Joseph Decker, who painted "Ripening Pears," was born in Germany in 1853 and died in Brooklyn, in obscurity, in 1924. For a while in the mid-1880s he painted yummy still lifes. This one has just been given to the National Gallery of Art. It's both reminiscent and predictive. Its reminders of mortality (the pecked-at fruit, those stinging wasps, the insect-nibbled leaves) recall the warnings of life's fleetingness seen in 17th-century Dutch still lifes. At the same time, Decker's even, all-over composition -- 41 pears, none more important than any of the others -- suggests a 20th-century field painting. This eye- convincing image looks microscopically detailed, but that's an illusion. Look closely at the light-green leaf to the left of the feeding wasps, and you'll see the painter's fingerprint. There are many more -- the surface is covered with them. He didn't use a tiny brush. He pushed the paint around with his forefinger and thumb.

-- Paul Richard

"Ripening Pears" is a gift from Ann and Mark Kington, the Kington Fund, and the Avalon Fund. Decker's still life hangs in the West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, in gallery 69A.