DescriptionSEVERIN ROESEN (German, 1805-1882)
Still Life with Fruit and Flowers in a Landscape, 1850
Oil on canvas
36 x 29 inches (91.4 x 73.7 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: S. Roesen / 1850
The Stern Family;
Estate of Kathleen Stern-Fischer, Monmouth County, New Jersey, 2004;
This lot is accompanied by a letter from Dr. Judith Hansen O'Toole confirming its authenticity.
Opulent, majestic and strikingly theatrical, Severin Roesen's Still Life with Fruit and Flowers of 1850 is a superlative example of nineteenth-century still-life painting, and an exceedingly important work in the history of American art. Roesen, one of America's preeminent early still-life painters, created this masterwork in 1850, only two years after he arrived in the United States from Germany. Having descended through a single family since its original purchase directly from the artist, Still Life with Fruit and Flowers hung for generations in the family's estate in New Jersey, built around 1880 along the Neversink River.
Interestingly, relatively little is known about Roesen's biography. He was born in Germany around 1816 and exhibited in Cologne in 1847 before immigrating to America the following year, likely to escape the turmoil of the German revolutions of 1848. Trained in Düsseldorf as a porcelain painter, Roesen carried on this European tradition in his American canvases, imbuing his still lifes with a dazzling attention to naturalistic detail and bursts of brilliant color. Upon his first years in the U.S. between 1848 and 1852, Roesen sent eleven still-life paintings to the American Art Union, eight of which depicted flowers. Certainly, as a porcelain painter, Roesen would likely have been principally skilled in floral painting; however, mid-nineteenth-century American tastes favored paintings of fruit over flowers, which may have driven Roesen in this direction in his compositional choices.
In this dramatic vertical composition, Roesen depicts a luxurious floral bouquet and cornucopia of colorful fruit with naturalistic detail and brilliant illumination emphasizing the sculptural aspect of each object. The floral still life is arranged in a garden urn set atop a richly veined black-marble table top, which would have signified affluence to a nineteenth-century audience. Surrounding its base is an abundance of fruit piled so high as to almost obscure the vessel entirely, including an exotic pineapple on the left and a watermelon on the right, a combination seen rarely in Roesen's still lifes. Roesen's work during this period follows in the Dutch tradition of still-life composition popularized by Johann Wilhelm Preyer, the foremost painter in Düsseldorf at the time. Roesen was undoubtedly familiar with Preyer, who had visited Holland in 1835 and studied the works of Jan van Huysum and Rachel Ruysch and formulated his own carefully articulated style of still-life painting based on the Dutch masters. Preyer's influence resonated in the United States in the nineteenth century, due to both Roesen's canvases and the exhibition of Preyer's work at New York galleries, and an entire school of artists began to grow around these artists' compositional styles. (W. Gerdts and R. Burke, American Still Life Painting, New York, 1971, p. 61)
Roesen's lavish still lifes epitomized the upper-class tastes of the Victorian era. Capturing with abundant detail the most colorful and lush varieties of flowers and fruits, these canvases represented a joyous celebration of the splendor of earth's bounty. For Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, a sense of optimism, pride in the beauty and richness of their new nation, and thanksgiving for their newfound prosperity were all reflected in Roesen's still lifes. Just as the Hudson River School of landscape painters expressed their awe in the untouched picturesque wilderness by creating expansive, panoramic vistas, so did still-life painters, led by Roesen and others, render the bounty of flora and produce that the land had to offer its people.
Marking this painting as distinctive in Roesen's oeuvre from this early period are not only the unusual vertical format, but also the addition of the forested landscape, painted in shadowy earth tones to offset the brilliant luminosity of the still life. According to Judith O'Toole, the leading Roesen scholar, the present work is only one of two known from the artist's ten-year stay in New York City employing a landscape as a backdrop for the central subject, a device Roesen would use with more frequency in his later years upon moving to the rural mountains of Pennsylvania. Further distinguishing Still Life with Fruit and Flowers from any other of his works is the white temple-like building or gazebo set in the distance, which further enhances the sense of grandeur and fantasy of the scene.
Severin Roesen worked and exhibited in New York until 1852 when he moved to Pennsylvania, settling permanently in Williamsport, a booming lumber town. There he found a strong network of patrons among the prosperous merchants, lumbermen, and German immigrants. These clientele purchased Roesen's extravagant canvases to adorn their newly built homes, taverns, restaurants, and hotels. The artist's brightly-colored and crisply-drawn cornucopias became a standard for dining-room decoration in the nineteenth century, while also creating a lasting legacy in American still-life painting for decades to come.
Still Life with Fruit and Flowers has been recognized as one of the finest known works by Severin Roesen. With its grand scale, luxurious props and setting, and meticulous focus on naturalistic detail, this work is a timeless masterpiece that continues to astound audiences. A testament to the excitement and promise of a new nation, as well as the embodiment of a time-honored legacy of Old Master painting, Still Life with Fruit and Flowers stands as an integral part of American cultural history and artistic tradition.
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