Sunrise among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport

Sunrise among the Rocks of Paradise, Newport by John Frederick Kensett

Do you embrace being a tourist or try to blend in with the locals?

Kensett cultivated potential patrons during his frequent visits to Newport, Rhode Island, a summer resort town popular with the wealthy. A natural businessman, he perceived a ready market for views of Newport’s pristine coastline and landscape among those visiting the fashionable resorts. This quiet scene—a meticulous study of nature under the suffused effects of morning light—records the subtle beauty of the region’s inner harbor.

Singing Beach, Manchester, Massachusetts

Singing Beach, Manchester, Massachusetts by Martin Johnson Heade

Where have you encountered the most stunning sunset?

Here we see the power of the ocean and our inconsequentiality before it. The beach appears to be deserted and the fringe of white foam at the water’s edge, typically all but invisible in the harsh glare of midday, glows under the low light of dusk. Figures are visible in the distance—two men sit in a small rowboat—but they are dwarfed by nature’s expanse.

Still Life

Still Life by Henry D. Morse

How do artists create the illusion of space?

In this painting of three freshly killed game birds—a fowl and two colorful ducks—one sees patiently detailed treatment of the birds’ luxuriant plumage, still glossy and vivid, as well as frank attention to the way that game is hung up to drain after beheading. Morse’s painting evidences connections to the earlier 17th-century Dutch tradition, but there is also a matter-of-factness more characteristic of 19th-century American still lifes.

Study of a Pipe and Other Objects

Study of a Pipe and Other Objects by William Michael Harnett

What does this painting reveal about the artist’s process?

This striking oil study is a deviation from the more polished still-life tradition, and one of hundreds made by 19th-century painters. This work allows us to better understand the artist’s techniques and compositional strategies by observing his thought process as he worked through the problems of individual objects. Each element has a slightly flat quality that allows it to occupy its own iconic space, which may unintentionally make Harnett’s study look rather modern to contemporary eyes.


Upset by Joseph Decker

Have you ever found beauty in a mistake or accident?

The title of this painting playfully describes the state of an overturned container. We are invited to look carefully at the spilled contents of a white open box. In this tightly compact, horizontal image, a dizzying variety of candies are proffered for the viewer: multicolored and variously shaped, shiny, jellied, sugar-encrusted, caramelized, cubed and ovoid, candied, paper-wrapped, transparent, and opaque.

Still Life with Pitcher, Candle, and Books

Still Life with Pitcher, Candle, and Books by John Frederick Peto

Do you read online or prefer turning the pages of a book?

In this picture, Peto returned to his favored allegorical subject of books in various states of disarray and decay. One book stands and catches a ray of direct light, only to reveal its peeling, wordless spine; the back cover of another thick and stubby volume literally and figuratively hangs by a thread. The Industrial Revolution was well underway when Peto painted this scene—these neglected objects are shown as remnants of a bygone past left behind in the wake of progress.

The Slate: Memoranda

The Slate: Memoranda by John Haberle

What tools do you need to learn?

The dimensions of this small painting depicting a writing slate make the representation life size, which makes the trompe l’oeil effect feel even more realistic. The text reads: “My last slate at Wavertown. FRED,” hinting at a bygone adolescent life. At the lower left, hovering over the artist’s own printed signature, is a crude stick figure–a schoolboy doodle–that underlines its vulgar distance from the “real” artist’s virtuosity and elevated status.

Salmon Trout and Smelt

Salmon Trout and Smelt by Samuel Marsden Brookes

What trophies represent your achievements?

Brookes’s body of work mostly consists of the still lifes of game and fish for which he became well known and quite successful. The artist gave serious attention and rendered with painstaking skill the features of his captured animals. In this painting, two enormous salmon trout are presented at life size; the scale suggests the artist’s respect for his subject. Additionally, the painting also could have served as a permanent fishing trophy.

Oranges in Tissue Paper

Oranges in Tissue Paper by William Joseph McCloskey

Which foods do you treasure?

A study of contrasts, this painting displays multiple textures: crinkly paper, smooth wood, rough peels, and juicy orange fruit. The passage of time is suggested by the various stages in which the oranges lie; wrapped and unwrapped, peeled and unpeeled, a virtual timeline of the fruit’s consumption. They are also depicted like precious objects, which were wrapped and shipped to the East Coast from the citrus groves in California.

Still Life with Ducks and Vegetables

Still Life with Ducks and Vegetables by Thomas Hill

What makes this still life American?

A celebration of spring’s rich abundance of colors and tastes, this tour de force still life demonstrates Hill’s technical skills. It is a trophy painting, in both the effort of the painter and the affluence of the patron’s table. While the virtuosity of Hill’s painting evokes the 17th-century Dutch still-life tradition, this feast for the senses glorifies hearty and diverse American foodstuffs: asparagus, cabbage, radishes, carrots, lettuces, and onions.