Still Life – The Story

Still Life – The Story

While in Paris, Dégas’ close friend Giovanni Boldini painted a still life on a canvas that measured 47 1/4 inches high by 15 1/4 inches wide. This narrow canvas that stretches to nearly four feet in height was probably meant to evoke a Japanese screen or scroll. In it he painted a glass of red wine just emptied, the residue barely visible at the bottom of the glass and a stack of Old Paris plates, white porcelain with gold trim that casts a celadon shadow. On one of the plates, there is a silver bowl lined with glowing gold. Another plate is strewn with apricots and figs, their skin is the same green hue as the plate’s shadow, only darker; the inside is the shape of an almond, only white. Faintly in the shadow falling diagonally across this unusual expanse of canvas — so tall and narrow, is a bowl lined with glowing gold.  Faintly in the shadow falling diagonally across this unusual expanse of canvas — so tall and narrow, — one can see an embroidered “D” on the tablecloth, perhaps for Dégas.

As soon as I saw this painting in a coffee table book of still lifes, I knew that this was what I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint that painting, or rather a painting of that size, that composition, that beauty. So, I plunked down the $125. and hefted the book into my arms and carried it home to my small apartment.

In my career as an artist, the muses often contacted me in this manner — leaping from a page in a book — or jumping off the wall.  Once, while removing notes, postcards, and photographs from the wall of my studio, I found that the backs of several postcards that I had dropped on my work table framed a perfectly cropped, eloquent painting-to-be of the back of a woman. Without disturbing a thing I carefully taped each of the obliging scraps of paper to the found image, thus making a makeshift frame around it. This way I would know exactly what this painting required, what part of the image should be included and what needed to be cropped out. Careful to maintain the precise proportions I stretched and primed a small linen canvas. The painting effortlessly appeared under the caressing strokes of my brush. I merely revealed through the gentle dusting of my brush an image that was already there; midwife to this painting, I was neither the creator nor owner of what came forth.

Leslie Parke, “The Back”, 13 inches x 10 inches, oil on linen.

The Boldini was different. I knew I wanted my painting to have the same feel: the transplanted Orientalism of the elongated format with the objects casually, yet perfectly distributed on the surface with the shaft of light that divides and illuminates the space, bringing focus to one object and leaving another in the quiet eddies of darkness.

As a dealer once said to me, “I can find plenty of artists who paint well, but they don’t know what to paint.” Not so for Boldini, whose painting is emblematic of his life; a café life, a casual meeting with friends just over, their conversation reverberating in his ear as the muse pulls him aside and says, “Paint this.”

In my apartment, I drag a table in front of my west facing windows. In the late afternoon, the sun pours into the room like rain lighting each bit of dust. But no one has been to my apartment in weeks — no meal just eaten, nothing has been left casually on the table. So I pull objects off my shelves and line them up first by color — the blue vase, the blue cobalt and white Spode china, the gold and blue Lenox teapot. Then I arrange the objects like soldiers in a row. I move everything to the center, then everything to the edge. I try for a Zen-like casualness that fails utterly, as my anti-muse takes over and enters a regularity into my placement that is dull and even.

As I struggle with my artificial arrangements, other artists’ still lifes come to me: Eric Fiscl’s kitchen counter top under florescent light, so modern, real and evocative;  and the master of still life painting, Janet Fish’s all over compositions that show formal sophistication, and yet at the same time are so full of her life, friends and everyday objects — a football game on a portable TV surrounded by bags of Cheetos and chips, with a dog asleep under the table and the convenience store across the street visible out the window. Her world is complete, inside and out and it is peopled by friends, family and animals.

I continue to move my objects around — old things like my Grandfather’s Lalique vase, and new things, like my cell phone. With each arrangement, another artist’s work seems to appear: Wayne Thibaud, Morandi, Matisse. I feel like a writer who cannot construct a sentence without recognizing which Hemmingway story it is stolen from.

My own objects are not enough. My friends lend me theirs: 19th Century English Mulberry Brushstroke china, a Belgian crystal ball, and an open-cut lace tablecloth. With each arrangement, I photograph the still life to paint from later. At first I take dozens of photos. then hundreds. Some things remain, the tablecloth, the Lalique, the old China. Others are eliminated, the cell phone. I compose like a veteran editor at the New Yorker. Taking the great raw material of superior artists, I cut and paste until I am left with either the echoes or the essence of the originals. Some of my borrowings are obvious — Vermeer makes an unabashed appearance in the form of a reproduction in a book.

Leslie Parke, "The Weight of Pearls". oil on canvas, 35 inches x 70 inches

Leslie Parke, “The Weight of Pearls”. oil on canvas, 35 inches x 70 inches

Boldini left me with some evidence of his life. What evidence am I offering? I suppress the query and move on. Two themes emerge, despite me. The tablecloth, which seems never to be eliminated from the still lifes, is taking on a personality of its own. Its arabesques of open-cut lace move across the surface of my paintings like a well-charted landscape. As the light changes from bold to muted and passes through the increasing quantities of translucent objects, it is as though weather is passing over the lace landscape. A cool winter glaze covers the surface when it is coupled with a shimmering crystal sugar bowl in the blue light of the early morning.

Leslie Parke, "Sugar Bowl", oil on linen, 1999.

“Still Life with Onions”

My birthday comes and with it a bit of colored translucent wrapping paper that shifts appearance like a chameleon when you crinkle it and let light pass through it. I can’t even remember what came in this magical paper, the wrapping itself seemed such a gift. I put the paper around bouquets and water-filled vases. As the light splinters over the surface, the solid objects in its grasp dissolve, melted in its refracted light. Here is the final theme; The light, the transparence and the disappearance. It is here that I emerge, a thing that is no thing, a reflection, a transparency, an object that light passes through.



The Generous Janet Fish

You know when there is a painter you really love, where everything about their work excites you and you go in the studio and spend all your time trying to avoid that person’s work? Well, for a long time I felt that way about Janet Fish, especially when I first started painting representationally. One day I decided that the only way to find out what my painting was about was to try to make the most Fishesque paintings that I could. So, first, just in case you are not familiar, let me show you her work.

Janet Fish, "Green Glass from Alexis"

Janet Fish, “Green Glass from Alexis”

Janet Fish, "Tulips"

Janet Fish, “Tulips”

Janet Fish

Janet Fish

Janet Fish

Janet Fish

Janet Fish

Janet Fish

Janet Fish has two studios, one in New York and one in Vermont. Several years ago she built a new studio in Vermont, which made it possible for her to have a painting space that faced east and one that faced west. As I understand it, during the morning light she paints in the east studio and in the afternoon she paints in the west studio. She works almost entirely from life, and not only does she chase the morning and afternoon light, she also chases the light around her canvas, painting each section when the light on that  item looks best. So, the light in her paintings do not represent one moment, but time passing.

She takes a long time to set up her still lifes. Her studio is filled with props that she organizes chromatically on bookshelves.

Fish is known for her highly chromatic paintings, her reflective surfaces, her painting of glass and other transparent substances such as plastic, as well as, a space fully populated with objects. There is frequently an underlying reference or narrative that is personal. She sometimes includes friends and neighbors in her paintings, and even many of the objects are things that her friends lend her. But her paintings are also about formal issues of color, light and composition.

When I set about to do a Fishesque painting, I put together objects that I saw in her paintings, such as shells, then things that reflected light, such as fabric that changes its sheen as the light changes; ribbons; anything that sparkled, was transparent or translucent. This is what I came up with:

Leslie Parke, "About This Table", oil on canvas

Leslie Parke, “About This Table”, oil on canvas

Leslie Parke, "All that Glitters", oil on linen

Leslie Parke, “All that Glitters”, oil on linen

Leslie Parke, "Still Life with High Heels", oil on linen

Leslie Parke, “Still Life with High Heels”, oil on linen

So, what did I learn? I tend not to work with high key colors. I am more interested in the light of a particular moment.  I  like  to try to paint the unpaintable — things that glitter, shine and reflect light; things that are transparent or translucent. For me, I think that light is a stronger draw than color. With Janet Fish as my guide, I learned to be fearless in my choice of objects and to see the objects for the visual qualities they brought to the painting, not for their “meaning”. The lessons of these paintings have served me well. I have been able to bring more of me to my new still lifes and less of Janet. And as I was able to distinguish what it was about her paintings that really resonated with me, I was able to distill that which was mine and find more of that in the world to paint.

Leslie Parke, "Avalanche", oil on linen

Leslie Parke, “Avalanche”, oil on linen

Leslie Parke, "Compacted", oil on linen

Leslie Parke, “Compacted”, oil on linen

Leslie Parke, "Recycled Bottles", oil on linen

Leslie Parke, “Recycled Bottles”, oil on linen

One final note: I have a friend, Lynn, who is a very close friend of Janet’s and one day she asked me if I would like to go to our favorite import store in Rutland with Janet. Lynn and I had been often to this store and one time I bought a pair of Indonesian dolls that seemed very Fishesque to me. I tried painting them, but they resisted me. Something about them was too “Fishy”. When we were at the store I found another set of these dolls and I showed them to Janet. I told her that I thought she might like them. She did.

Janet Fish, "Sequins", detail

Janet Fish, “Sequins”, detail

Books of Interest:


Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at

Morandi’s Studio


Morandi Stillife

In October a Facebook friend, Isreal Hershberg, posted an album of photos of Morandi’s studio in Bologna,  Italy. The house in Via Fondazza 36, in which Giorgio Morandi lived and worked from 1910 to 1964, opened to the public October 17, 2009.

Morandi lived with his three unmarried sisters in a dingy apartment in the northern Italian town.  He was unmarried and a loner, perhaps even suffering from agoraphobia. His bedroom was his studio. In this hermetic world, each painting took up to two months to complete. He did not stray from this subject matter.

Artist’s studios reveal a lot about the artist. What colors they live with, what they read, what materials they use and how they organize their space. In Morand’s case, it is remarkable to me that the color in the studio is so close to the color that he used in his paintings.

Morandi's Studio

Morandi’s Studio Photographed by Isreal Hershberg

This quote describes Morandi’s work better than I could:

“Morandi’s unwavering commitment to a particular subject matter, often repeatedly depicting even the same stark objects, caused derision from his critics who interpreted his art as old-fashioned, vernacular “genre painting” unconcerned with content and modern ideals.  However, though his art may seem reductive and simplistic initially, it is precisely those narrow boundaries established through his focus on one theme that allowed for a thorough exploration of formal concerns and relationships of form, space, and light. His works are eloquent statements about perception and the process of seeing.” [Paul Thiebaud Gallery press release]


Morandi Still Life

Morandi's studio

Morandi’s Studio photographed by Isreal Herhberg

Morandi's studio

Morandi’s Studio Photographed by Isreal Hershberg

Morandi's studio

Morandi’s Studio Photographed by Isreal Hershberg

Even in this space, one feels the care of placement and the consideration of the relationship of one object to another.

If you go:

Museo Morandi

Or order from your local independent books seller. Mine is Battenkill Books. Find the independent bookstore closest to you at

About Isreal Hershberg and the Jeruselem School of Art



Size matters

Many years ago, when I was contemplating doing some still lifes, I bought a book published by Abrams called Still Life: A History. In it I found a still life by the minor Impressionist artist, Giovanni Boldini (Ferrara, 1842 – Paris, 1931), called Corner of the Painter’s Table, (oil on canvas, 1880). The dimensions of this painting seemed odd to me: 47 1/4 inches by 15 1/4 inches [120 x 38.5 cm]. I wondered if Boldini chose to work in this format because of the influence of Japonisme on painting at the time.

Giovanni Boldini, "Corner of Painter's Table", oil on canvas, 1890. Ferrara, Museo Giovanni Boldini.
Giovanni Boldini, “Corner of Painter’s Table”, oil on canvas, 1890. Ferrara, Museo Giovanni Boldini.

I loved everything about this painting; the sweeping diagonal, the muted colors, the linen, porcelain, glass  and silver,  but I especially loved the format and I immediately set out to experiment with this format on my own.

My first version kept the diagonal, the linen, glass and silver.

Leslie Parke, "Sugar Bowl", oil on linen, 1999.

My second version added Brush Stoke China  and a Rene Lalique vase into the mix.

Leslie Parke, “Still Life with Onions”, oil on linen, 1999. Private Collection.

I have continued to play with this format over the years.

Leslie Parke, "Koi Fish Forth", oil on linen, 2006. Collection of Fran and Jeff Goldstone.
Leslie Parke, “Koi Forth”, oil on linen, 2006. Collection of Fran and Jeff Goldstone.

Then, while doing some research on Monet, I came across this:

Claude Monet, “White Poppy”, 128.5 x 37.0 cm, oil on canvas, 1883. Private Collection, Japan.

While not exactly the 120 x 38.5 cm of the Boldini, clearly the proportions were the same. What I found next answered all:

Claude Monet, “The Door Panels of Durand-Ruel’s Drawing Room”

As the story goes, Monet was commissioned to do the panels for several doors in Durand-Ruel’s drawing room on the Rue de Rome in Paris in 1882, when Monet was still living in Poissy. The commission dragged on as Monet moved first to Giverny and then went on a painting trip to Bordighera, which is why two Mediterranean subjects were added to the collection. These were painted on canvas that were then stretched on thin stretchers that could be installed on the doors.

Claude Monet, “Six Panels, Decoration for door A”.

It seems highly likely to me that the Boldini was painted with a similar installation in mind.

Books Mentioned:

Still Life: A History

Monet: Catalogue Raisonne

In case you go:

Corso Porta Mare 9 –
Farrara, Italy
Tel. 0532 244949 – Fax 0532 203064