Still Delightful

A sumptuous show documents how the Impressionists breathed new life into the staid tradition of still life painting

Edgar Degas rarely painted a pure still life, but he often included still lifes in the backgrounds or corners of his compositions. In The Millinery Shop (1882-86), the hats—their shapes, textures and colors—take center stage; the figure is merely an accessory. Art Institute of Chicago
"People think a sugar bowl doesn't have a physiognomy, a soul," declared French artist Paul Cézanne. "But that changes every day....Objects never stop living." For his 1888-90 Kitchen Table, Cézanne purposefully arranged the items to create a uniquely rhythmic composition. Musee D'Orsay, Paris
In his boldly original Fruit Displayed on a Stand (c. 1881-82), Gustave Caillebotte creates the effect of an accidental experience. The unusual point of view and the slight asymmetry of the picture's axis give the impression that the scene is being viewed by a passerby. "His fruits stand out from their paper bedding with extraordinary clarity," wrote contemporary critic Joris-Karl Huysmans. "Juice wells up beneath his pears' skin ...adewy haze of moisture clings to the surface of the is still life freed of duty and routine." Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The images in Renoir's 1871 Still Life with Bouquet allude to the work of Manet and to Spanish and Japanese art. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Berthe Morisot, who was married to Manet's brother, was a masterful colorist noted for her subtle tonal harmonies, as evidenced by Tureen and Apple (1877). Wallraff-Richartz Museum, Cologne

In 1880 the renowned french artist Edouard Manet was commissioned to paint a bunch of asparagus for financier Charles Ephrussi. A collector well known to the Impressionists, Ephrussi had agreed to pay 800 francs (roughly $1,700 today) for the work, but was so pleased with the painting that he gave the artist 1,000 francs instead. Delighted with the higher fee, Manet painted a small picture of a single stalk of asparagus and sent it to Ephrussi with a note that read, "Your bunch was one short."

Manet’s luscious painting is just one of the many visual treats featured in a major exhibition on view through June 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Organized by Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection, where it opened last September, and the Museum of Fine Arts, "Impressionist Still Life" focuses on the period from 1862 to 1904 and tracks the development of Impressionist still life from its beginnings in the realism of Gustave Courbet, Henri Fantin-Latour and Manet through its transformation in the innovative late canvases of Paul Cézanne.

"The Impressionists found in still life a rich opportunity for individual expression," says the Phillips’ Eliza Rathbone, the show’s curator. "They embraced a wider range of subject matter, explored unconventional compositions and points of view, introduced a deliberate informality and reinvigorated still life through their inventive use of light and color."

Whether depicting a simple cup and saucer or a carefully crafted arrangement of household items, the 16 artists in the show infused their paintings with an extraordinary vitality and freshness. They liberated still life from the conventions of the past and brought nuances of personal meaning to such everyday objects as books, shoes, hats, fans, fruit and crockery. "A painter," Manet once said, "can express all that he wants with fruit or flowers."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.