Still Life History: Fish

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Still Life with Fish (c 1910), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

It was the great Douglas Adams who coined the farewell So long, and thanks for all the fish as the title of the fourth book of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s only appropriate that this should be the last of my overviews of themes in still life painting.

No one seems to know when fish became a special theme in still life painting, but they seem to have emerged from the more general interest in food and meal settings.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life of Fish and a Candlestick (1611), oil on panel, 50 x 72 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Clara Peeters’ Still Life of Fish and a Candlestick (above) from 1611 is one of the earliest and most accomplished paintings of the fruits de mer, which may have resulted from the importance of fishing and consumption of seafood in the Netherlands. A second painting (below) is thought to date from slightly later during her brief but innovative career.

Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621), Still Life with Fish, Shrimp, Oysters and Crayfish (c 1612-21), oil on oak panel, 37.7 x 49.9 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Antwerp, Belgium. Image by Sandra Fauconnier, via Wikimedia Commons.
Pieter Claesz (1597/1598–1660), Still Life with Salt Tub (c 1644), oil on panel, 52.8 x 44 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Another fine example is Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Salt Tub from about 1644, with its combination of bread, fish, sea salt, and an ornate glass goblet with its optical effects. Here the fish is in a supporting role, though.

The next fish specialist was the great Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, possibly the greatest still life painter of all time.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), The Ray (1727), oil on canvas, 114.5 x 146 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the first of his successful still lifes is The Ray from 1727, which he exhibited the following year to secure his place in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. This is an extraordinary combination of objects, dominated by the ghostly ‘face’ of the hanging fish, ably supported by the anger of the cat.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), Still Life with Ray and Basket of Onions (1731), oil on canvas, 40.5 x 32 cm, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC. Wikimedia Commons.

Chardin’s subsequent Still Life with Ray and Basket of Onions from 1731 is less well-known, and explores the form of its various objects more. At a time when potential patrons were more interested in precious metals, Chardin introduced the rich earth colour of copper kitchen pots and pans, keeping his paintings within a narrow chromatic range.

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818), A Still Life of Mackerel, Glassware, a Loaf of Bread and Lemons on a Table with a White Cloth (1787), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

After Chardin’s death in 1779, his successor Anne Vallayer-Coster reached her zenith, in brilliant displays such as A Still Life of Mackerel, Glassware, a Loaf of Bread and Lemons on a Table with a White Cloth from 1787. Although those mackerel are reminiscent of Clara Peeters’ fish, they lack the open-mouthed gawp.

Gustave Courbet (1819–1877), The Trout (Summer 1872), oil on canvas, 53 x 87 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

In the summer of 1872, as a one-off, Gustave Courbet painted an allegorical still life of The Trout, which is “hooked and bleeding from the gills”, a powerful expression of his personal feelings after being imprisoned for damage to the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune. As he was allowed painting materials in prison, he painted several other still lifes at that time, none quite as emotive as this.

Of all the artists who have painted fish, it was William Merritt Chase, hardly a still life specialist, who became obsessed by them.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Yield of the Waters (A Fishmarket in Venice) (1878), oil on canvas, 124.5 x 165.1 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

After completing his studies in Munich, Chase spent several months in Venice, where he painted one of his best-known still lifes, The Yield of the Waters, also known as A Fishmarket in Venice, (1878). This was probably his most complex and detailed still life, showing a wide variety of the fish and seafood available in the Mediterranean. It also established his own specialist sub-genre of still life: fish, characteristically set against a very dark background.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Still Life (1903), oil on canvas, 74.3 x 46 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Still Life (1903) is more characteristic of the fish which he painted when instructing. These were described by Harriet Blackstone, when she was one of his students:
“It is a delight to watch Mr Chase make these fish pictures, for he so frankly loves them himself and takes such evident joy in the making – humming and whistling as he works, stepping back, admiring and smacking his lips over the luscious colours.”
(Quoted by Bourguignon in Smithgall, 2016.)

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Fish and Still Life (c 1904-1909), oil on canvas, 45.7 × 66 cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Paintings like Fish and Still Life (c 1904-1909) became Chase’s performance art. They may have been still lifes, and their greatest art was not in the resulting painting, but in the performance of their making.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Still Life with Fish (c 1910), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

He usually painted works like Still Life with Fish (c 1910) in just a couple of hours, as if a musician running through their scales and other warming up exercises prior to a concert performance. It’s claimed that he worked only with fresh fish – which looked best – and that he was able to return his models to the fishmonger, still fresh enough to go back out for sale.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Still Life, Fish (1912), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

The quick portraits and still lifes such as Still Life, Fish (1912) were also awarded as prizes to those of his students who excelled. They could then start the student’s personal art collection, or be used as a very sound investment.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Still Life (c 1913), oil on canvas, 89.9 x 106.7 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

Even as he relinquished his teaching commitments towards the end of his career, Chase continued to paint his favourite fish, as in this Still Life (c 1913). It’s as if these fish had become an integral part of his working practice, and their silvery bodies a reflection of his artistic soul.

So long, William Merritt Chase, and thanks for all the fish.