Kennedy Galleries, New York, New York
Stella and William Curtis Hall, Jr., 1961
Gift from Stella Hall to Akron Art Museum, December 30, 1991
2003: "In a Romantic Mood: American Impressionists and Their Era" 6/14/03 - 8/24/03, Akron Art Museum
1997 - 1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
1992 - 1993: "Still Lifes from the Permanent Collection" 12/19/92 - 3/14/93, Akron Art Museum
1961: "Collectors' Items" 5/2/61 - 6/21/61, Akron Art Institute (Museum)
Fruit Basket, around 1848–60
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Although Severin Roesen’s life is a mystery and its details are murky, his art could not be more clear nor its details more familiar. He is believed to have emigrated from Germany to settle in New York City around 1848. There he married and began a family that eventually included three children. For unknown reasons, he abandoned his family around 1857 to roam the state of Pennsylvania, settling in the prosperous community of Williamsport in 1862. Roesen left the town in 1872 and is presumed to have died shortly thereafter.
Fewer than four hundred of Roesen's paintings are known to exist, but they have made him one of the best-known nineteenth-century American still-life painters. The qualities that made him a sought-after artist in Pennsylvania a century ago might be decried as commercial today. Roesen was a crowd pleaser: he offered his clients the ultimate embodiment of American optimism. To his wealthy Victorian patrons, paintings such as Fruit Basket symbolized the richness and abundance of the land, representing the cornucopia of plenitude their owners had found in the American Eden. To today's viewer, Roesen’s paintings may instead recall Dutch still-life painting, which is characterized by painstaking attention to detail and interest in scientific observation. However, the truth suggested by most still-life painting—that it is the permanent replica of an impermanent, natural composition—is not an important factor in paintings by Roesen.
By comparing examples of his work, it becomes clear that Roesen did not work from real objects but from a repertoire of shapes that he kept in his head. These appear time and again in his canvases. Trademark elements include a triangular composition with a horizontal emphasis; a woven or ceramic basket placed on a white or gray marble slab; a water glass—always placed to the left—with lemon rind; and an abundance of grapes, peaches, and plums. Another distinguishing element is the artist's signature spinning out of the grape vine tendrils in the lower right quarter of the composition.
The paradox of presenting an artificially constructed image as the embodiment of natural goodness makes Roesen's work both invigorating and a bit confusing. His manner of constructing a canvas piecemeal may have had less in common with the ideals of fine art than with the pedestrian realities of commercial art. Frequently Roesen's paintings served as bargaining chips or a means of barter to support himself; during one period he traded his paintings for room, board, and beer. (His fondness for the latter may provide insight into his nomadic lifestyle and the abandonment of his family.)
Roesen's paintings were frequently acquired or commissioned for private dining rooms and sometimes for taverns and restaurants. It should not be surprising that his paintings may have appealed to his patrons chiefly for their decorative rather than intrinsically artistic qualities. Roesen, trained in Germany as a decorative artist, supported himself there as a painter of porcelain cups and saucers. His working method—recombining a limited repertoire of forms—may have had its roots in the patterns or formulae often used by china painters.
Roesen's success did not rely primarily on American artistic fashion but on his local popularity, especially during the years he spent in Williamsport. That has changed over the last 150 years, and today Roesen's paintings hang in museums around the country.
- Jeffrey Grove, 2001
Gerdts, William H. Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801–1939. Columbia and London: Philbrook Arts Center with University of Missouri Press, 1981.
O'Toole, Judith Hansen. Severin Roesen. Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; London; and Toronto: Bucknell University Press and Associated University Presses, 1992.