In yesterday’s article, I showed some spectacular paintings of glassware from the Renaissance to the middle of the eighteenth century. Then for a century or so, the detailed realist depiction of glassware in works other than still lifes became less popular. Perhaps their value in advertising the artist’s technical skills became devalued. This seems to have changed again in the middle of the nineteenth century, across Europe and America.
William Holman Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil from 1867 is intricately detailed, with several references to elements of the story retold by John Keats from Boccaccio’s Decameron, such as the relief of a skull on the side of the pot, a red rose on a tray by Lisabetta’s left foot, and a silver watering can at the bottom right. It also features an elaborate glass lamp, hanging in splendid isolation at the top left.
When William Merritt Chase was only nineteen, he declared his aspirations in this Still Life With Watermelon (1869), painted before he had even enrolled at the National Academy of Design in New York. Alongside the cut watermelon is a wine glass, at the centre of the canvas, and a bottle.
Henri Fantin-Latour’s still lifes sometimes featured glassware, but the most elaborate of his paintings in this respect is this response to the fraught experience he had with his group portrait of the literary avant garde in 1872, Still Life: Corner of a Table (1873). Here he extended his previous composition to show the same table and objects which had featured in that group portrait, stripping out its figures. He includes detailed depictions of a cut glass jug, a wine glass, and a small decanter.
Glassware was one of the least popular objects to be included in Impressionist paintings, perhaps because its successful depiction depends on fine detail.
Where glassware does appear in the works of the French Impressionists, it is perhaps the least convincing of their subjects, as in Edgar Degas’ famous painting In a Café or L’Absinthe from 1873.
Those who were less centrally associated with the core French Impressionists had more latitude in their approach to glassware, though.
Just a year before his untimely death in 1884, the Italian peri-Impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis painted this startling Breakfast in the Garden, with its contrast between the detail of the glass soda syphon, covered bowl, glasses, and other reflective materials on the table, and its sketchy garden background. De Nittis’ wife and son may be distracted by the ducks and geese, but I’m gazing at what’s on that table.
I don’t know if the Swedish painter Hanna Hirsch (Pauli) saw that painting, but a few years later she used an outdoor table for her virtuoso painting of Breakfast-Time (1887). This strikes a wonderful balance between the painterliness of the ground and wooden furniture, and sufficient detail (below) to bring the silverware, porcelain and abundant glassware to life. She was only 23 when she completed this.
Félix Vallotton, known best for his membership of the Nabis, was another accomplished painter of glassware.
Before his involvement with the Nabis, Vallotton’s paintings were decidedly Naturalist in both subject and style. The Sick Girl from 1892 explores a theme which was popular with Naturalist painters throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s. His highly detailed realism extends to showpiece surface reflections from the glassware and polished wood, but like some of his later paintings its narrative is far less transparent than the glass.
For those still making history paintings in academic style, fine glassware was too obviously anachronistic, and something which doesn’t appear to have featured in accessible works by the likes of Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Jean-Léon Gérôme.
But Alma-Tadema’s wife Laura Theresa placed two wine glasses at the centre of The Pledge, probably from 1904, one of her Dutch period scenes which may have been intended as a ‘problem picture’, those being all the rage in Britain at the time.
Jean Béraud’s more academic take on The Absinthe Drinkers from 1908 reworks Degas’ painting in virtuoso style, with its two glasses of cloudy absinthe, soda syphon, and jug of water. And for bonus points, right at the top edge he lines up a parade of coloured glass bottles.
There it came to a rather abrupt end, until the later revival of realist painting. Artists sometimes did paint glassware, but even in still lifes, such as Édouard Vuillard’s Roses in a Glass Vase (below) from about 1919, they just weren’t the same as they used to be.
Then came artists like Janet Fish – and how I wish I could show you some of her amazing paintings here.