Still Life with Cattails
Still Life with Cattails
Oil on canvas
60 1/4 x 40 1/8 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Gift of Ronald Becker
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
For well over 40 years before his death in 1986, the American painter Herman Maril produced compositions in which the manipulation of delicate color and refined form created a strange sense of space that compels close attention and active involvement of the observer. In this work, an oil on canvas executed by Maril in 1970 and titled Still Life with Cattails, the composition consists of a carefully planned arrangement of rectangular color areas with a table top sharply tilted forward and on which rest a large circular platter and a cluster of tall and slender cattails. Here, balanced design and compositional unity are quite masterly accomplished through the coordination of varied but simple geometric shapes and soft muted colors.
As one views this work it becomes quite evident that the artist has not intended to present a photographic resemblance here. Moreover, what is at first so puzzling is that the mind and the eye compete with one another. For, out of the dominant rectangular divisions of the composition, the mind attempts to structure a framework that would create the illusion of depth and thus accommodate the table and its contents. Yet the eye resists that interpretation since the table does not appear to recede, nor does the relationship of form and color tone support the conventional illusion of spatial depth. Instead objects and space seem to become one, for the irregular and ragged edges of pigmental areas cause us to interpret space as flowing into the objects depicted and at the same time to see the objects themselves dissolving into the encompassing space. In addition, scattered dashes of mixed color applied unevenly across flat areas of the composition seem to energize the otherwise quiet surfaces thereby further tending to pull space and form together and strengthening the reality of the flat picture plane itself.
This painting is thus a composition into which are built strong dynamic tensions that are effectively resolved by the harmonious play of colors and shapes. As a result, the work of art becomes one which is not only pleasing to the eye but also one which forces the observer to look closely and thereby become increasingly participative in the life of the painting itself. And it is, of course, through such active participation that intimacy is generated and visual pleasure intensified.
Herman Maril was born in Baltimore, Maryland in October 1908 and over the years achieved an international reputation in the world of art. He studied painting at the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts and subsequently experimented with various aesthetic movements that America was absorbing from Europe. By 1934, he was employed by the first United States government sponsored art project when he was commissioned to execute an American Scene painting titled Baltimore Waterfront. It was after World War II that his works became increasingly expressive and more and more abstract, and it was during the postwar period that he earned his greatest fame. In 1947 he was appointed professor of painting at the University of Maryland, a post he retained until his death in 1986. Maril exhibited in major exhibitions throughout his career and in 1967 a retrospective of his work was presented by the Baltimore Museum of Art. His paintings are included in numerous collections, both private and public, throughout the United States including the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan, the National Museum of American Art, and others.