Important American Paintings - September 2010
Emil Carlsen
(Born Denmark, 1853–1932)
Still Life with a Brass Kettle and Shallots, 1904
Oil on canvas, 16 × 20 inches
Signed and dated at lower right: "Emil Carlsen. 1904."
RS 5877

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, Emil Carlsen trained as an architect at the Danish Royal Academy before he immigrated to the United States in 1872. He settled in Chicago, worked briefly at an architect’s office, studied with a Danish marine painter named Lauritz Bernhard Holst (1848–1934), and taught at the Chicago Academy of Design (now the Art Institute of Chicago). In 1875 he went to Denmark and also spent six months in Paris. After returning to the United States, he worked in Boston in 1876, supporting himself by working as an engraver, graphic designer, and art teacher. He went back to Paris for two years and made paintings for a New York dealer. In 1885 he exhibited at the Paris Salon and the National Academy of Design. In 1887 Carlsen accepted the post of director of the California School of Design in San Francisco. He spent five years in California and during some of that time shared studios with the tonalist landscape painter Arthur F. Mathews (1860–1945) in San Francisco and San Rafael. In 1891 he moved to New York City, where he remained until his death. Carlsen summered in Ogunquit, Maine, and Falls Village, Connecticut, and is known to have made additional trips to Europe in 1908 and 1912. He also taught at the National Academy of Design from 1912 to 1918, and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. During the early 1880s Carlsen began to paint the still-life subjects for which he is best known; in 1921 an art critic referred to him as "unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today."1 Carlsen championed still life as a teacher. In 1908 he published an article on the genre in which he lamented the academic insistence on having students draw from antique statuary and the nude figure, and posed the rhetorical question: "Then why should the earnest student overlook the simplest and most thorough way of acquiring all the knowledge of the craft of painting and drawing, the study of inanimate objects, still life painting, the very surest road to absolute mastery over all technical difficulties."2 Carlsen exhibited widely and won numerous professional distinctions, among them the gold medal at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, the Inness Medal at the National Academy of Design in 1907, the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1912, and the Saltus Medal at the National Academy in 1916. He was elected a full academician of the National Academy in 1906, and also belonged to the Society of American Artists and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He exhibited at most of the Corcoran Biennials from 1907 to 1930, and a large retrospective exhibition of his work was held there in 1923.3 Painted in 1904, Still Life with a Brass Kettle and Shallots reflects the influence of the eighteenth-century French still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), whose work Carlsen had studied during his first visit to Paris in 1875, at the suggestion of the portraitist Lawrence Carmichael Earle (1845–1921). The somber tones, austere composition of everyday objects, and starkly contrasting textures are all indebted to Chardin, whom Carlsen came to regard as the greatest of all still-life painters. The painting is also noteworthy for the reflection of three windows in the bottle at the right.


1. Arthur Edwin Bye, Pots and Pans or Studies in Still Life Painting (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), pp. 213–214.

2. Emil Carlsen, "On Still–Life Painting," Palette and Bench (October 1908), pp. 6–8.

3. For biographical information on Carlsen, see The Art of Emil Carlsen, 1853–1932 (San Francisco: Rubicon–Wortsman Rowe, 1975); and Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Quiet Magic: The Still–Life Paintings of Emil Carlsen [exh. cat., Vance Jordan Fine Art] (New York, 1999).


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