3 The Simple Pleasures of Still Life

While American artists continued to study in Europe and interact with European artists, they also made their paintings distinctly American, by considering American taste, values, and experiences within their compositions. Rather than following the tradition of allegorical and moral symbolism as in Europe, American still life painters turned towards what images would best represent the new nation of America.

Prior to the 1870s, American still life focused on natural elements, continuing the theme of abundance that can be found in American landscape paintings. Still life gained popularity after the Industrial Revolution, as the American economy began supporting a wealthy and culturally educated class that had the desire to support the arts. Not only did still life give viewers images of the natural world, but also created portraits without people; still life during the late 19th century would often include material possessions, which showed off the wealth and opportunity of industry in America. It gave viewers a unique look into the life of the man or woman who commissioned the painting, creating both national and personal identities.

Still life continued to be a mode for American artists to show their technical prowess as equal to Europe, as can be seen in the work of The Providence School painter Emma Swan (1853-1927). Having studied in Europe, like many American artists, Swan was able to draw upon both past and contemporary artists to create paintings of flowers and fruit that illustrated the abundance and beauty that America saw as its own in the 19th century.


Brockett, Erik. "Art Focus: American Still Life -- Part 2 -- The Late Nineteenth Century by Erik Brockett from Antiques & Fine Art Magazine." Art Focus. Antiques and Fine Art Magazine Online.

Gerdts, William H. "The Influence of Ruskin and Pre-Raphaelitism on American Still-Life Painting." American Art Journal 1.2 (1969): 80-97. JSTOR.


Still Life Featured Artists & Paintings

Emma Levinia Swan
Dean of RI Women Artists