Admission is always free Directions

Open today: 11:00 to 6:00

Overview

Charles Bird King painted this unusual and intriguing trompe-l'oeil, meaning "fool-the-eye," still life to resemble an alcove holding fictional artist C. Palette's meager possessions: a crust of bread, glass of water, palette, and journal of unpaid bills. Two calling cards addressed to Palette bespeak his sad circumstances. One, from a parsimonious would-be patron, Mrs. Skinflint, invites him to visit her after tea, and the other records the artist's debt of five dollars. Several details suggest a more complex message, and that Palette's tastes and ambitions outstrip his modest means. The advertisement for a Philadelphia sheriff's sale of an artist's property at the upper left lists a few articles of clothing and a peck of potatoes—in stark contrast to the fashionable beaver pelt hat nearby—but also features a 16-by-20-foot painting called Pursuit of Happiness.

King makes pointed reference to the lack of support for the arts in Philadelphia, where he lived with little professional success from 1812 to 1816, and more broadly to the lack of support for the arts in America. In addition to the locale of the sheriff's sale, a sheet of paper on top of the hat shows a perspective view of the city debtors' jail. A tally of paintings sold in Philadelphia, which peeks out from the red portfolio at lower right, records a large number of portraits, the most popular but least creative genre of the period. A book titled Choice Criticism on the Exhibitions at Philadelphia, at the very bottom, is noticeably thin; that and Mrs. Skinflint's invitation imply the lack of art patronage in Philadelphia. Indeed, many of King's fellow artists departed the city due to a lack of commissions.

Provenance

Probably purchased from the artist December 1839 by the Apollo Association, New York; probably won at the Apollo Association annual auction December 1839 by Albert Christie, New York. William B. Bement, Philadelphia, by 1884; (his sale, American Art Association, 27-28 February 1899); purchased by J. Sterling. Mr. and Mrs. William Morrell, Cambridge, MA. (Victor Spark, New York); (M. Knoedler & Co., New York), by 1954; purchased and by exchange 1955 with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1828
Second Exhibition of Paintings, Athenaeum Gallery, Boston, 1828, no. 127, as The Poor Artist's Closet.
1838
First Fall Exhibition, Apollo Gallery, New York, 1838, no. 167 as Still Life. The Property of an Artist.
1839
Paintings and Sculpture by Living Artists, Apollo Gallery, New York, 1839, no. 50, as Still Life.
1839
Paintings and Sculpture. The Works of Upwards of One Hundred American Artists; Together with a Selection from Choice Old Masters, Apollo Gallery, New York, January 1839, no. 230, as Still Life. The Property of a Poor Artist.
1839
Paintings, &c. by Modern Artists; Together with a Choice Collection of Gems of Art, by the Most Eminent Old Masters, Apollo Gallery, New York, May 1839, no. 159, as Still Life.
1954
American Still Life Paintings, M. Knoedler and Company, New York, 1954, no. 19.
1958
Nature's Bounty and Man's Delight, Newark Museum, 1958, no. 21.
1959
Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1966
Art of the United States: 1670-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September-November 1966, no. 159.
1966
Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, April-September 1966, unpublished checklist.
1970
19th-Century America: Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, no. 20.
1976
Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
1977
The Paintings of Charles Bird King (1785-1862), National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, 1977-1978, no. 42.
1978
The Object as Subject: American Still Lifes from the Corcoran Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978, no. 1.
1983
The Capital Image: Painters in Washington, 1800-1915, National Museum of American Art, Washington, 1983-1984, unnumbered catalogue.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 9 (shown only in Washington).
2008
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Bibliography
1959
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959: 46, repro.
2011
Strong, Lisa. "Charles Bird King, Poor Artist's Cupboard." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 64-65, 256-257, repro.