From the time of James Peale's death in 1831 until the mid-century, few Americans painted still lifes. John Francis was one of a small number of American artists who came to prominence for his work in the genre at this time. He initially earned his living as an itinerant portrait painter whose...
From the time of James Peale's death in 1831 until the mid-century, few Americans painted still lifes. John Francis was one of a small number of American artists who came to prominence for his work in the genre at this time. He initially earned his living as an itinerant portrait painter whose business took him to rural Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Tennessee, and he exhibited works at the Artist's Fund Society in 1840 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he was listed as a resident. Several factors probably influenced his decision to give up portraiture in the early 1850s to focus on still lifes: the market for such works, a product of rising incomes and higher standards of living, and the promise of a sedentary lifestyle. Moreover, still life, unlike portraiture, eliminated the possibility of demanding sitters. Francis's still lifes fall into three categories: luncheon pictures, dessert images, and canvases, like the present one, which feature large market baskets filled with fruit. Unlike the refined prepared foods and opulent vessels of the luncheon and dessert pictures which suggest a special occasion or an upper-class meal, the common rustic basket and the abundance of newly picked fruit of the third category of pictures evoke images of nature and the countryside's orchards and fields. The image, however, does not lead the viewer to contemplate the process of and labor involved in growing, harvesting, and selling food. Instead, the cut apple, knife, and glasses of cider seem the makings of an impromptu meal, one that takes place perhaps during an afternoon excursion in the country. The Boston canvas derives from "Still Life with Yellow Apples" (Detroit Institute of Arts) which Francis painted in 1858. Save for the addition of two walnuts to the left of the knife in the Boston canvas, the two pictures are virtually identical. Both works were preceded by smaller, simpler images of apple-filled baskets. As he does in the present work, Francis often depicted his fruit with brown spots and worm holes. But the associations of disease and decay that those features might suggest in other still lifes are negated by the abundance of food, the sunny palette, and ordered arrangement, all of which combine to evoke visions of plenitude and well-being and fantasies of a simple, uncomplicated rural existence. It is easy to imagine this work hanging in the dining room of a well-appointed urban house. This text was adapted from Karyn Esielonis, et al, "Still-Life Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1994).
Lower left: J.F. Francis Pt 1859
The artist; private collection, Philadelphia; with Victor Spark, New York, 1944; to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I., 1944; to MFA, 1947, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik.
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865