Genre moved from symbol to act of beauty

January 28, 2001|By Glenn McNatt

Still lifes, the representation of inanimate objects such as flowers and fruit, have been painted since ancient times as decoration, but the genre didn't come into its own until 17th-century Holland, where it served to convey powerful religious, moral and social symbolism.

As Beth Archer Brombert notes in her biography "Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat," Dutch still lifes of tables overloaded with food symbolized the new society of men producing goods on the free market for their own profit, rather than for their feudal lords. Images of skulls, clocks and soap bubbles were a reminder of the transitory nature of life.

Manet inherited from Dutch masters such as Pieter Claesz the genre's technical brilliance and beauty, though not necessarily its social and religious significance. Affluent Parisians bought cut flowers as bouquets for entertainment and courtship. And flower paintings, being less expensive than historical scenes or portraits, were also popular as decoration.

Manet painted still lifes both to display his technical mastery and to attract potential buyers, who were often loathe to purchase the artist's more controversial works. In general, his still lifes are more emotional than their Dutch and Flemish predecessors because of the way he used color to intensify the forms, which seem to exist in a timeless realm of clear, beautiful light.

Manet's favorite flowers were the peony and the white lilac, which he cultivated in the garden of his family's property at Gennevilliers. These flowers appear in the poignant still lifes that were among the last pictures the artist painted before his death.

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