Genre and Still Life Painting
Object-Martin Johnson Heade, Still Life with Apple Blossoms in a Nautilus Shell
Known primarily for his American landscape images, Martin Johnson Heade produced an abundance of decorative still life and tropical flower paintings throughout his career. In Still Life with Apple Blossoms in a Nautilus Shell, an array of luxury objects surrounds a spray of apple blossoms displayed in a large seashell vase. The composition is characterized by contrasting patterns that hint at its metaphorical content. On the left, the rigid lines of a fancy box counter the curving shapes and velvety textures of a gold-fringed cloth. The string of pearls and ivory fan at right accentuate the soft, luminous texture of the damask fabric draping the table. Subtly alluding to the growing material wealth of the industrializing North, these contrasts suggest the contradictions and conflicts underlying American society during the Gilded Age.
Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.
Still lifes evidently meant a great deal to Martin Johnson Heade, as he painted some 300 of them—nearly half his oeuvre. The works appear at times obsessive, the artist returning repeatedly to the same motif with slight permutations, as is the case for his several dozen renditions of apple blossoms. These pale and evanescent flowers typically announce the spring season but also promise a transformation into autumn produce—a promise that goes unfulfilled in Heade’s interior world, where the branches are prematurely cut from their trees before they bear fruit, and are transported into closed Victorian parlors.
Heade’s interior still lifes are some of the strangest American paintings to emerge from the decades following the Civil War. Vibrant, domineering flowers loom awkwardly in stubby, undersized vases or impossibly attenuated, lacy vessels. Bulbous frosted jars glow murkily from within, contributing to the matte, muffled atmosphere suggested by the surrounding velvet drapes. Objects appear uncannily swollen, upsetting expectations of scale with their spatial incongruities. Light is changeable, sometimes harsh and direct as it pierces darkened interiors, sometimes more diffuse and caressing. A surfeit of patterns, textures, objects, and saturated colors often overwhelms the senses, creating murmuring and suggestive contrasts that compete for attention with the central bouquet. These plangent arrangements can seem anxious, too eerily perfect, pushed to some higher coefficient of materiality.
Still Life with Apple Blossoms in a Nautilus Shell is one of the most elaborate and insistent of these compositions, with its careful arrangement of luxury objects encircling the vase. Each surrounding element is tantalizingly cut off by the painting’s edges, and in the case of the enameled casket, much of it is obscured by the thick blue cloth. The ivory fan teases similarly, its blades parted only enough to reveal a tiny portion of its colorful decoration. There is a perceived heaviness throughout, as surfaces are covered: the velvet over the box, the rich damask hiding the tabletop, the white lace curtain overlapping the diaper-patterned wallpaper, which in turn, conceals the wall itself. Lessons in gravity abound in the cascade of gilt fringe, the drape of the silk thread attached to the fan, or the catenary of the pearl necklace hanging from the lip of the tazza.
In contrast to these partially viewed, downwardly oriented items, the luminous glass and metal vase and its spray of apple blossoms expand to fill the available space, its burgeoning contour uninterrupted by any neighbor. Here there is movement and dynamism, with the slender tendrils of the base arcing in one direction (a single metallic bud gesturing toward its fallen organic sibling) and the growth rings of the nautilus countering that curve. The vase is ghostly and two-dimensional, but the leaves and blossoms unaccountably explode in three dimensions; it seems scarcely possible that they could sit within their flattened, delicate container. While the intimate objects of the lady’s glove, necklace, and fan evoke the hand, neck, and face of an unseen human protagonist, in the end it is the hovering apple blossoms that truly animate the painting.
Provost and Under Secretary for Museums and Research, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC