At first glance, still life may not seem like the most adventurous art form—it’s largely fruit bowls and flowers, right? But the practice holds a secret: Given its preoccupation with objects, this artistic study doubles as a reflection of the items we hold dear enough to immortalize. This fact is on full display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this winter in their exhibit “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life”—and the implications are a bit alarming.
When I walked into the 175-year survey of American still life late this fall, I was greeted by a pair of Carolina Parakeets (stuffed, of course; the birds are extinct). On the wall behind them was John James Audubon’s 1825 folio illustration featuring seven parakeets, contorted every which way—a kind of scientific cubism meant to show the birds’ anatomy from every angle. The work feels more like natural history than art—and that’s intentional, explains exhibit curator Mark Mitchell (who's now curator of American paintings and sculpture at Yale University Art Gallery).
“You can’t think…that still life is just flowers on a table,” he says. “The project forces you off your laurels right off the bat.”
Scientific illustration isn’t really considered still life nowadays, but in the 1800s, science and nature were central to American culture, so it followed that natural subjects became fodder for art. As naturalists were racing to describe America’s wildlife—think Lewis and Clark, or Audubon and his catalogue of birds—artists were producing detailed portraits of plentiful garden harvests, rabbits, or a bowl of blackberries.
Within a few decades, however, native flora and fauna were replaced by lush bouquets of flowers pulled from different regions and seasons “that have no business being together in the same display,” Mitchell says. Bottles of booze, desserts, and delicacies like oysters abound. Oranges roll across a countertop, freed from the paper wrapping that accompanied them from California to New York. These paintings riff on traditional still life arrangements, but rather than depicting what’s growing nearby, they highlight the luxuries that can be bought at the store.
“We’re accustomed to having oranges 365 days a year, no matter where we live,” says Mitchell. “This culture that we inhabit is very much indoors and separate from the cycles of nature.”
This shift becomes even more apparent as the exhibit continues—Charles Sheeler’s Rolling Power (1939) depicts the wheels of a luxury steam-powered train, while Gerald Murphy’s Watch (1924-1925) shows the internal workings of a clock in bold metallics. Both zoom in on objects responsible for industrialization: Behind every fruit-covered table is a complicated delivery system most orange-eaters didn’t even need to understand.
By the early 20th century, natural objects are few and far between, but when they crop up, they’ve been pushed through the looking glass. The novelty of Georgia O’Keefe’s magnified flowers attract viewers to the natural world through extremism, and a 1931 painting by Charles Sheeler shows a cactus in the process of being photographed. It’s a still life painting inside a still life painting—the camera and lighting are on equal footing with the plant.
This painting felt a bit familiar: I call myself a nature lover, but many of my observations of it are made through a screen. And when I do get outside, I’m sure to set up for the perfect photo (to share, of course). If Sheeler was around now, what would he paint? How many layers of screens and distance could he fit?
The final gallery presents Marcel Duchamp’s ceramic urinal in a glass case, and Andy Warhol’s stacked boxes of Brillo Pads—the final step in the journey from nature to, well, not nature. Warhol’s sculpture doesn’t even feature Brillo Pads themselves—just the logo.
“In our day and age it’s easy to become somewhat jaded about the nature of our experience,” says Mitchell. “It’s no longer me and the world; it’s me and the image of the world.”
It’s a fair point—and one that the exhibit makes it so profoundly that it’s easy to come out the other end a bit stung. (Though lest we get too nostalgic, let’s remember that Audubon painted his parakeets from birds he shot dead—so that wasn’t exactly the peak of natural experience, either.) And while I don’t know what would need to happen in society at large to move us from Brillo pads back to birds, I do know that after this exhibit, I’ll never look at a bowl of fruit quite the same way again.