theorem painting was too mechanical to be considered true art, works like Still Life with Fruit Theorem Painting from around 1830 show that theorem painting could allow amateur artists to use a great deal of care, skill, and creativity.

Painting of tablescape with segmented cake on a plate, nuts and a pastry bun on the table, delicate glass full of wine and leaves of a plant in the background.

Many of the young women who were making theorem paintings did not have access to the rigorous and time-consuming training that taught artists to make unique and subtle paintings like Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Wine, Cake, and Nuts from 1819. Peale came from a family of painters and specialized in painting sensitive and complex still lifes. In the Peale family however, women like his cousin, Sarah Miriam Peale, were able to receive the education and training necessary to become a successful professional painter.

Whether folk art, theorem paintings, or still lifes by professionally trained artists, these paintings all direct our attention to the kind of education an artist received. Discussions about an artist’s life invite questions about how much an artist’s personal biography should affect interpretations of their art. Should we decide what to think about a work of art from the work of art alone? Or is it important to know about the person who made the work of art, too?

Questions for Discussion

  • Do you think it matters whether artists learn how to paint in a rigorous art academy, or whether they are self-taught? Why or why not?
    • Does knowing the training of a painter or artist affect your judgment of their work?
    • Does knowing with certainty the identity and life story of an artist impact your experience of an artwork?
  • What does the term "folk art" mean to you? Brainstorm a list of criteria that defines folk art. Apply those criteria to evaluate the featured still lifes or others.
  • Which of the still lifes shown above appeals most to you? Explain why.