John F. Francis was one of the leading still-life painters in mid-nineteenth century America. He had been an itinerant portraitist [47.1142] during the 1830s and 1840s, but he turned to still-life painting in the 1850s when there was a growing demand for such images. By that time, general...
John F. Francis was one of the leading still-life painters in mid-nineteenth century America. He had been an itinerant portraitist [47.1142] during the 1830s and 1840s, but he turned to still-life painting in the 1850s when there was a growing demand for such images. By that time, general prosperity and a better-educated populace prompted more Americans to decorate their homes with paintings. From 1838 to 1852, the exhibitions and lotteries of art unions had increased art ownership throughout the nation and expanded the general public’s appreciation of genres other than portraiture. The sale of still lifes was further stimulated by the arrival of such European émigrés as SeverinRoesen [69.1228], who brought Old World still-life styles with them. In addition, Francis was from the Philadelphia area, and was likely aware of the local tradition of still-life painting by members of the Peale family [1979.520]. Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit is one of Francis’s finest still lifes. He chose dessert food and beverages as the subjects for most of his canvases, generally placing the objects on a table before a neutral background, although in his later work he sometimes inserted a window with a landscape. Fruit and nuts ended many a celebratory meal in style; cheese had begun to be a part of dessert in the early nineteenth century, and champagne was often served between dinner and dessert. In a show of unrestrained abundance, Francis included a bottle of sparkling wine with appropriate tall, slender glasses; another bottle that perhaps contains a fortified wine, such as port or sherry, with short, flared glasses; a blue and white pitcher trimmed with gold; a glass of water (commonly served in the best houses by the early nineteenth century, but possibly also a reference to the temperance movement that had been growing in strength during the 1840s); a plate of cheese; a basket of fruit partially covered with a fringed cloth; an elegant knife; and oyster crackers and nuts strewn over the cloth-covered table. The objects are rhythmically arranged, especially the glasses, which seem like musical notes on a staff. A pleasing array of rounded shapes is offset by the graceful silhouettes of the wine glasses. A variety of textures evoke the sense of touch—cool, brittle glass; moist cheese; crumbly crackers; hard nuts; soft fabric—and the cheese and opened oranges appeal to the sense of smell. Francis chose a warm palette of tawny yellows and tans, darker browns and oranges, offset by the light blue of the pitcher and trim of the fringed cloth. This sumptuous array of food, liquor, and fine tableware suggests a special occasion or a lavish dessert. Paintings like Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit must have been popular with art patrons, since Francis used the same objects in other still lifes. Still Life—Grapes in Dish (1850s, Newark Museum, New Jersey) is very similar to the MFA’s painting, although the fruit is in a compote rather than a basket and the objects are arrayed in a different pattern. Francis’s penchant for reusing a small number of objects for his paintings prompted the observation that he “exploits the smallest repertoire of any important American still life painter.” Francis may have exhibited Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1858 under the title Champagne Lunch and Tropical Fruit (oranges were considered tropical at the time, though they are now categorized as subtropical). Sometime thereafter it was purchased by Reuben R. Springer (1800–1884), a Cincinnati businessman and philanthropist best known as the founder of the Music Hall in that city. It is not surprising that Francis’s vision of abundance and celebration might have appealed to this public-spirited citizen who acquired his wealth through the grocery trade and wise investments. Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit joined a collection that included both European and American paintings, which Springer bequeathed to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1884. The Cincinnati Art Museum later deaccessioned Still Life with Wine Bottles and Basket of Fruit; when it appeared on the New York art market in the 1940s, Maxim Karolik bought it, along with Francis’s Three Children [47.1142] and Still Life with Chestnuts and Apples [47.1145], for the MFA. Notes 1. Louise Conway Belden, The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650–1900 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983), 228–35. 2.Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870–1900, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 137. Janet L. Comey
Lower right: J.F. Francis. Pt. 1857.-
After 1858, Reuben R. Springer (1800-1884), Cincinnati, Ohio; 1884, bequest of Reuben R. Springer to the Cincinnati Museum Association. With Coleman Auction Galleries, New York. 1946, with Victor Spark, New York; 1946, sold by Victor Spark to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1947, gift of Maxim Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 12, 1947)
Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865