Life stilled on canvas — a vase of flowers, a Bible and half-peeled orange, the inner universe of a seashell — can sometimes tell as much of a story as a king’s portrait or sweeping landscape. And when such painted stories are collected together they might tell an even greater narrative, one of a relationship between a museum and its patrons and public and even the story of American art over 200 years. Such is the case of the recently opened exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection.
While this exhibition will be the first time many of these works by American masters such as Otis Kaye, Georgia O’Keeffe, James Peale, John F. Peto, Max Weber, and Andrew Wyeth have ever been on view to the public, it will not be the last time Houston art lovers will have the opportunity to admire them. Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs have pledged their private, Houston-based collection to the MFAH in honor of his mother, Bernice Hevrdejs.
The Inside Story
In a recent preview walk-through, MFAH director Gary Tinterow explained that this exhibition of 68 paintings illustrates the culmination of one behind-the-scenes museum mission that MFAH visitors and members probably have little knowledge of but later reap the benefits.
“What you don’t see us doing, but it takes up a big part of our lives, is advising collectors in the community, helping them form their collections, nurturing their interests, thereby learning about new areas of art history that might not have otherwise taken our attention,” Tinterow explained. “At the end of what is usually a 20 to 30, sometimes 40 years story, often – if all things go well – there will be a gift to the museum, and the public will then enjoy these works of art.”
Such was and continues to be the case with Michelle and Frank Hevrdejs, a life trustee and longtime chairman of the Museum’s Collections Committee. Kaylin Weber, assistant curator of American painting and sculpture, and organizing curator of the exhibition, explained how the Hevrdejs’ focus on American still-life paintings offers unique insights into the history of American painting as a whole.
“They have such a passion and knowledge for American art and have created this extraordinary collection that enables us to do something we very rarely get the opportunity to do,” said Weber. “To be able to have this singular focus on still-life painting as a genre and to really show the development, interests and themes over a 200-year period is extraordinary. We really hope that this will bring a story to our audience that they haven’t seen before here in Houston.”
The collection will eventually be interspersed with the museum’s own vast holdings of American art, and once intermingled, Tinterow also believes the museum “will be able to tell a formidable story that I think no other museum in the country can.”
Until then, viewing the works in the Hevrdejs Collection side-by-side as one exhibition might also give museum-goers a new perspective on what a still-life painting is and how the form has both radically changed and kept-fast to many traditions over 200 years.
An Epic American Art History
The first two galleries will likely seem familiar, even if some of the artists might be unfamiliar. As an audience, we likely have a vision of what still-life paintings are, those arranged everyday inanimate objects, the fruits, flowers, books, candles and even dead animals we understand as the kind of required subjects of still-life. These objects are indeed represented in the first two galleries, as many of the first American artists to attempt still-life painting were influenced by old Dutch masters. However, even these works hold surprises, as the presentation and the playing with light and composition makes each work unique.
The art in the first few galleries, the works by artists such as Raphaelle Peale, Martin Johnson Heade and William Michael Harnett, also allow visitors to see a tale told through images of American painting changing over the centuries within this one genre.
In later galleries, we see the rise of American Impressionism and beyond to Abstraction, American Realism into the diversity of very contemporary painting. As they grew their collection, the Hevrdejs widened the focus somewhat to select paintings, like Richard Edward Miller’s The Scarlet Necklace, which had strong still-life elements within other types of genre. And of course, with an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe and her astounding From Pink Shell, there is a kind of exploration into the interior of traditional object of still-life.
Those beginning gallery subjects —the flowers, fruit and table settings — reappear but in highly different forms.
“The objects haven’t changed,” Weber explained. “Just the way they’re being painted has changed.” And with this in mind, we might even make a connection through 200 years of time, and within just the space of a few galleries, from the beautiful circles of Raphaelle Peale’s orange peel within Orange and Book (1817) to delicious-looking, playful spirals of Wayne Thiebaud’s Jelly Rolls (2008).
Each work holds its own beauty but together they also tell a epic tale of American painting.
“This comprehensive collection of still life painting provides a marvelous insight into the story of American art,” Tinterow said. “Of how it derives from European traditions, how artists in American began to define themselves differently than their European colleagues and began to focus on elements that expressed their own identity and nationality.”
Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting: The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection remains on view through April 9, 2017.