Floral Still Life
oil on canvas
30 in. x 24 in. (76.2 cm x 60.96 cm)
Henry Melville Fuller Fund,
Surprisingly little is known about Severin Roesen, whose exuberant still-life paintings are among the finest in American art. Available evidence suggests that Roesen was born in Germany, possibly in Cologne, where he is recorded as having exhibited a flower piece in 1847. Shortly thereafter he left Germany for the United States, probably owing to the turmoil surrounding the revolutions of 1848. Roesen settled in New York City and began showing his work at the American Art-Union, exhibiting there from 1848 until the organization ceased operation in 1852. In 1851 the artist married fellow immigrant Wilhelmina Ludwig, with whom he had three children. They lived together in New York until 1858, when the artist inexplicably left his family and moved to Pennsylvania.
After spending periods of time in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Huntingdon, Roesen established himself in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he found a ready clientele among local lumber magnates. He remained in the city for about ten years, living in hotels, boardinghouses, and with patrons until 1872, when he completed his last dated painting. After 1872 Roesen's name disappears from the Williamsport directory. His whereabouts as well as the time, place, and circumstances of his death remain unknown.
The Currier's Floral Still Life is believed to have been painted about 1860, not long before Roesen arrived in Williamsport. Vertical in format, the composition features a spray of multicolored blossoms emerging from a glass vase set on a tabletop. In the lower left, there appears a small bird's nest containing five bluish eggs. Amid the blossoms, one may make out the diminutive forms of a housefly and a small white butterfly. As with most of Roesen's still lifes, there is little sense of depth or space. The floral elements seem to be pressed against the picture plane, set off from the dark ground by a high-keyed palette and bright colors.
Like those of his contemporaries in the genre, Roesen's still lifes are inspired by Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century. Floral subjects were a distinct category in Dutch art of this period, in part owing to the notorious tulip craze that had swept Holland beginning in the late sixteenth century. Dutch flower paintings emphasized the spectacular, stressing the quantity, visual impact, and often the rarity of the depicted blooms. Specialists in the field included Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94-1657), Jan Davidsz. de Heem (c. 1606-1683/84), and, above all, Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), who was widely regarded as the greatest of the flower painters. Roesen had most likely seen works by these or other artists during his formative years in Europe, and he patterned his own compositions after them.
Improbably balanced and literally spilling out of the vase, the dramatic upsweep of blossoms was a favorite arrangement in the work of many Dutch artists and is closely mirrored in the Currier's Floral Still Life. Bird's nests appeared from time to time in Dutch flower pieces, notably in paintings by van Huysum and his father, Justus the Elder (1659-1716).(1) More common were the figures of various flying insects, which Dutch artists liberally scattered throughout their compositions.
Like its Dutch counterparts, Roesen's Floral Still Life seems to celebrate abundance and material wealth. At the same time, however, it embodies cautionary reminders about the transience of human life and the mutability of fortune. Although the blossoms in Roesen's painting are fragrant and beautiful, their lifespan is brief. The eggs in the nest embody hope for the future, yet they are fragile, and it is uncertain whether they will hatch. Absorbed in the endless industry of foraging and pollinating, Roesen's insects are unaware of their own pitifully short existence. Then as now, Americans wavered between reveling in materialism and reflecting on the higher meanings of life. Still-life painting offered them the best of both worlds, and thus Roesen and many other artists found themselves able to support themselves on this genre alone.
It is unlikely that Roesen painted from life when composing his flower and fruit pieces. The plants depicted in Floral Still Life do not bloom at the same time of year, and an examination of Roesen's oeuvre reveals that the artist frequently repeated compositional motifs as well as subject matter. Floral Still Life is one of a group of similar paintings, nearly all of which include a bird's nest, rosebuds, and large pink-and-white rose blossoms. Dahlias and blue morning glories are among the secondary blossoms that are repeated in other paintings by the artist. Art historian Judith Hansen O'Toole has suggested that Roesen's use of a stock array of pictorial elements and compositional strategies points to possible training as a decorative artist.(2) If Roesen did in fact embark on such a career, it would at least partially explain why so little information has come to light regarding his early work in Germany.
As is often the case with Roesen's extant works, Floral Still Life is neither signed nor dated. Comparison with dated examples, however, suggests that the painting was completed about 1860 or perhaps slightly earlier. It is possible that it may have been executed while the artist was in Philadelphia, as it has a record of ownership in that city. The Currier Museum of Art acquired the painting in 2002.
1. See, for example, untitled flower paintings by Jan van Huysum (1726, Wallace Collection, London) and Justus van Huysum the Elder (n.d., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp).
2. Judith Hansen O'Toole, Severin Roesen (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992), p. 23.
William H. Gerdts. Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939. Ex. cat. Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, OK, 1981.
Peter Mitchell. European Flower Painters. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1973.
Judith Hansen O'Toole. Severin Roesen. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1992.
2006-2007 Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, Extended Loan of European and American Paintings. Aug. 2006 - Nov. 2007.
2010-2011 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "The Secret Life of Art: Mysteries of the Museum Revealed." Oct. 2, 2010 – Jan. 9, 2011.
Descended through private collection
Private Collection, until 2000
Babcock Galleries, New York, NY, 2000
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 2002