As a new transplant to Philadelphia, I’ve been reveling in the city’s myriad science museums and historical institutions—from the Franklin Institute to the Please Touch Museum (which I’ve written about for the blog), from the Chemical Heritage Foundation (newly merged with the Life Sciences Foundation!) to the Mütter Museum. Philadelphia, in short, is a historian of science’s dream city. A few weeks ago, though, I took an artistic turn to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s stunning new special exhibition “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life.” More than one hundred works of still life cover the exhibition’s dark grey walls, ranging from natural history illustrations of the eighteenth century to pop art installations of the 1960s. Lured into the exhibit by promises of Audubon’s enormous birds and taxidermied specimens, I was absolutely entranced by the range and variety of the works, which came together to paint a persuasive picture of the inextricable links between art and science in America.
The exhibit has drawn attention in the art world not just because of its size and quality, but because it’s the first major showing of still lifes in the U.S. for more than thirty years. Curator Mark Mitchell conceives of still life in an inclusive (sometimes a bit confusingly so) way. Promising, on the exhibition’s website, that audiences will “experience the simple beauty of everyday things,” still life is here defined as depictions of objects typically left unexamined, somehow representative of ordinary American culture and daily life, oftentimes intended to evoke a sense of intimacy and domesticity. Some of the objects hearken back to those featured in famous Dutch Golden Age still life paintings—food, drinks, luxury goods, and realistic-looking insects. Most of the objects depicted in the exhibit, though, seem particularly American. Dividing the works into four “ways of seeing,” roughly chronologically, Mitchell and the other curators have identified epistemological and ontological trends in American science and culture, represented in still lifes: describing, indulging, discerning, and animating.
The first trend, “Describing (1795-1845),” is the most obviously related to natural history—and to Philadelphia’s own cultural history. Beautifully written wall plaques introduce the audience to Enlightenment reasoning and to the city’s famous Peale family, whose presence dominates the exhibit. Audubon, strangely, barely makes it into the display—despite being named in the title, only a few of his enormous and realistic birds appear. Placed next to some (unattributed) taxidermied parrots, lying stiffly in a glass case, Audubon’s breathtaking Carolina Parrot (c. 1828) steals the show—and the production materials advertising the exhibit. Better represented, though, is the compelling story of the long-ruling, scientifically and artistically immersed Philadelphia Peale family, from Charles Wilson Peale’s establishment of the first museum in America to Raphaelle Peale’s hugely successful oil paintings of natural objects. Commendably, the artistic women of the Peale family—Margaretta and Sarah—also make it into the exhibit. In a series of masterfully curated works, the history of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, and its transatlantic prominence, reigns supreme. It’s easy to see, in these still lifes of books, animals, plants, and imported luxuries, how scientific culture was communicated across oceans.
The next three trends turn away from natural history, landing their gaze increasingly on the built, the purchased, and the mechanic. “Indulging (1845-1890)” features a radically urbanizing, consumptive culture. Amidst waves of immigration and a growing American consumer class, paintings become richer, more decadent, and full of excess. Things, in the traditional sense, dominate these overwhelming rooms. Fruit is brighter and more exotic, alcohol and oysters feature prominently, and “parlor amusements” take on a scientific tint—aquaria and microscopes bring up questions of new ways of seeing. Post-Civil War, though, the exhibit becomes slightly more anxiety-ridden. “Discerning (1875-1905)” turns away from such explicit consumption, playing, rather, with tricks of light and technology. The curators focus heavily on the interplay between beauty and observation, and between truth and illusion. In one room, the audience is invited to sit down in a subtly recreated American bar, where William Michael Harnett’s 1885 After The Hunt takes up an entire red-curtained wall.
The last room of the exhibit, “Animating (1905-1950) brings a playful, even humorous eye to collections of objects. Surrealism takes its digs at mechanization, and the lines between natural and unnatural are blurred. Stunning paintings of mechanical objects (Charles Steeler’s 1939 Rolling Power steam locomotive, for one) are hung close to Georgia O’Keefe’s sensual, feminine flowers. Modernity, movement, and mechanization have led to new types of collections, seemingly not so far from Peale’s carefully curated collections of natural objects at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Although the exhibit is wide-ranging—perhaps to a fault—the themes that run throughout are compelling, and worth thinking about in the context of American science. In the vein of eighteenth and nineteenth century natural history, I was most intrigued by the questions the works raised about ordering and arrangement in a city dominated by cross-cultural encounter and movement; how did American painters and collectors, the curators seem to ask, view natural objects as part of nation-building, as part of transatlantic communication, as part of urban growth? How did they approach the (potentially nonexistent) boundary between art and science, and between the real and the unreal? By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, narratives have changed to navigations of consumption and a striving for simplicity. Technology, as well as both domestic and imported luxury goods, take over the still lifes of natural objects slowly, subtly. Movement, perhaps unexpectedly, becomes central to the still life. Throughout the entire exhibit, issues of class and gender (questions of race are notably absent) shift and upset. Although audiences might struggle to see how pop art classifies as still life (I was particularly confused by the exhibit’s ending on Lichtenstein), Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964)—a rethinking of a collection of everyday objects if there ever was one—is revelatory when considered next to a collection of long-dead parrots. Historians of American science (i.e., US!) would do well to swing by the exhibit before it ends in January. Art, this exhibit demonstrates, might be a particularly helpful way to pull back the curtains on the place of science in broader culture.
The details: “Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life” is running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from October 27, 2015-January 10, 2016. Tickets are required, and can be purchased online or in person. For more information, visit the exhibit’s website.