American, born Germany
(Boppard-am-Rhein, Prussia, about 1815 – about 1872, Williamsport, Pennsylvania (?))
Severin Roesen (about 1815 to about 1872) was a prolific still-life artist of the mid-nineteenth century whose paintings are considered the most influential in the development of that genre in later nineteenth-century American art. Despite the prominence of his works (they are included in most every important museum collection of American art), the artist’s biography remains obscure. (1)
The first reference to the artist and to his work is believed to occur in 1847, with the notice of a still-life painting (characterized as enamel on porcelain) exhibited in Cologne, Germany.(2) It is also noted that art lexicons in Germany at that time referred to the artist believed to be Roesen (or Rösen) as a “Blumenmaler,” or flower painter.(3) In 1848, he immigrated to the United States along with a large number of other German nationals during a time of war and civil unrest that accompanied the revolutionary movements of that time.
It is known that Roesen lived in New York beginning in 1848, married, had three children, and then left the city and his family around 1857. His whereabouts are undocumented until he established a long-term residence in the city of Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he lived and worked between about 1860 and 1872. The place and manner of his death are also unknown, but he seems to have ceased painting in Williamsport by 1872, the last year that his name appears in the Williamsport city directory.
The depiction of inanimate objects (i.e. still life) in art dates to ancient times. However, still-life painting was traditionally and consistently considered a minor theme in art, superseded in importance by every other subject matter, including genre, portraiture, landscape, and what was known as “history painting,” which was made up of literary or mythological subjects. This hierarchy of subject matter predominated in Western painting for at least two hundred years, well into the latter part of the nineteenth century. The depiction of inanimate objects was considered insufficiently inspiring for the human mind and spirit, a goal that was established and taught in traditional art academies for generations. In the United States, still-life imagery initially found popular regard through printed sources: nineteenth-century botanical illustrations published in scholarly texts as well as publications aimed at amateur horticulturalists. While American painters included still-life elements in larger compositions, particularly portraits, the artists that favored still life as a primary subject in the early nineteenth century were largely associated with the Peale family. Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) and his family members were the most prominent early proponents of American still-life painting. The works of James Peale (1749-1831), and Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) are typically still-life paintings of fruits and ceramics, with an emphasis on classical design and simplicity of form. Thus when Severin Roesen came to the United States in 1848, compositions featuring still life as the primary subject were the exception in contemporary art exhibitions.(4)
But the timing of the artist’s arrival in New York was propitious. In 1848, the American art world was becoming ever more familiar with the works of German and Northern European art and artists, including historic examples of Dutch still-life painting, partially because of emigration due to the civil unrest that accompanied the social upheaval of the German unification movement in the late 1840s. (5) For example, a collection of German art was sent to New York in 1847 for safekeeping, and was accessible to the public at the Dusseldorf Gallery. (6)
In addition, the 1840s and early 1850s were a time of economic expansion in the United States, leading to the rise of a middle class better able to appreciate and afford examples of fine art for their homes. The art unions (7) helped to disseminate examples of fine art to the middle-class, and there was general optimism and patriotic pride in the prosperity of the nation expressed through a wider access to art. The richness and opulent abundance of Dutch-inspired floral and fruit still-life compositions embodied the sense that America was a nation blessed by God, and deserving of its material affluence.
Early in his career in New York Roesen was fortunate to find distribution of his work through the patronage of the American Art Union: “During his New York residence Roesen sold eleven paintings (six floral compositions, three fruit compositions and two combinations of the two) to the American Art Union. From 1848 to 1850 the Union distributed ten of these to owners living in seven states ranging from Maine to Georgia and from Michigan to Louisiana. His eleventh canvas was sold at auction with the liquidation of the Union in December, 1852.” (8) The art unions reached large numbers of the prosperous middle-class through their subscriptions and sales, and that network would have brought Roesen’s work to wider attention than time-limited, local exhibitions would.
Unlike the Peales’, Roesen’s subjects, compositions, and compositional devices were heavily indebted to Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century. It is believed that he probably trained in Germany as a decorative painter of porcelain, a practice that involved similar conventions as those used by Dutch still-life painters. (9) These conventions often included the use of a tightly painted, highly realistic depiction of flowers and fruits, the occasional inclusion of elements of tromp l’oeil (perspective that was intended to “fool the eye” into believing that the painting depicted the third dimension), and embodiment of the concept of memento mori. Overly ripe fruits and fading blossoms were the most common elements of compositions intended to remind the viewer of the fragility and fleeting nature of human life.
For reasons that are unknown, Roesen left his New York career and his family around 1857, and settled in the town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1860. He lived and worked there for about twelve years, painting the majority of works that have been documented thus far. (10) As is conveyed by a contemporary newspaper article, Williamsport was a congenial environment for the painter and provided ready patronage. With a large contingent of German immigrants, Williamsport was a prosperous community that enjoyed a thriving lumber industry. (11) The article and other sources suggest that Roesen bartered his paintings in exchange for board, and for bar bills. Contemporary accounts and oral history indicate that he was most likely an alcoholic, and may have suffered from ill health in addition or as a result. The painter disappears from the public record after 1872, and it remains unknown how or when he died.
A large number of paintings attributed to Severin Roesen survive, however the majority of them are neither dated, nor signed. Because his style and compositional devices remained consistent for much of his career, the dating of his canvases can be problematic. (13) Roesen created, and then repeated in multiple compositions, set arrangements of flowers, fruits, and props such as drinking glasses and birds’ nests. O’Toole notes in her book on the artist that, “it can be shown that on occasion he also made near copies of his work.” (14)
Earlier works by Roesen, those painted in New York in the 1850s, exhibit the strong influence of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings, both in technique and in composition. His work has been found to be stylistically very similar to that of Johann Wilhelm Preyer (German, 1803-1889), an artist trained at the art academy in Dusseldorf who had himself studied in Holland. Both Preyer’s work, and that of Roesen, reflect the influence of the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), an artist widely admired by Dutch and German still-life painters of the nineteenth century. A key element of these compositions was the use of the “s” curve (or reverse “s” curve) in which the artist creates a sense of movement from the top of the arrangement to the bottom by arranging the blossoms to create these sweeping curves. A key difference in the earlier Dutch and German compositions, and those of the later German still-life painters Roesen emulated, is that the earlier artists used actual flora and fruits, painting segments of compositions seasonally when the appropriate material was fresh and available. Later artists, including Roesen, maintained a compositional imagery inventory of flowers, fruits, and other forms and repeated them—the arrangements painted by Roesen are imaginary, since the blossoms he depicts were not all in bloom at the same time. (15) While resident in Williamsport, it appears that he created larger numbers of fruit compositions, and he added landscape imagery to the backgrounds of some of the larger canvases. (16)
(1) Roesen’s work was largely under-recognized until the acquisition of "Fruit Still Life," 1850, by the White House during the Kennedy administration in 1961. The attention at that time made the artist better known by the public, and led to a much greater demand for his paintings in the art market. The standard reference for Roesen’s work remains Judith Hansen O’Toole’s "Severin Roesen" (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1992). The MMFA’s painting is not referenced in the checklist of known paintings included in this book, however the Museum acquired a letter of authentication from O’Toole, provided by the dealer, when the work was purchased.
(2) O’Toole notes in her book that no paintings by the artist had been located in Germany as of 1992, and that the relationship of the artist to this reference would remain speculative until other works for comparative purposes could be found. O’Toole, p. 23.
(3) Maurice A. Mook, “Severin Roesen: Also the Huntingdon Painter,” Lycoming College Magazine 26 (June, 1973): 28.
(4) Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860), another of Charles Willson Peale’s artist sons, was primarily a portraitist, but produced one of the most famous early nineteenth-century still-life-portrait combinations, "Rubens Peale with a Geranium," 1801 (National Gallery of Art, Washington). The classic volume on the history of still-life painting is Charles Sterling, "Still Life Painting from Antiquity to the Present Time," New York, 1959. An important primary source for still-life painting in America is William H. Gerdts, "Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939" (Columbia and London: Philbrook Art Center with University of Missouri Press, 1981).
(5) The March Revolution (1848) was a pan-European revolt that centered in the states of the German Confederation as well as the Austrian Empire. Factions of the middle and working classes sought to liberalize societies and promote greater worker’s rights, however differences in the political agendas of each group resulted in the failure of the movement, increasing the control of the Emperor Frederick Wilhelm’s conservative, aristocratic government. Immigration to the United States from northern Europe increased significantly consequently.
(6) Gerdts, p. 88.
(7) Art unions were lotteries that distributed works of art as prizes. For an annual fee, subscribers to the American Art Union in New York received an engraving, the publication of the union, and a chance to win works of art in an annual lottery. See Matthew Baigell, A Concise History of American Painting and Sculpture (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1984) p. 66.
(8) Maurice A. Mook, “Severin Roesen: The Williamsport Painter,” The Journal of the Lycoming County Historical Society 8 (Fall, 1972): 33.
(9) O’Toole, p. 23.
(10) Research suggests that he lived for a time in Huntington, Pennsylvania and produced paintings there. He may also have spent time in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. Mook, “Severin Roesen: Also a Huntington Painter”.
(11) See account of the article, published in the Williamsport Sun and Banner, June 25/27, 1895, in Mook, “Severin Roesen: The Williamsport Painter.” p. 35.
(12) Mook, “Severin Roesen: The Williamsport Painter.” p. 36.
(13) Roesen also had apprentices or students during his career as a painter. Their works are occasionally very similar to Roesen’s and have been at times attributed to him.
(14) O’Toole, p. 32. Gerdts, p. 87: “It seems that he may have had templates that he rearranged from painting to painting, for almost every element in a Roesen still life is repeated in other works, occasionally many times over—sometimes individual flowers or pieces of fruit, sometimes entire arrangements of fruit or bouquets of flowers. Another aspect of his synthetic methodology is his introduction into the same compositions of fruits and flowers that bloom at different seasons of the year.”
(15) Lois Goldreich Marcus, "Severin Roesen: A Chronology" (Lycoming County, PA: Lycoming Historical Society and Museum, 1976), p. 15. O’Toole, p. 25
(16) O’Toole, p. 50.