Emil Carlsen Archives is a Non-profit organization running the world's largest visual archive of the work of painter Emil Carlsen [1848-1932]

“Pots and Pans or Studies In Still-Life Painting” by Arthur Edwin Bye, 1921, pages 213-222

January 1, 1921


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Emil Carlsen is unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today.  It would be unwise to say he is the most highly gifted master of the art in Europe and America, because it is impossible to judge in this way of one’s contemporaries over so wide a field.  But to one who has been interested in still-life painting for years, and observant of what is going on in the world, it is evident that Carlsen has lifted the his art to a height it has never reached before.  This is a strong statement, but it can be well supported.  Doubtless many modernists will not agree to this, on the grounds that Carlsen’s art is obviously based on the Dutch and on Chardin and therefore reflects the past, whereas a virile art, which seeks to be an expression of modern times, must discard past conventions and strike out on entirely new lines.  There need be no quarrel with this opinion.  The writer’s attitude toward the new movements in art is one of observant respect.  The work done by Independents, especially in still-life, is interesting; whatever may be their permanent influence in figure painting, they have already opened up new fields in decoration.

But Carlsen is as modern—as independent as anybody.  With old materials he has given a new interpretation to still-life—a more difficult and a more certain accomplishment than can result from experimenting with new theories, new processes.

We can apply to Carlsen our original tests for what good still-life painting ought to be.  Is his art the expression of profound experiences, visions, emotions?  Are his still-lives interpretations of these experiences?  Do we, the beholders, share in the artist’s experiences?

One cannot help but feel, after studying several examples of Carlsen’s still-life that the painter experiences in his work emotions of an aesthetic character more profound  than those of any of the great masters of still-life painting, from Chase and Vollon, back through Chardin to the Dutchmen.  Objects delighted the eyes of these men; their outward semblance, their form, their coloring, their textures, were possibilities for them as elements for design.  But objects have a more mystical meaning to Carlsen; they delight his outward eye as they do any painter, but Carlsen has an inward eye, a faculty for discerning all that anyone else ever saw, but more—a rhythm and music and poetry, a serenity and dignity and sublimity which makes his still-life groupings classic.  When gazing at a Carlsen still-life one falls into the same contemplative mood as one does before Perugino—or sometimes one feels the mystery experienced before a Leonardo.

One wonders why—until one remembers that it is not necessarily the subject matter that contributes to one’s mood.  What leads one to contemplation before a Perugino is the abstractness of Perugino’s viewpoint, which, by his own methods consists in broad over-arching skies, a very fine balance of forms and spaces and immobility in his figures.  What baffles one and urges one to psychologic speculation before a Leonardo is due to the attitude of profound study of human character on the part of the painter.  The elusive shadows that play about the face and the features of his figures pass on to us the mystery which even Leonardo could not solve.  Carlsen’s compositions have a spaciousness that make them seem always large.  The objects are enveloped in a soft atmospheric light that subdues their outlines and half hides their shapes.  As he shows them to us they are not literal things, dead, prosaic; they are not mere materials with  which the artists has made a pleasing arrangement.  They are forms which we cannot define; they elude us, mystify us, ensnare us; we forget what they are until finally we find ourselves detached from the actualities of life, off in a speculative dream world where we would would like to stay.  When we are rudely awakened and when we return to the world of sensibility, we vaguely realize that we have experienced a new sensation of beauty, and that forever after our standards will be different—our appreciation for beautiful things more keen, our sympathies, wider and broader.

After all, what can art do for us more than this?  Can a picture by Titian or Rembrandt or Watteau do more than awaken more fully our perceptions of beauty?  What more can we ask of art?  For with a passion for beauty, nay more with an experience of it which has been real and memorable, we have been ennobled.  From Plotinus to Croce, philosophers have taught that the experience of beauty is mystical, closely akin to religious.  The deep significance of art to the higher life is too little understood.

In the Metropolitan Museum there is a still-life by Carlsen than which I know of nothing finer of its kind.  On the floor there is a large basket about which are lying fish and clam shells.  Over the basket is thrown a white towel.  This is all there is to it, but let is analyze it.  The splendid spaciousness is what first impresses us.  The basket is a large one, as we know from the relative size of the fish and clam shells on the floor.  And yet it takes up only as small part of the composition.  There is no sense of crowding.  The restraint of the composition—as in all of Carlsen’s pictures—is one of its remarkable features.  An envelope of atmosphere surrounds the objects and removes them from too harsh a scrutiny.  They are not rudely thrust before us.  The wall behind and the floor are bare.  The interest thus centres about the basket, rough and broken, but with what care constructed!  It is a basket, no hasty impression of one; one feels rather than sees that it is accurately woven.  Notice how the fish are grouped.  The large code curves forward from the shadow of the background, solid and clearly defined; on the other side is a smaller cod.  Only one or two clam shells stand out distinctly, the rest are massed in shadow.  But the white cloth, and that is in the Chardin still-life in the Boston Museum, Teniers, likewise, threw his napkins into folds like that, but his were not so soft, so perfectly natural.

As for the fish, they should be compared to Chase’s.  Chase’s fish, we said, were fishy—that is, they were wet and slimy and finny.  These fish are also fishy enough, but Carlsen doesn’t paint things for their surface value.  How is it that he subdues their repugnant aspect—so that we do not shiver in front of them—we do not know, but Carlsen’s fish we would like to stroke.

One could say much more about this picture—masterpiece that it is, but one quality there is about it that stands out above every other.  That is its inevitability.  One realizes this only after seeing in many times; it could not be otherwise.  It grew that way and is immutable.  Every form is rightly placed, every line is there for a purpose.  Move a fish, a clam shell, and the picture is spoiled.

Recently, while visiting the painter in his studio, the writer was pleased to discover a little color print of a Vermeer.  I do not recall what picture of Vermeer it was, but it reminded me of one in the Widener Collection in Philadelphia.  The latter represented a lady holding a pair of scales in her hand.  The scales were just evenly balanced.  A movement of the arm would turn them.  That represents Vermeer’s art—perfect balance, hence perfect rest, perfect satisfaction.  And this is Carlsen’s art—perfect balance of form—perfect proportion—completeness.  Do away with one element, and the composition is upset—spoiled.  Herein consists the classicism of his art, for classic principles animate it, and the same aesthetic enjoyment is derived as from a work of the best period of Greek art.

One of the methods which Carlsen employs to give space and elusiveness to his pictures is the slurring of the line between the foreground and the back.  The distant edge of the table, or the floor is lost.  This is done by scattering little bits of straw or dead leaves, dried flowers, onions or vegetables where the line would be—just a few, just enough obscured in the shadow to make one wonder what is back there.  Onions with their peely skins give this effect in his still-life in the Worcester Art Museum.  This is a picture quite unlike the one in New York, for Carlsen is versatile and fish is by no means his main interest.  Here are copper pots and earthen jugs, on a stone table.  The whole is a study in rich coppers and ochres and greys, bathed in a quiet light that softens everything.  Onions likewise appear in the still-life in the possession of Mr. Duncan Phillips.  The main objects are an old copper pitcher, a dusty black bottle and a few bowls—the onions are scattered about.

One of his finest paintings is in the McFadden Collection in Philadelphia.  A dead hare lies on a table—or on a floor, you cannot tell which.  In back of it are two large copper cans with lids and handles, and behind these again another dead hare.  The background is dark, and scattered about in the shadow are a few pieces of straw and bits of leaves.  The texture of the rabbit could not have been achieved better by Fyt, nor the surfaces of the kettles better by Vollon, but the wonderful charm of the whole composition with its perfect arrangement, soft lighting, restraint, has never been approached by any painter.

A few more pictures by Carlsen should be mentioned to show the variety of his interests.  Several years ago he painted flowers.  They are not his best works.  In these he has not developed the individual treatment that he has in his other works.  A more recent picture, in the possession of the Macbeth Galleries—January, 1919—sold to a western museum, shows a Japanese fan out-spread against a wall, with a white bowl in front of it and a few dead flowers.  Nothing could exceed the simplicity of the group, yet with these few objects the painter has achieved a decorative result not far removed in spirit from the Japanese.  The subject calls for the most delicate, exquisite handling, which we find here.  Yet with all this conscientious respect for the design and textures of the fan and bowl there is that softening veil or film without which the picture would seem hard and literal.

Four or five Carlsen’s best still-lives are in the collection of Mr. Robert Hanley.  One of these is called “The Madonna of the Magnolias,” and shows a thirteenth century polychrome figure.

The use of old objects of art is exemplified in another still-life where the background is a medieval French tapestry, over which hangs a string of Chinese beads.  In front is an ivory-colored vase of dead flowers.

This short sketch of the still-life art of Emil Carlsen might be closed with a story which illustrates the power of Carlsen’s work to compel appreciation and interest even in those hitherto indifferent to the charm of still-life painting.

One day one of the most prominent financiers of this country—a New York banker—came with his wife to Mr. Carlsen’s studio to purchase a wedding present.  His wife greatly admired a still-life on the easel—but the banker could see nothing in it—he did not understand still-lives, “But if you like it,” he said to his wife, “take it home by all means.”  Accordingly the picture was purchased.  Several weeks later the financier returned to the studio.  “Do you know,” he said to the painter, “we have kept your still-life, and I like it better than any other picture in my house.  I want another.”  He now has three.

The work of Dines Carlsen is scarcely second to that of his father.  A young man, not yet in his twenties, he promises to develop a style which will do much to preserve the prestige of still-life painting in America.  He enjoys of course the remarkable advantage of his father’s direction, and as we would expect, his pictures and Emil Carlsen’s are much alike.  This similarity, if not identity of style enhances rather than decreases the value of Dines’ pictures.

As his work develops, his still-life pictures will certainly  not be better, for they appear already to be absolutely accomplished.  But they will be different, and beyond a doubt more interesting on that account.

The attention of the public was first attracted to Dines Carlsen at the sale of the collection of William M. Chase when it was revealed that the great master of fish still-life has possessed a picture by the younger painter.

For the past few years Dines Carlsen has exhibited in the National Academy of Design each year compositions of strikingly decorative character, well drawn and rich in coloring.  Happily his output thus far is small, as he has wisely been restrained from the too hasty stereotyping of his style which would result from a large production.

Generally he choses objects of rich design and color for his compositions.  Great brazen bowls, Chinese or Delft vases and oriental objects of art have given him his opportunities for interesting contrast.  His last picture in the New York Academy Winter Exhibition called, “The Spanish Brazero” showed a large brass bowl, and a Chinese blue vase with a few grapes.  In the previous Spring Academy it was “The Bronze Bell” and in the 1917 Annual Exhibition “The Delft Plate.”  The backgrounds always leave a vague suggestion of silken tapestry, the foregrounds are never insisted upon—one is scarcely aware of them; nearly always there are those happily scattered bits which Emil Carlsen employs to help the background melt into the shadow—sometimes nutshells, sometimes beads, and sometimes grapes.

One of his finest from the point of view of composition, is in the possession of the Milch Galleries.  The principal object is a blue Chinese vase, on a teakwood stand.  In front of this, to one side, is a ivory-white teapot with a lizard for a spout.  On the other side of the vase is a small cup or bowl, and there are two pears on the table to add variety.  It is one of those compositions so delicately balanced that not a change could be made without upsetting the equilibrium.

ARTHUR EDWIN BYE (via Who’s Who in American Art, 1935—Fielding’s Dictionary
Born in Philadelphia, 1885.  Painter, musician, writer and lecturer.  Pupil of John Carlson and Charles Rosen; studied in Paris; Dept. of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; art expert and restorer; lecturer at the Philadelphia Museum and Restorer for Princeton University.



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