Severin Roesen

Artist Biography

Best known for his elaborate, bounteous, and detailed still lifes, Severin Roesen was born in Germany and trained as a painter of porcelain. He is considered one of the most significant American still-life specialists of the mid-19th century, who painted over three hundred still lifes. He emigrated to the United States around 1848, at a time of political turmoil in Germany, and settled in New York. Around 1857, he moved to Pennsylvania, first to Philadelphia, then Harrisburg in 1859, to Huntington by 1860, and finally to Williamsport in 1862, where he remained.

Roesen’s still lifes reflect the tradition of 17th- and early 18th-century Dutch painting, making him among the first American artists to keenly emulate the style. Scholars suggest that Roesen’s compositions were likely crafted in part from actual objects, but also from templates rearranged for different paintings due to some of his objects spoiling before he could complete his work. It is speculated that published botanical prints of the time could have served as inspiration too. His paintings appealed to the tastes of the era, including the Victorian horror vacui (filling the entire surface or space with detail), and the high accuracy and detail in his representation of flowers reflected the scientific interests of the time. So clever was his botanical technique that even his signature sometimes begins with the tendrils of grapevine. Further, the abundance in his compositions aligned with the optimistic attitude of the mid-century which celebrated the bounty and promise of the New World.

In Williamsport, he established a local reputation and enjoyed private commissions. These elaborate canvases appealed to the prosperous inhabitants, where he was the only professional resident artist. Not only would these compositions have been a fanciful addition to a home, they would have “made” the room. Scholars believe, though, that his work must have had some impact before then, both privately and publicly, including in New York. Eleven of his still lifes were exhibited at the American Art-Union between 1848 and 1852. His work was also exhibited in 1858 at the Maryland Historical Society, in 1863 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and in 1873 at the Brooklyn Art Association. His work likely influenced other artists, such as Paul Lacroix (1827–1869). His paintings are included in major museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the White House, National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Smithsonian American Art Museum, among many others.

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