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"Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting"

The Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection at Tacoma Art Museum

“The Writer’s Tale -??" A Precarious Moment,” oil on canvas by John Frederick Peto, from the Frank and Michelle Havrdejs Collection. Photo courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

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Two galleries in the Tacoma Art Museum are filled with 60 paintings from 200 years of American still life painting from the Frank and Michelle Hevrdejs Collection. Included are works by such masters as James Peale, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth and Wayne Thiebaud, plus many lesser-known artists. The paintings are clustered chronologically from the early 19th century through contemporary 21st century paintings.

From the earliest American still life paintings until the advent of Pop Art, the European influence is strong, especially 17th century Dutch painting in the early years, French Impressionism from the late 1800s and into the early 20th century, and then European modernism, most notably Cezanne and Cubism.

America became fascinated with Trompe l'oeil or "fool the eye" painting in the late 1800s, with paintings by such artists as William Merritt Chase; John Frederick Peto; and most celebrated of all, William Michael Harnett. Paintings by these artists look so realistic that audiences at the time said you couldn't tell them from photographs -- although even the most skillfully painted Trompe l'oeil pictures fell far short of the photographic illusionism of late 20th century Photo Realism.

The most noticeable feature of the earlier works in this show is how dark they are. Nearly every painting has black or exceedingly dark backgrounds, and brown, dark green and black predominate. When we move into the 20th century, palettes lighten significantly.

There is a large section of Impressionist paintings featuring little known American Impressionists (with few exceptions, American Impressionism never rivaled French Impressionism). Frankly, these paintings do not belong in this exhibition. They are not still lifes. They are pictures of women in gardens and in interior scenes and are included only because the interior scenes contain a few still life elements.

The beauty, the excitement, and the artistic quality that makes this exhibition worth seeing is nearly all to be found in the paintings from the 1920s to the most recent work in the show. Scott Fraser's "Lemon, Lemon," for example, an oil painting from 2014 of two lemons sitting on sticks with long, spiral peels hanging down. With its dark background and golden yellow lemons, it is like a reemergence of Trompe l'oeil, but with a clever modern twist.

What makes the later works stand out so much from the earlier, in addition to the lighter palettes, is that they are more concerned with the elements of art than with the faithful reproduction of the appearance of objects. They distort perspective, use color expressively, and are concerned with the arrangement of objects in relation to one another.

Thomas Hart Benton's "Abstract Still Life," for example, depicts a flower with solid, abstract forms that have a sculptural look and beautifully glowing colors, and Emil Bisttram's "Still Life with Red Apples" is like a Cubist still life by Picasso or Braque with a dance across the surface of contrasting dark and light forms.

William H. Bailey's "Still Life with Pitcher and Eggs" is as realistic as any of the paintings by earlier artists but is clearly more about balance and contrast than it is about the appearance of the pitchers and eggs, and the velvety nuances of brown and white make you want to reach out and touch them.

And then there is Wayne Thiebeaud's "Jelly Rolls (for Morton)," three jelly rolls in a line on a counter with a dark blue background and glowing, lighter blue shadows. I would venture to say that everyone who loves art has seen reproductions of Thiebeaud still-lifes in books and magazines, but to see them in person -- the thickness of his brushstrokes and the lushness of his colors -- is to experience pure beauty that is transformative. Seeing this painting alone is worth the price of admission. It is a small painting at 19-by-22 inches, and unfortunately presented in a ridiculous frame, but how anything so small and so simple can have such a powerful impact is almost beyond comprehension.

I recommend you see this show for the Thiebeaud, for the William H. Bailey, and for the history lesson.

"Two Centuries of American Still-Life Painting," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, through Jan. 7, $13-$15, 5-8 p.m., third Thursday, free, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, tacomaartmuseum.org

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