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New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
 
 
painting
 
Ella N. Griffith
(dates unknown)
Still Life with Books, Pipe, and Matches
Oil on canvas, 12 × 14 inches
Signed and dated at lower right: “E. N./ Griffith 1897”
Exhibited: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, 19th Century American Still Life Painting (Feb. 20–April 22, 1973) as Still Life with Parlor Matches by “Edward” N. Griffith; lent by Noah Goldowsky, Inc., New York.

The identity of the still-life painter Ella N. Griffith has emerged only recently and after considerable confusion. Alfred Frankenstein, in his pioneering study of American still-life painting, discussed two tabletop still-life compositions that resembled the work of William Michael Harnett (1848–1892). He drew a parallel between a small still life signed E. N. Griffith (1894, formerly in a New York private collection) to a similar undated painting called The Bachelor’s Friends (Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.) that had a counterfeit Harnett signature. Having established that connection, Frankenstein concluded that “the solution, however, is as tantalizing as the problem, for E.N. Griffith is a name to which nothing else can be attached.”1

William H. Gerdts, in his 1964 study of art in New Jersey, noted that an artist named Ella Griffith had lived in Orange during the late nineteenth century and that a signed still life by her had been discovered in a private collection in Verona, thus adding a third painting to the group. He concluded that “she was obviously an able practitioner of trompe-l’oeilpainting à la Harnett, meticulously depicting the books, candlesticks, old pipes, and other homely objects which were the standard props of still-life painters of the period.”2

By 1972, when Gerdts wrote the exhibition catalogue American 19th Century Still Life Paintings for the New York art gallery Noah Goldowsky, Inc., he had new reservations about Griffith’s identity. He attributed the Schwarz Gallery’s painting, Still Life with Books, Pipe, and Matches, to Edward N. Griffith, whom he “once, mistakenly, identified with the woman artist of the period, Ella Griffith.” He went on to explain that “Griffith took on the total iconography of Harnett, but approached it in a manner not only painterly but really romantic, with an emphasis upon irregular outlines, and dynamic compositional lines seemingly incompatible with the school.”3 When Goldowsky lent its collection of still-life paintings to the Baltimore Museum of Art for exhibition early the following year, Still Life with Books, Pipe, and Matches was attributed to Edward N. Griffith. The Montclair Museum of Art acquired a fifth still life, the signed and dated Table Top (1892), which was listed in collection catalogues in 1977 and 1989 as by Edward N. Griffith.4 The most recent opinion has it that these closely related still-life subjects were all painted by Ella N. Griffith, and when Still Life with Books, Pipe, and Matches was sold at Christie’s East in 2000 it was listed under her name.5 In recent years several other paintings by Griffith have appeared in the marketplace, including the impressive McKinley-Roosevelt (1901) and her last known work, Still Life with Books (1920).6

Some of the objects that Griffith included in this still life are noteworthy. The carefully delineated gold lettering on the spine of the blue book identifies it as a popular primer on politics for children, Charles Nordhoff’s Politics for Young Americans (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1875). Nordhoff, a leading political commentator of the time, was the grandfather of Charles Bernard Nordhoff, coauthor with J. N. Hall of Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Men Against the Sea (1933), Pitcairn’s Island (1934), and other novels. The box resting on top of the book accurately represents the distinctive packaging of “Honest Long Cut Smoking and Chewing Tobacco,” made by the North Carolina firm of W. Duke and Sons, a branch of the American Tobacco Company. The company, formed by a merger of five rival tobacco companies in 1890, held such a monopoly in the trade that it was known as the “tobacco trust.” Parlor matches were an improvement over the standard red phosphorous sulfur safety matches, which had the disadvantage of emitting unpleasant sulfur-dioxide fumes. The odor was eliminated by inserting materials such as rosin, camphor, or gum benzoin to transmit the flame from the ignited phosphorus to the wooden splint. Finally, the tablecloth is identical to the one used in the Montclair Museum of Art’s painting.


Notes

1. Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953; rev. ed., 1969), p. 153. The small still life Books, Candle, Matches, and a Pipe was sold at William Doyle Galleries, New York, April 5, 1989, lot 22.

2. Gerdts, Painting and Sculpture in New Jersey, p. 111. He included one of Griffith’s still-life compositions in an exhibition at that time; see William H. Gerdts, Women Artists of America 1707–1964 [exh. cat.] (Newark, N.J.: The Newark Museum, 1965), p. 23.

3. William H. Gerdts, American 19th Century Still Life Paintings [exh. cat.] (New York: Noah Goldowsky, 1972), p. 4, no. 10, illus. pp. 8–9.

4. The American Painting Collection at the Montclair Art Museum (Montclair, N.J.: Montclair Museum of Art, 1977), p. 215, no. 146; Marilyn S. Kushner, Alejandro Anreus, Marion Grzesiak, and Virginia Wageman, Three Hundred Years of American Painting: The Montclair Museum of Art (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1989) p. 150, no. 195.

5. Christie’s East, New York, October 4, 2000, lot 20.

6. The former was sold at Sotheby’s New York, May 25, 1995, lot 131, and the latter at Sotheby’s Arcade, New York, Sept. 24, 1998, lot 164.




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