What American Art Can Teach Us About American History

American stuff is the stuff of American history, as recorded in still life painting.

What American Art Can Teach Us About American History

English speakers commonly translate the French nature morte as “still life,” but a more accurate translation would be the oxymoronic “dead life.” Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, brings the American still life tradition back from the dead to say something about the American past, present, and future. From the very beginnings of American art in the early 19th century, still life’s taken the stuff of Americans to illustrate the stuff of American dreams and memory. These “object lessons” allow the “talking dead” of inanimate objects to animate debate about what we once were and hoped to become as well as what we are today as a nation and people.

As Bill Brown points out in the catalog to the exhibition, the European tradition of still life, specifically the Dutch tradition, “convey[s] a milieu of spectacular excess,” whereas “the particular and particularizing work of American still life extracts objects from the object cultures in which they participate.” American still life invites introspection and deep reading beyond sensual, surface delight by holding up our possessions to examine the hold they possess on us. “Just as trivial objects had focused the dispute that led to the politically independent state,” Brown continues, “so too they focused assessments of the cultural independence of the nation.” The taxing of things ignited the American Revolution, in other words, but all the smaller American revolutions grew out of our consumer culture as well, from owning slaves to owning guns to owning computers.

Still life’s traditionally found itself on the bottom of the genre totem pole. “From the beginning, American still-life painters labored under a burden of disrespect,” Carol Troyen explains in the catalog. How could flowers or a plate of delicacies compete with grand history paintings of big events? Audubon to Warhol argues that still life painting IS history painting, but the history of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, the masses rather than the elite. “If we really want to know what is going on in this country, the artists, curators, critics, and scholars of still life have told us,” Katie A. Pfohl argues in her essay. “We had best set our sights low, since it is often — both then and now — through its stuff that America really speaks.” By setting its sights low, Audubon to Warhol sets its sights high on targeting essential truths about the American experience.

  • Image: Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. Rembrandt Peale, American, 1778-1860. Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 24 inches (71.4 x 61 cm). Framed: 35 1/4 × 31 3/8 × 2 3/16 inches (89.5 × 79.7 × 5.6 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1985.59.1.
  • Philadelphia’s the perfect venue for celebrating American still life as not only “The Birthplace of America,” but also the birthplace of the genre as practiced by Americans, first and foremost by the Peale family, led by patriarch Charles Willson Peale. Peale passed down his dual loves for art and natural history to his sons and daughters, especially the artistically named Raphaelle, Rubens, and Titian. In Rubens Peale with a Geranium (shown above), Rembrandt Peale captures his near-sighted, naturalist brother with a botanical specimen. Such works capture the precision and exactitude of the Peale family approach to still life as well as the human component. At that moment in early American history when the young country began discovering not just the untamed wilderness to the West, but also the untamed elements of within democracy, such still life spoke of more than just young men and flowers.


  • Image: Flower Still Life with Bird's Nest, 1853. Severin Roesen, American (born Germany), 1816 - c. 1872. Oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches (101.6 x 81.3 cm). Framed: 51 × 43 1/2 inches (129.5 × 110.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Purchased with support from the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. McNeil, Jr., the Edith H. Bell Fund, Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, the Center for American Art Fund, Donna C. and Morris W. Stroud II, Dr. and Mrs. Robert E. Booth, Jr., Frederick LaValley and John Whitenight, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Nyheim, Charlene Sussel, Penelope P. Wilson, the American Art Committee, and with the gift (by exchange) of Theodore Wiedemann in memory of his wife, Letha M. Wiedemann, 2010.
  • As “Manifest Destiny” bloomed across the continent, artists captured this flowering of American life. Severin Roesen's Flower Still Life with Bird's Nest (shown above, from 1853) captures this exuberant feeling as Americans began to consume the landscape as part of the larger continental conquest. Yet, at the same time that it shows off, Roesen’s still life looks in. Each flower partakes of the “language of flowers” well known through the 19th century, but forgotten today. Together, the bouquet speaks symbolically in a complex, multifaceted way. Touchscreens in the gallery near this painting invite you to “say it with flowers” to compose a floral self-portrait based in which your personality is symbolized by certain floral connections. The paintings in this section deceive you with flash and color hiding a lingering undertone of introspection that runs throughout American still life’s history.


  • Image: After the Hunt, 1885. William Michael Harnett, American, 1848-1892. Oil on canvas, 71 1/2 x 48 1/2 inches (181.6 x 123.2 cm). Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Gift of Henry K.S. Williams.
  • The Civil War changed America forever, with still life reflecting that change. Antebellum excess gave way to austerity and trompe l’oeil illusionism, as exemplified by William Michael Harnett's After the Hunt (shown above, from 1885). As much as it blurred the line between the real and illusory, After the Hunt likewise blurred the line between fine art and mainstream culture. Exhibited in a New York City saloon, After the Hunt served as a “game changer,” curator Mark D. Mitchell explained at the press preview, by making still life a spectator sport of sorts and making questions of seeing and believing public concerns. Mitchell recreates the saloon parlor experience with seating that invites modern viewers to ask the same questions today that late 19th century Americans asked as they tried to piece back together the fractured union.


  • Image: Reminiscences of 1865, 1904. John Frederick Peto, American, 1854-1907. Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm). Framed: 41 7/8 × 31 7/8 × 2 1/4 inches (106.4 × 81 × 5.7 cm). Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Julia B. Bigelow Fund by John Bigelow.
  • The illusionism of Harnett and the other great American illusionist, John Frederick Peto, tempts you to touch the paintings to confirm what is and isn’t real. American still life continually tries to come into contact with the present and how the past lingers on through objects flavored by memory. Reminiscences of 1865 (shown above) evokes memories of “Honest Abe” Lincoln, but from the year 1904 “in an informal shrine that includes his engraved portrait and his life dates carved in positive and negative on a green-painted door,” Mitchell observes. Looking back from the corruption of 1904, Peto may be nostalgic for the political good old days, yet still conscious at least in part of the dirty politics that led to Lincoln’s death. Such an arrangement of suggestive totems literally opens a door onto the past that speaks volumes about the present.

    Walking through this exhibition of the “talking dead,” I couldn’t help but be conscious of the languages we’ve lost. We can no longer “read” the flowers in Roesen’s still life. We can no longer even read the meticulously reproduced musical notes in Harnett’s The Old Violin. The exhibition does a wonderful job of reclaiming lost voices of women (including the Peale daughters Sarah and Margaretta) and African-Americans (most notably Robert Seldon Duncanson) to fill out the larger American narrative in still life, but even it cannot help us recover and rediscover these lost languages that make up the larger language of how we relate to things as Americans. Twenty-first century Americans no longer have “hands on” knowledge of nature and culture, to our tragic loss.


  • Image: Brillo Boxes, 1964. Andy Warhol, American, 1928-1987. Screenprint and ink on wood, Each: 17 x 17 x 14 inches (43.2 x 43.2 x 35.6 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, acquired with funds contributed by the Committee on Twentieth-Century Art and as a partial gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1994. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
  • Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, as promised in the title, concludes with Andy Warhol and Pop Art, the modern art movement dedicated to raising questions about the consumer culture we’ve built by fetishizing even Brillo Boxes (shown above) and their garish advertising scheme. The introspection begun with Peale ends in the introspection of Pop. Yet even this endpoint in Warhol feels not so much as an ending as a new departure. What is the still life of today? More importantly, what does it say about us as Americans now? Paint gives way to pixels. Lost languages give way to virtual reality. What is the typical Facebook page — built from the fragments of everyday life in photos, links, and “likes” — but our own personal still life? Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life succeeds in waking us to the “talking dead” of the past, far and near, but may also succeed in waking us to how we’ve lost touch with the world around us and, consequently, what being an American is supposed to be.


    Bob Duggan has Master’s Degrees in English Literature and Education and is not afraid to use them. Born and raised in Philadelphia, PA, he has always been fascinated by art and brings an informed amateur’s eye to the conversation.

    [Image at top of post: Reminiscences of 1865 (detail), 1904. John Frederick Peto, American, 1854-1907. Oil on canvas, 30 x 20 inches (76.2 x 50.8 cm). Framed: 41 7/8 × 31 7/8 × 2 1/4 inches (106.4 × 81 × 5.7 cm). Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Julia B. Bigelow Fund by John Bigelow.]

    [Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for providing me with the images above from, other press materials related to, a review copy of the catalog for, and an invitation to the press preview for the exhibition Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, which runs through January 10, 2016.]

    [Please follow me on Twitter (@BobDPictureThis) and Facebook (Art Blog By Bob) for more art news and views.]

    A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

    An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

    Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
    Surprising Science
    • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
    • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
    • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

    The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

    Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

    "It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

    The Barry Arm Fjord

    Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

    Image source: Matt Zimmerman

    The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

    Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

    Image source: whrc.org

    There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

    The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

    "This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

    Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

    What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

    Moving slowly at first...

    Image source: whrc.org

    "The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

    The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

    Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

    Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

    While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

    Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    Image source: whrc.org

    The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

    "To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

    In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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