San Francisco

Samuel Marsden Brookes

California Historical Society

Still lifes by an artist celebrated in his own time as a painter of fish and fruit, although his income was mainly from portraits until he came to California in 1853. Three late portraits, imitative of photography, are included in this show. They do not add to the artist’s stature. The still lifes fall into two distinct groups: the “nature morte” of bric-a-brac and pantry items, which are less than mediocre, and the “Stilleben” of freshly picked fruit or still warm game, which are very good and sometimes cruelly beautiful. Brookes (1816–1892) was at his best with birds and fish. He was a past master at suggesting the pitiful limpness of newly dead game birds, the sleek and slippery wetness of freshly caught salmon, or even the suspended weightlessness of trout in a tank. How, then, could he have been so clumsy in painting that tiger, which surely must have been done from a draped skin and a stuffed head!

Since this show is presented for its historical value, including the good and the bad of one artist’s work and one era’s taste, the question of recurring style comes up. Although Brookes enjoyed more than moderate success in his time, he was severely criticized for his use of shallow space—for placing his objects against solid walls which stop the backward progress of the eye, thus tending to project the still life group off the picture plane. This treatment finds sympathetic response in today’s audience, used to seeing collages and assemblages in high relief, and curiously alert to a certain relationship between Brookes’ sharp-focus bric-a-brac in a niche and, say, Bruce Conner’s “black Victorian” what-not-isms in a shadowbox.

Elizabeth M. Polley