Things and things to come

Still life painting developed in the seventeenth century in Protestant Northern Europe. No longer obliged by church hegemony to make their works serve sacred, codified ends, painters turned their attention to the unsignifying reality of mundane things. The fascination of pictorial illusion was no longer necessarily subordinate to religious or other edifying purposes, and began to become something of a theme in itself.

Things seen in paintings could now be taken simply as what they appeared to be: a knife became a common kitchen tool instead of a reference to the martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. A demand for the matter-of-fact vision common to Dutch still life paintings emerged from the newly prosperous middle classes of the Netherlands, with their unabashed interest in worldly things. Partly in an effort to enliven a format that might easily become banal, still life painters imposed new meanings on their compositions, designating them allegories of the senses or of mortality.

In America at the turn of the nineteenth century, painters found themselves in a position curiously parallel to that of the seventeenth-century Dutch artist. The first two generations of American artists had tried imitating the conventions received from the European tradition, but those conventions had been sustained by the patronage of court and aristocracy, social institutions that had no real counterparts in the New World. The generation of artists to which Charles Bird King belonged was spurred to try to reconcile the European artistic heritage with the American context in which the social basis for art was still forming.

King made his reputation as a painter of portraits of Indians for the government. The irony of his specialization was not lost on him, and he painted two still life pictures that comment humorously on the situation of the artist in the new nation. One of these is ''The Anatomy of Art Appreciation'' (also titled ''The Vanity of the Artist's Dream''). In this work, King made the most of his prerogative of putting anything he chose into a still life context. He contrived the work so that it would have at least a double meaning. Any nineteenth-century spectator who saw the work might understand even by its title a rebuke to the artist's vanity of thinking that his work will win him a kind of immortality. His artist contemporaries would have understood as well that he intended to comment upon the vanity in hoping for recognition from his living countrymen who understand little or nothing of artists' motives and reward them accordingly.

Purporting to be a view directly into an artist's storage cabinet, King's picture is crammed with items hinting at his view of the fate of fine art in America. In a satire upon the convention of the ''memento mori,'' the reminder of mortality, he has attached a list headed ''Sheriff's Sale'' detailing the effects of a deceased artist. The list includes several paintings, one described as ''Roast Turkey and Beef (painted from recollection),'' and a bushel of potatoes. The crust of bread in King's composition, juxtaposed with high-flown volumes such as Pleasures of Imaginationm and The Vanity of Wealth,m suggest the difference between the literary and culinary diets of the artist.

King's picture is also memorable for being one of the earliest examples of trompe l'oeil still life in American art, a mode that would become fashionable later in the nineteenth century. Characteristic of this mode is the rendering of objects' actual size and their apparent protrusion forward of the canvas into real space. King seems to have meant us to understand the heightened illusion of painted things as yet another facet of the artist's vain ambitions.

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