Iam looking at a painting by the American artist Lennart Anderson, a still life from the 1960s. It’s a simple work: five objects arranged on a table top. A loaf of bread, a terracotta jug, a red pear, a funnel and a shape I can’t identify. The painting is a rare achievement of balance and spacing. No two objects are placed in the same relation; every interval is considered. The jug is positioned in the dead centre, but there is a pink strip of vertical cloth on the far right of the canvas to break the symmetry and throw the curve of the table into relief. The colour values are harmonious too, what Anderson called ‘kissing colours’ – values so close that you can ‘hardly tell them from one another, hardly tell them apart’.*
In a painting from the 1990s, Still Life with Corn Popper, Anderson again takes five unprepossessing objects and arranges them on a bare counter. The contrasts here are livelier. The foil balloon of the corn popper shines beside a pair of soft hot cross buns, a salt shaker and a peach. The handle of the popper protrudes about an inch above the table, giving a sense of space and depth, telling us something about scale (we now know just how far that salt shaker stands from the edge of the table). The peach seems obdurate in its peachiness. The motif invokes Chardin, but without overt allusion, affect or irony.
In still life painting, the set-up is everything. For Giorgio Morandi, the process of composition was every bit as important as the painting itself: ‘It takes me weeks to make up my mind which group of bottles will go well with a particular tablecloth. Then weeks thinking about the bottles themselves, and yet often, I still go wrong with the spaces. Perhaps I work too fast.’ In preparation for my own painting, I buy two purple-top turnips and a black radish and put them in a black bowl. I like the brightness of their white undersides and the idea of black flesh against black ceramic – kissing colours. They need movement and pattern and texture: fabric would work well, so I drape a chequered tea towel over one corner of the chest of drawers I am using as a makeshift table. Both the ‘table’ and the walls are white, which will be difficult (whites always are). A wooden surface would be much better.
I look through a viewfinder to get a sense of the crop. Satisfied, I start to paint. I think about the big relationships: how light for how dark, how high for how wide. I try to mix a rich black – ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, Windsor violet and raw umber. It doesn’t work. It’s such an effort to think abstractly – to remember that painting is a matter of volumes and tones, of temperature and edges. I’m not really looking. I’m just trying to make a picture. The result is so conventional, so descriptive; not a composition but a contrivance. The turnips are ridiculous. I’ve never bought them before. They just looked like the sort of thing that ought to be in a painting.
I try to improve things by simplifying the set-up. This time, I opt for white daffodils and an unglazed, earthenware mug. It’s one of the few nice pieces of crockery I own and makes me a little more alert to my own sentimentality: I seem to be affecting a Provençal rusticity. I wonder whether a regular mug would do. In any case, the motif interests me. The light is diffuse, the colours concentrated around the mid tones; I want to get the harmony between the green mug, the white petals and the pink filaments. Squinting helps to eliminate any unnecessary detail and unifies the tones. Mixing the whites is difficult. Too much pigment and they won’t be radiant; too little and they’ll look bleached. I remember what my teacher, Israel Hershberg, liked to say to students too excited by the effects of white: ‘You don’t have a tube of sunlight.’ It’s always a compromise.
The painting begins to work. I have three spots of good colour. I try to resist the urge to resolve them into objects. I use a palette knife to flatten the marks so that I can see them clearly. I don’t want to hide behind gesture or fancy brush strokes; if the colour values aren’t right, I need to know. I haven’t got anything close to a composition, but I’ve got a set of relationships that feel coherent. A start.
‘Do studies, not pictures. Know when you are licked – start another. Be alive, stop when your interest is lost.’ This was the advice of Charles Webster Hawthorne, the founder of the Cape Cod School of Art. In Hawthorne on Painting (1938), a collection of his teachings put together by his students after his death, there is no shortage of good advice. ‘Do the obvious thing before you do the superhuman thing … Swing a bigger brush – you don’t know what fun you are missing … It is so much better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one . . . Painting is just like making an after-dinner speech. If you want to be remembered, say one thing and stop.’
Lennart Anderson was a product of this pedagogical tradition. Edwin Dickinson, the most celebrated painter to emerge from the Cape Cod School, was Anderson’s teacher at the Art Students League of New York in the 1950s. Dickinson had been a pupil of both Hawthorne and William Merritt Chase, who introduced the concept of the premier coup to American art schools. Unlike a sketch, a premier coup is intended as a work of art in its own right. Executed in a single sitting, it may share the unfinished properties of a preparatory study, but must succeed or fail on its own terms. The time constraint is crucial because it forces the painter to make a series of rapid decisions on the basis of observation and perceptual experience. Dickinson described this as an attempt to reach the ‘pre-naming’ state of pure seeing. If the artist chose to pursue the idea in the studio, the premier coup would provide all the necessary information. ‘The general would never come from the particular, but the particular was included in the general,’ Dickinson explained. That’s another reason squinting helps.
I looked again at Dickinson’s still life premiers coups. Chair, Skowhegan I (1956), now in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, depicts a wicker chair leaning at an angle on the studio floor. At first glance, it’s unrecognisable. The shift of perspective is destabilising; Dickinson knew exactly how to confound his and our preconceptions. But it doesn’t take long for the chair’s anatomy to come into focus: the curve of the legs, the splayed frets of the back and the hollow beneath the seat. Here, form is realised but never rendered – that is, he doesn’t try to tell you what’s there. How did Dickinson achieve this compression? It wasn’t just by looking, or at least not by looking in a single way. There are so many different modes of perception at work. You can sense where he has painted with his peripheral vision, so that the image appears as if in the corner of the eye. You can feel instinct and intellect coalesce when he decides to articulate the hard edge of the seat in a single stroke, and when he averts his gaze, allowing the shadow to paint itself rather than forcing it into existence. Dickinson knew how misleading darks can be. If you look straight at a shadow, you’ll start to see all sorts of tones that aren’t really there.
I abandon my own painting. I know I am trying too hard. I can’t mix a single clean note, there isn’t enough paint on the palette and I am becoming sloppy – using the nose of an old hard brush to jab at a globule of paint. A familiar scene. I don’t attempt another still life. Instead, I return to self-portraits and interiors that I invent in the studio. I use a mirror and the Old Masters as my source material. Sometimes, an element of still life finds its way into a painting – the edge of a table, a plant, a vase – but always in a supporting role. I look at reproductions of the Villa Livia frescoes in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome and marvel at their treatment of the flora and fauna of the garden. I don’t know whether they are landscapes or still lifes or something in between.
Renaissance frescoes and altarpieces, especially the predella panels of Piero della Francesca’s Polyptych of St Anthony (1460-70), appear to me in their conception and construction to be closer to the world of still life than that of narrative painting. My favourite shows St Anthony resurrecting a child. It measures 36 x 49 cm – modest dimensions not dissimilar to those adopted by the still life artist. The floor could easily be a table, the child’s cot a loaf of bread, the red blanket a dishcloth. I notice the architrave mouldings and the vessel on the shelf that cast shadows and tell us about the direction of light. It is such a subtle lesson in how to handle the problem of the whites. And it is, of course, a still life within a still life.
It isn’t clear to me why, compared to history paintings or portraiture or landscapes, still lifes pose such difficulty. I reassure myself by thinking of Wallace Stevens’s line: ‘It is not every day that the world arranges itself into a poem.’ In writing about art, Stevens recognised that the poet was anything but a passive observer. As a student, I was always taught to look rather than to think, but still life painting seems to confound this wisdom; moments of intense scrutiny so often yield disappointing results. Could it be that looking isn’t enough, that arrangement or imagination is key? Or is it that the concentration required by working from observation only rarely, and only for some artists, transforms the literal into something revelatory? In any case, I now have the makings of an interesting soup.