Object of the Week: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup

Over the past several months, we have been rethinking how we present our historic collections of American art, and this has led us to consider some of the hidden histories behind some of our most iconic works. Take, for example, Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, a tiny jewel of a painting with some far-reaching tales to tell. Its subject—an arrangement of exquisite objects and mouthwatering fruit rendered so naturalistically to seem almost palpable—is outwardly straightforward and seemingly innocuous. That is, until you take a closer look.

Raphaelle Peale was one of the many artistic children of Charles Willson Peale, a formidable portrait painter and purveyor of knowledge famous for his many likenesses of George Washington. Peale-the-Elder had a vast collection of art, cultural artifacts, history, natural history, and prehistory (including, impossibly, a fossilized mastodon that he had taken upon himself to excavate from a Connecticut swamp), which he displayed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall as America’s first museum. He had high aspirations for his talented son, so you can imagine how disappointed he was when the younger Peale opted for the modest and intimate practice of still life over the more prestigious and public pursuit of history painting.

Yet, while unobtrusive in both style and substance, Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup offers clues that Raphaelle Peale shared his father’s fascination with natural phenomena and the world’s cultures. Its heightened realism reflects the humanism and empiricist pursuit of reason associated with the Enlightenment in America and Europe, while its accumulated objects reaffirm the expanding global awareness of the early 19th century. A porcelain creamer from China shares pictorial space with a Celadon dish from Korea, and together they stage a cluster of strawberries of the type cultivated on the Peale family’s experimental farm. Presiding over the scene is an African ostrich egg in a mount made of Bolivian silver, an object that would have been considered rare and exotic and therefore highly collectible in America. Below is a related example from the museum’s silver collection.

The popularity of ostrich eggs in Peale’s time reflects a centuries-long history of worldwide cultural exchange, for the form itself is echoed in the egg-shaped ivory salt cellars such as this one carved in Sierra Leone for the Portuguese elite during the Renaissance period.

The human cost associated with the trade in exquisite objects and the extraction of the materials from which they were crafted adds an additional layer to our story, and it is one that we are actively exploring as we continue to study our collections of American painting and silver. We invite you to watch this space for more on that front, and join us as we shape a new vision for American art at SAM.   

– Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Images: Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup, 1814, Raphaelle Peale, oil on wood panel, 12 1/8 x 19 3/l6 in., Acquired in memory of Ruth J. Nutt with funds from the General Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Art Acquisition Fund; the Kendrick A. Schlatter Estate; an anonymous donor; Thomas W. Barwick; Susan Winokur and Paul Leach; American Art Acquisition Fund; Patricia Denny Art Acquisition Endowment; 19th  and 20th Century Purchase Fund; the Council of American Art; Geraldine Murphy; and from the following donors to the collection, by exchange: Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection; Estate of Mark Tobey; Estate of Earl Henry Gibson; Paul Denby Mackie in memory of Kathleen Lawler and Nona Lawler Mackie; Estate of Mrs. Reginald Marsh; Estate of Hollister T. Sprague; Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Mrs. Brewer Boardman in memory of Mrs. Edward Lincoln Smith; Mr. and Mrs. Boyer Gonzales; Mrs. Frederick Hall White; Mr. and Mrs. George Lhamon; Ernest R. Norling; Mrs. Eugene Fuller; Milnor Roberts; Jane and David Soyer; Mrs. Reginald H. Parsons; Elizabeth Merriam Fitch and Lillian Fitch Rehbock; Mr. and Mrs. John H. Bolton; and Jacob Elshin, 2014.23Ostrich Egg Standing Cup, ca. 1790, John McMullin, ostrich egg and silver mount, height: approx. 10 in., Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2014.24.31. Salt cellar, ca. 1490-1530, Sierra Leone, ivory, 12 3/16 x 7 7/16 x 4 1/2 in., Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.189.

Object of the Week: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan

From very far away, one sees the softly rendered image of a still life, complete with various citrus fruits, root vegetables, and leafy greens. Their shapes are loose and open, lacking definition aside from the sharp color contrasts between the bright yellow of the lemon, orange of the carrot, and deep black of the background. As one moves closer to the work, peering intently at it, the fruits and vegetables in the window sill reassert their construction in a pointillist fashion. Each “brushstroke” turns out to be a dot of distinct color, contributing to the ambiguous outlines and shapes.

However, the work is not a painting with layers of dots of color. Rather, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz created Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, After Juan Sanches Cotan by layering cut and hole-punched paper scraps from magazines into a collage. To add yet another dimension to the work, Muniz then photographed the collage, which resulted in the final work: an enlarged chromogenic print. This photo is based on a still life by Juan Sanches Cotan, a notable Spanish Baroque painter, known for his austere yet deeply realistic still lifes.

The optical relationship between part and whole has been something that has interested Muniz for many years:

It’s like the fur in Vermeer’s painting of The Woman Reading a Letter at the Frick. You get up close and you can’t see fur anymore, just a blur of brushstrokes. Then you go back and it’s fur again. . . . I think art without pretenses of being more than a visual exercise can indeed be powerful and complete.1

Throughout his career, he has used elements such as sugar to construct portraits of children working on sugar plantations, peanut butter and jelly to recreate the Mona Lisa, and garbage to depict pickers in one of Brazil’s largest garbage dumps. His works connect past and present and create illusions of famous and recognizable works.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Vik Muniz, “Bomb Magazine: Vik Muniz by Mark Magill.” Vik Muniz. Accessed September 10, 2019. http://vikmuniz.net/library/vik-muniz-by-mark-magill.

Image: Still Life with Fruit and Vegetables, after Juan Sanches Cotan, 2004, Vik Muniz, Chromogenic print, 72 x 99 1/2 in. (182.9 x 252.7cm) Gift of Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Jane Davis, Barney A. Ebsworth, Henry and Mary Ann James, Janet Ketcham, Sally Neukom, Virginia Wright, and Ann Wyckoff in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa, 2004.93.


Object of the Week: Banquet Still Life

Broadly interesting human passions inspire remarkable works of art. That is why love, justice, spirituality, and food feature in so many great art collections.

Among foodie picture genres, the Dutch still life ranks at the very top, and at SAM, we have a fine example in Abraham van Beyeren’s 1653-1655 painting, titled Banquet Still Life. The picture overwhelms us with indulgence, offering up a visual feast. Working our way through the painting clockwise, starting at 12, we find: peaches, whole and sliced, red and green grapes, and a sliced fig overflowing a plooi, or pleated, silver platter; an orange and orange slice in a silver tazza, a kind of wide bowl on a stem; a small oyster and lemon wedge; a silver platter holding two pink shrimp and supporting a highly valuable, exquisitely decorated nautilus cup, tipped onto its side; a red pomegranate with a quarter section cut out, revealing its delightfully juicy seeds; a pocket watch and blue ribbon; candied orange peels in a blue and white Chinese porcelain bowl; a silver charger holding a knife, a half-peeled lemon, and a roemer, which is a German pouring vessel made of green glass, decorated with glass knobs called prunts; more bunches of red grapes; a small bread roll, with a hefty piece torn off; a roast chicken; two Venetian wine glasses half-full of white and pink adult beverages; and a silver wine ewer. Hungry much?

Banquet Still Life (detail)

Nearly lost in all the delicious foods and fine glassware and silver is a moralizing message. This is a luxurious meal that has been left abruptly, as we deduce from the half-peeled lemon, the broken bread roll, and the cornucopia of delicacies left unconsumed. At the center of the picture, the pocket watch ticks away time, reminding us that physical pleasures like this are fleeting, and that we should give our immediate attention to more substantial, lasting things. Was the artist fully convinced of that, I wonder?

The banquet still life as a genre was a product of its time, arising from a culture of display. In 17th century Holland, where marine trade brought goods and wealth into port cities like Amsterdam, newly rich Dutch citizens felt the need to show off their wealth. The term pronk—literally translated as flamboyance or ostentatiousness—describes that desire to display, to impress others. Banquet Still Life is a pronk picture if there ever was one.

Banquet Still Life (detail)

Van Beyeren and his peer painters of the foodie still life found an unlikely revival with artists of French Impressionism in the 19th century. In general, the landscape genre better suited the Impressionist goal of capturing candid moments of daily life with a sense of energy in the handling of paint. Still life had also been pushed to the margins of European art history and carried a less impressive legacy for the Impressionists to pick up on. So there are relatively few examples, but some of the Impressionists did work in still life—notably Cézanne and Manet—and they worked with the Dutch masters in mind.

Oysters by Eduoard Manet

Manet’s Oysters, on view at SAM in Intimate Impressionism from the National Gallery of Art, offers an illuminating comparison. Like van Beyeren long before him, Manet paints the shellfish and halved lemon with an eye to making them appetizing. Looser brushwork and a moody color palette show that Manet was less concerned with realistic representation and more interested in making artistic interventions.

These two schools of painting approached food from radically different perspectives: as a showy display of wealth and as a scene of private life; as a memento mori and as a celebration of the moment; as an opportunity to showcase precise skill in representation and as a chance to play with forms and paint. We can all come together around food.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGES: Banquet Still Life, ca. 1653-55, Abraham van Beyeren, Dutch. ca. 1620/1621-1690, oil on canvas, 42 1/8 x 45 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Samuel H. Kress Collection 64.146. Banquet Still Life (detail). Banquet Still Life (detail). Oysters, 1862, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 15 7/16 x 18 7/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Adele R. Levy Fund, Inc.