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.
oil on wood
overall: 75.72 × 70.64 cm (29 13/16 × 27 13/16 in.)
framed: 94.62 × 89.85 × 5.72 cm (37 1/4 × 35 3/8 × 2 1/4 in.)
Artists / Makers
Charles Bird King (painter) American, 1785 - 1862
This image is in the public domain.
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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 [1817-1897], Philadelphia, by 1884; (his estate sale, American Art Association, 27-28 February 1899, no. 121, as Assets of a Poor Artist); purchased by J. Sterling. Mr. and Mrs. William Morrell, Cambridge, Massachusetts. purchased by (Victor Spark, New York); (M. Knoedler & Co., New York), by 1954; purchased October 1955 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Second Exhibition of Paintings, Athenaeum Gallery, Boston, 1828, no. 127, as The Poor Artist's Closet.
- First Fall Exhibition, Apollo Gallery, New York, 1838, no. 167 as Still Life. The Property of an Artist.
- Paintings and Sculpture by Living Artists, Apollo Gallery, New York, October 1839, no. 50, as Still Life.
- 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.
- 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.
- American Still Life Paintings, M. Knoedler and Company, New York, 1954, no. 19.
- Nature's Bounty and Man's Delight, Newark Museum, 1958, no. 21.
- 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.
- Art of the United States: 1670-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September-November 1966, no. 159.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, April-September 1966, unpublished checklist.
- 19th-Century America: Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1970, no. 20.
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- The Paintings of Charles Bird King (1785-1862), National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, 1977-1978, no. 42.
- The Object as Subject: American Still Lifes from the Corcoran Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978, no. 1.
- The Capital Image: Painters in Washington, 1800-1915, National Museum of American Art, Washington, 1983-1984, unnumbered catalogue.
- 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).
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum, 2015-2016, (shown only in Philadelphia).
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1959: 46, repro.
- Battersby, Martin. Trompe L'Oeil: The Eye Deceived. London, 1974: 91, 95 fig. 107.
- 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.
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