Hundley Wells Coolman–Flowers
Flowers in a vase seem quotidian in this world and perhaps even unassuming. However, flower paintings come from a long and winding history of art. Flower paintings are a subgenre of “still life,” from the Dutch word, stilleven–prominent in the late 16th and early 17 century. Unlike many terms in art history developed later to discuss art, the Dutch used the word “still life” or stilleven to refer to the genre. You can find “stilleven” written on inventory sheets to refer to the genre from the 17th century. New Albany born, Hundley Wells Coolman (1890-1973) continues the tradition of flower stills lifes that prospered in the 17th century with her painting Flowers.
While the prominence of still lifes and flower paintings flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, the motif frequently occurred in books and artwork, such as the Merode Altarpiece–in the center panel where the table hosts a vase of flowers, a candle, and a manuscript. Early works during the Middles Ages, such as the Merode Altarpiece, contain symbolic qualities of religious figures and the Virgin Mary–for example, lilies symbolize purity. Before religious imagery, Egyptian tombs as early as the 15th century BCE contained subject matter similar to still lifes. Ancient Greeks and Romans also created parallel flower compositions, including frescos in the prominent city of Pompeii.¹ Still lifes became prevalent with the increasing urbanization occurring in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. With urbanization came an emphasis on aspects of everyday life–the home, personal possessions, commerce, trade, and learning.² The history of still lifes evolved from documentation and religion to a subject that marked pride in self and prosperity.³ What do you think about the objects in your everyday life?
When you think of aspects of everyday life, you may think of monotony, yet, during the 17th century, artists like Rachel Ruysch (Dutch, 1664-1750) created elaborate flower still lifes that were far from mundane. She produced what could be heterotopias, as each flower in her still life accurately captures blooms from different points in the year. Unlike the 17th century Netherlands, today you can access most flowers all year round. To confront this, artists like Rachel Ruysch created flower studies throughout different seasons and used those studies to construct their still lifes with creatures and bugs to showcase the artists’s skills. Traditional art classes often teach students to create still lifes directly from observation, not necessarily to collage from multiple studies and time periods like Rachel Ruysch, who created abundant still lifes from numerous sketches–somewhat similar to how we use photoshop today!
Still lifes continued in popularity into modern art movements. Impressionists and post-impressionists, like Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) and Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), explored the genre in their own styles and explorations.
Like those before her, Coolman explores the genre of flower still lifes in her work and imbues herself into her art. Coolman was best known for her paintings of Indiana scenes and flower studies. She uses impasto–a technique of applying thick layers of paint that rise above the surface–to give depth and life to each flower. Coolman was born in New Albany. Her family left Indiana for Georgia when she was eight, where she lived and explored art until her marriage in 1910–when she returned to her hometown. As an adult, she continued her art studies at the Louisville Art Academy under Paul Plaschke (born German, American, about 1880-1954). Coolman was also the first president of the Wonderland Way Art Club–a group of artists who frequented James L. Russel’s (American, New Albany, IN, 1872–1937) Art Shop. She often opened her home for club gatherings and exhibitions–her flowers offer an equally inviting quality.
Please join us at Carnegie Center for Art and History to explore the slopes and peaks of Hundley Wells Coolman’s Flowers and discover more still lifes on view in From Audubon to Sisto: Highlights from the Permanent Collection. We look forward to seeing you!
- For further reading on Egyptian, Greek, and Roman still lifes, please reference source 2.
- Everyday life also refers to genre paintings, for further reading, please reference source 3.
- This is a very general statement. For an indepth understanding of the role of still lifes, the objects, and trade that enslaved people, you can reference Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age by Julie Hochstrasser, Yale University Press, New Haven [Conn.], ©2007. (Source 4)
- More information on Paul Plaschke: https://thejohnsoncollection.org/paul-plaschke/
Explore more on Coolman and Wonderland Way artists at New Albany Floyd County Library’s Indiana Room!
By: Sheridan Bishoff