Let us praise the still life.
Landscapes may be vaster and nudes, of course, are sexier, but the humble still life -- of apples on a table or flowers in a vase -- has virtues of its own.
What still lifes lack in grandeur they make up in sweetness. They are manageable pictures, restful and domestic. Even when painted in the most bravura manner, still lifes soothe the soul.
"The Object as Subject: American Still Lifes from the Corcoran Collection," on view through April 1 there, is a delightful picnic of a show.
Sunlight glints on silver in many of these paintings, dew drops bead fresh blossoms, a memory of ritual, a timeless sense of plenty, hovers round this show. Most still lifes suggest altars that serve spirits that are nourishing and kind.
Although it is a survey -- it opens with a Charles Bird King, circa 1815, and closes with a 1973 work by Washington's Franklin White -- this teaching exhibition is not at all pedantic.The art of painting still lifes, like that of conversation, lends itself to wit.
The trompe l'oeil of Charles Bird King, for instance, is called "Poor Artist's Cupboard." There, beside his crust of bread and his glass of water, is a pair of well-thumbed volumes. One is called "Advantages of Poverty"; "Pleasures of Hope" is the title of the other.
The 1882 William Michael Harnett on display nearby is comparably amusing. Though a "trophy picture," it is less triumphant than sardonic. Instead of showing game, duck, a brace of pheasant, it portrays a freshly plucked rooster.
Something about still life is reassuringly familiar. We contemplate them every time we stare into a coffee cup, set the dinner table, or neaten up a desk. Still lifes, because still, permit profound examination. The cubists' absinthe glasses, the sunflowers of van Gogh and the apples of Cezanne, could be seen intensely because they did not move.
Warhol's soup can is a still life, so are the ashtrays heaped with "fag ends" modeled by Claes Oldenburg and the toothbrushes and lamp bulbs drawn by Jasper Johns. The genre is not new, it was old in olden Rome. The American tradition these artists are extending first flourished in the early 19th century in the Philadelphia of Charles Willson Peale.
James Peale, Charles Willson's brother, is represented here by a bowl of fruit, and pears and grapes, painted circa 1820. Though later still life painters often beautified their apples, James Peale did not hide their blemishes and spots.
Though their styles vary greatly, their subjects are so similar that the pictures on display here invite close comparison. How do Peale's pears differ from those painted by Severin Roesen? How do painters as diverse as John F. Francis, Walter Murch and William Merritt Chase depict the way light gleams on pewter, silver, brass?
Susan Rasmussen Goodman, the intern at the Corcoran who organized this show, has filled her lengthy labels with cross-references and anecootes. We read that William Merritt Chase did not buy, but merely rented, that large English cod. The fish was fresh when painted, its thick lips are still moist, but one wonders what it smelled like when at last it was returned.
When Chase, who taught Charles Sheeler, visited the Armory Show in New York in 1913, he was so offended by the flower still life Sheeler had submitted that he broke off their friendship. Sheeler's lurid picture is included in this show.
So, too, are two father-and-son paintings by Emil and Dines Carlsen. Both of them are lovely. The son, Dines, painted "The Brass Kettle" when he was just 15.
Of the paintings on display here, there is none more haunting than "The Birthday," a still life done by Walter Murch in 1963. Though its surface brings to mind the messiest abstract expressionist paintings of the post-war New York School, the spirit of his picture is altogether different.
"The Birthday" is a painting in which chaos marries stillness. Murch's paint is dripped and splattered, but his glowing still life -- of a candlestick, a bowl of fruit, a shining silver cup -- remains a picture painted with immaculate precision. In some peculiar way this still life conquers time. It manages to link the sharply focused still lifes of the 17th century Dutch with the freely brushed abstractions of Willem de Kooning that are now on display in the Corcoran Biennial upstairs.