(Copenhagen, Denmark, 1853 - 1932)
c. 1880 - 1900
Oil on canvas
23 1/2 x 16 3/4 in. (59.7 x 42.7 cm)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Gift of Stella B. Hall in memory of her husband, William Curtis Hall, Jr.
As an instructor at the National Academy of Design, Carlsen was a staunch advocate of the Still-life genre. His statement that "...a two penny bunch of violets in an earthenware jug may make a great work of art, if seen through a temperament: suggested his belief that by combining technical skill and personal vision, an artist could transform the humblest of objects.
Rhages Jar, date unknown
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Before immigrating to the United States, Sören Emil Carlsen learned painting from a cousin and studied architecture at Copenhagen’s Royal Academy. In Chicago he worked in both painting and architectural studios. Relocating several times, Carlsen had difficulty establishing a reputation. He was director of the fledgling California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute) from 1887 to 1891. Returning east to New York, Carlsen finally achieved success and was elected to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design, where he also taught. In his later years Carlsen concentrated on landscapes and seascapes, which were widely exhibited, but he is remembered today mostly for his still-life paintings, which initially found few buyers.
On trips to France Carlsen was exposed to the still-life paintings of eighteenth-century French master Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, which were enjoying a revival. Carlsen called Chardin “the very greatest still-life painter” and was inspired by his renderings of a few simple objects “limited in their color scheme” and viewed from a fairly close vantage point.1 Initially Carlsen’s canvases repeated Chardin’s darker tonalities, but gradually Carlsen's palette lightened, as in Rhages Jar. He was also probably influenced by James McNeill Whistler, the American expatriate whose interest in tonal painting and all things Japanese inspired many artists. The precise draftsmanship and delicately applied paint of Rhages Jar recalls works by the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. Not surprisingly, a reproduction of a Vermeer painting hung in Carlsen’s studio. The author of a 1921 book on still-life painting characterized Vermeer’s art as “perfect balance, hence perfect rest, perfect satisfaction. And this is Carlsen’s art—perfect balance of form—perfect proportion—completeness.”2 The same writer proclaimed Carlsen “unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today.”
While Carlsen’s better-known canvases depict the prosaic copper pots and rustic kitchenware typical of Chardin, the artist also created a group of canvases similar to Rhages Jar, with an Asian theme and objects from a more refined world. The painting was one of at least two Carlsen works owned by Edwin C. Shaw (see pp. 16, 24–25). Once dated to the 1880s, Rhages Jar was more likely painted later. Its title refers to the Persian city of Rhages, known today as Rayy in Iran. However, the low bowl appears to be a common Japanese form adapted from earlier Korean tea bowls. The two taller objects in the picture—also inspired by Asian prototypes—may be American art pottery from around 1900. Whatever their origin, the ceramic objects and title poetically allude to the East and reflect American interest in Asian aesthetics around the turn of the century.
Carlsen has made careful choices in composition and technique. The edge of the table melds into the background. The porcelain is almost translucent; the colors are muted and their range fairly limited, with cream, white, gray, and touches of blue and green. The warm background has the texture of soft linen. And most noticeably the flowers are at the end of their bloom. Together these effects impart a contemplative, symbolic mood, reminding us that beauty fades with time.
Critic and collector Duncan Phillips thought Carlsen’s still lifes had the ability to lull viewers into a trance, as if “nature exerts at times an influence curiously hypnotic.”3 Carlsen portrays a luminous world where beauty can be delicately savored.
- Mitchell D. Kahan, 2001
1. Emil Carlsen, “On Still-Life Painting,” Palette and Bench 1 (1908): 6.
2. Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans, Studies in Still-Life Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 213, 218. Not only is this book dedicated to Carlsen, but he receives slightly more text than either Courbet or Chardin.
3. Duncan Phillips, “Emil Carlsen,” International Studio 61 (June 1917): CVI.
The Art of Emil Carlsen, 1853–1932. San Francisco: Wortsman-Rowe Galleries, 1975.
signed LL in oil "Emil Carlsen"