Roman, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and French. These cultures all developed uniquely mannered still-life traditions that so codified the cultural gestalt of each that the works carry associations far beyond visual culture into political, economic and religious history. What about American still-life painting? Have we ever witnessed a stylistic zenith in which our culture’s most critical ideas were codified in the still-life? Are there American painters who captured the cultural zeitgeist the way our greatest novelists and musicians have? Do we have a Zurbarán, a Chardin or a Cézanne? These questions, and many more, come to mind while viewing The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, an ambitious, scholarly show that traces American still-life painting back to its roots at the birth of our society.

Audubon to Warhol gathers the works of nearly one hundred still-life painters, spanning two centuries, and separates them both chronologically and thematically into four groups: Describing (1795-1845), Indulging (1845-1890), Discerning (1875-1905) and Animating (1905- 1950). These categories give the show some structural support, and help one navigate a sea of images, each of which offers a compelling glimpse into American cultural history.

Our early still-life painters worked from one of two imperatives: a scientific approach to describing discrete natural elements as faithfully as possible, or the more painterly approach of rendering entire scenes illusionistically. Both approaches have their roots in European painting, but a triumph of the show is its suggestion that these modes of working were distinctly American, too.