The American still life exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through Jan. 10) gives a fine view of how not only the art of painting but also the search for national self-definition has evolved.
Two centuries ago, when several members of the artistically illustrious Peale family were painting in Philadelphia, the new nation admired nature, science, and their interface with art. How much more noble than today’s national priorities, which seem to be drones, selfies, and screens of all sizes.
Judging by 19th century art, Americans once followed James Thurber’s dictum “Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around us in awareness.” Today, anger and fear seem to have risen to the top of the national consciousness, and awareness seems to have been largely exiled from public life to the advice columns.
A primary theme in the show is the enduring fascination with trompe-l’oeil painting (there are also good specimens in the Brandywine River Museum of Art). Trompe-l’oeil paintings are designed to “fool the eye” into believing it is really seeing dead ducks hanging on a hook in the kitchen, notes and tickets affixed to a bulletin board, and my favorite, a rectangular wooden box that, on one side, reveals a cat behind bars waiting to be shipped. One of the most famed paintings in the show is one with a real postage stamp and a painted replica, totally indistinguishable to the naked eye.
The audio commentary at one point pronounces the French trompe-l’oeil as Trump-l’oeil–too perfect not to comment on. Of course, many current politicians would approve, since knowing a foreign language (à la Romney or Kerry, both fluent in French) is frowned on in some circles in the era of “Freedom Fries.”
“Trump-l’oeil” seems an ideal metaphor for some of today’s leading presidential candidates. Their careers and candidacies are all about show and superficiality, and even when their subterfuges are found out, they just keep on pointing to the illusion, videos that they “have seen” but that do not exist, and that they hope will come to loom larger than the underlying reality.
Can we even distinguish an underlying reality any more? Perhaps the postage stamp painting is an elaborate hoax and neither stamp is real. It will be interesting to see, in the course of the next eleven months, whether Americans, in examining political candidates, can practice the lost art of distinguishing reality from deception, truth from illusion.
“The staircase group” by Charles Willson Peale, 1795, from Wikimedia Commons. This painting, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s permanent collection, is also in the still life show. The young painters on the staircase are two of the artist’s sons; it is said that when entering Peale’s studio to sit for a portrait, George Washington once doffed his hat to them (to the painting, that is).