In the realm of art, peonies as subjects find their way into elaborate Dutch and Flemish still life paintings where the entire bouquet is a tour de force. One of my favorite paintings as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, also my hometown, was Edouard Manet’s 1864 still life painting of peonies (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). I admired the simplicity, color balance, the glorious brushwork, how those luscious blossoms emerged from the dark background, and the idea of how Manet challenged the hierarchy of the academic genres in painting. At that time, I was more focused on studying French literature and culture relative to art history, attempting to conquer the French language as best I could—far from William of past times, indeed. This Manet painting also had personal references: the row of peonies in front of my grandmother’s house in San Antonio, Texas, where I spent many family vacations before college, and the garden in the parish church of my youth. Later, I chose peonies as part of my wedding bouquet—that took place, believe it or not, in the South of France. They had to be special ordered because they were out of season. Hard to believe that was 15 years ago. Fortune had it that my start date at the Museum and my wedding anniversary are both June 20, but I only discovered this uncanny coincidence in 2006.
To this day, I think of Manet’s controlled ordering of objects in space and response to physical materials (some of his still lifes have a fragility beyond compare) and the manner in which they are depicted with reference to the diverse examples at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida. Decorative motifs on ancient Greek vessels, acanthus and grape leaves; the Museum’s sumptuous and varied floral still life by Jan Breughel the Younger embellished with many other flowers, objects, and butterflies; the lavish painting by the nineteenth-century British artist William Duffield that communicates the wealth of the British Empire at its height with its fruit, foliage, and mounted Chinese porcelain; a deceptively simple bachelor still life by the American John Frederick Peto; and finally, the lustrous, painterly still life with peonies by the French artist Henri Lebasque, reminding me of peonies from the past, real and imagined. Lebasque studied art in Angers and by 1886 was in Paris training with Léon Bonnat at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. (The Museum has a large-scale figure painting by Bonnat, which is a powerful example of flesh painting.) After his arrival in Paris, Lebasque met Renoir whose painting was going through a considerable change as was that of his colleagues—what has been described as the Crisis in Impressionism. Currently, Renoir’s and Lebasque’s paintings hang together—one of those happy curatorial accidents, since I was only reminded of their relationship at this writing.
Not all of these still lifes will remain on view as the Museum renovates its permanent collection galleries in the 1965 Volk Building, which have been relatively untouched since 1989. This summer’s efforts will rethink the placement of its collection. The Curatorial Department begins the move of our noted American and European art collection with the Great Hall on June 24. Come see these still life paintings in the South Galleries before they disappear for a time.