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Jack Beal: a celebration of new realism.

Looking Carefully

Realism, like everything else under the sun, is ever new and ever old. Its tradition can be traced back through the centuries as artists have communicated both noble and modest ideas through their representatives. The definition of Realism as an art term is an elusive one. For a long time, it was associated with objective, accurate representations of people, places or objects. But no more.

In the 1970s, Realism returned to the American art scene under the guise of New Realism. Through the individual approaches of artists like Richard Estes and Philip Pearlstein, New Realism emerged from the modernist movement, and convinced viewers that there is a world out there worth looking at and recording on canvas. New Realist artists, however, do not simply document what they observe; their accent is on the pictorial structure and visual information, rather than on the subject or object. However diverse they are in their approaches, New Realist artists remain committed to giving the viewer a lot to look at. For them, all of contemporary life provides subject matter

worth transcribing.

Jack Beal has served as a champion of New Realism through his staunch convictions and willingness to join with current art trends. Having little patience with contemporaries who focus on "bad, ugly or destructive things," Beal sees his work as a celebration of real life at its very best. He proclaims, "Study life, study nature and art, and try to bring them together in your work. There is no greater reward in art than the wedding of this trinity."

This philosophy is immediately recognizable in Beal's work, Still Life Painter (centerspread). His intricately arranged composition joins life, nature and art into an intriguing tale. In Still Life Painter, Beal invites the viewer to unravel the message of the objects and event depicted. He seems driven to do something with everything represented by transforming an ordinary scene into a memorable event. The picture plane becomes what Beal calls a stage of space" in which objects are manipulated and seemingly dropped into the viewer's lap. Notice how the Vermeer-like treatment of the rich, warm natural light streams in from the open window to illuminate the figure and table. This dramatic contrast against the dark values of the foreground objects gives both unity and life to his pressure-packed arrangement. His luminous use of color draws further attention to the complexities of the scene. It's as if the synthetic and natural materials represented have soaked up light and color to produce a heightened version of reality.

The term still life is derived from the seventeenth-century Dutch term still leven, which means a motionless (still) characteristic of nature (leven). We generally think of a still-life composition as an arrangement of flowers, fruit or objects on a table top. The still life is not always just a depiction of inanimate objects; it can be a form of very personal meaning for the artist.

Still Life Painter is a celebration of the commonplace. it is filled with everyday objects for the viewer. The handmade quilt, which serves as a compositional anchor, might recall a memory of family love and caring. Luscious ripened fruit speaks of the universal bounties of nature. The abundant begonia plant presents a veil of intrigue by preventing a full view of the figure. Is it the viewer she is studying? Has her concentration been interrupted, or is she studying the objects and arrangements for her rendering? For the least knowledgeable viewer to the most learned, Still Life Painter invites the audience to become actively involved in deciphering its many messages.


In a visual twist to Still Life Painter, Sondra Freckelton, watercolorist and wife of Beal, presents the rest of the story through her painting, Still Life (this page). Both paintings were created for a major invitational New York exhibition entitled "The Big Still Life." Because the two paintings were large in scale and the artists' studio was small, Beal and Freckelton solved the problem by each painting the same subject matter from a different perspective. By adding the elevated begonia, Beal created a defined foreground, middle ground and background in contrast to Freckelton's harmonious progression of forms.

Examine both artists' use of compositional arrangement. Like Beal, Freckelton's composition is carefully designed to lead the viewer's eye around to various points of interest. The sculptural nature of her work is not surprising, considering Freckelton began her career in the 1950s as a sculptor. Her ability to select, organize and control the objects and surfaces, while pushing the composition forward through the use of strong diagonal lines, illustrates the architectural complexity of her work. Compare the spatial relationships in the two paintings. How does each artist's arrangement of the same objects contribute to the overall effect of the paintings?

While Beal and Freckelton are both Realists, the palette and atmosphere of their paintings are decidedly different. Beal's color moves in sharp tonal contrasts--a means to draw attention to the structure of the setting as a whole. Consequently, his use of color is more informative than expressive. Freckelton's color gives a rich, emotional feeling of life to the inanimate objects in her painting. She is attempting to have the objects seem more round, more full, more lively" than they appear sitting in front of her. Compare individual objects in each painting. How does the color and tone used by each artist affect the viewer's interpretation of the subject matter? Although the subject matter is the same in these two artworks, Beal and Freckelton demonstrate the broad parameters of New Realism through their individual visions.

Key Concepts

* New Realist paintings can be more than accurate representations of people, places and objects. * Components of previous styles or techniques that have influenced an artist are often visible in an artist's work. * The still life can be a very personal expression for the artist. The objects represented can be filled with messages or symbolism for the viewer to decipher. * Skillful use of the picture plane can draw the viewer into the composition.


1931 Born in Richmond, Virginia. Bedridden by painful car infections in early childhood, he was encouraged by his mother to spend his time drawing. 1950-1953 Attended William and Mary College, Norfolk, Virginia. Late in his college career, he was advised by an art teacher to pursue his painting talents at an art school. 1953-1956 Awarded a scholarship to study at the Art Institute of Chicago. Fellow classmates included Red Grooms, Richard Estes, Claes Oldenburg and Sondra Freckelton. 1956-1962 Left the Art Institute of Chicago and immersed himself in the Abstract-Expressionist movement, modeling his work after de Kooning and Gorky. 1962-1970 Disenchanted with the modernist movement, he turned back to Realism. Painting directly from nature, he discovered how to bring color and natural forms into harmony. 1970-Present With an extensive exhibition record, numerous artist-in-residencies at American universities and colleges, and representation in a wide variety of private and public collections, Beal continues to be a leading American figure in the New-Realist movement.

Selected Public Collections:

Whitney Museum of American Art Minneapolis Institute of Art Walker Art Center, Minneapolis San Francisco Museum of Art Museum of Modern Art Art Institute of Chicago Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington Philadelphia Art Museum Toledo Museum of Art University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Suggested Activities

Pre K-Kindergarten

* Have the children name the colors and shapes in Still Life Painter. What color do they notice first? Find all the places it is used in the painting. Where are the large shapes? Where are the small shapes? This activity could be enriched by using flash cards containing shapes and colors (paint chips from your local hardware store are a great, free resource) found in the painting. These cards can be used during the motivational activity or as a self-directed game in a learning center. Demonstrate how large the painting is. Have each child paint one large fruit or vegetable which can be cut out and displayed as a still life on a large piece of draped fabric or quilt hung on your classroom wall.

Primary (Grades 1-3)

* Let the children smell and taste Still Life Painter and Still Life by actually sampling the different fruits represented in the paintings. Create a list of imaginative words and phrases on the chalkboard that describe the odors and flavors experienced. Using the list as a resource, have each child write a sentence or paragraph describing the fruit in the observed paintings. Based on their written descriptions, have the children paint their own still lifes.

Intermediate (Grades 4-6)

* Discuss the idea of foreground, middle ground and background in a composition. Examine Beal's work to see how he has arranged the objects and used colors to create this illusion. Compare his approach to a work by Vermeer. Have the children bring in their favorite fruit, vegetables, baskets and textiles. Using these objects, have groups of children create several still-life setups in the classroom, keeping in mind the compositional elements discussed. This learning activity could be completed with group-produced large paintings of the setups.


* Discuss how symbols and codes are used in our everyday life. Using examples like De Heem, explain how the seventeenth-century, Dutch, still Life painter used everyday objects as symbols and codes in paintings. Apply this information to Still Life Painter and Still Life by encouraging a variety of student interpretations. Have students make their own interpretive still life based on personal meanings, which they may choose to explain in an open discussion. * Prepare a still-life setting similar to the setting in Still Life Painter, but do not share Beal's work with the students. As a beginning exercise, have the students do quick, straight-forward studies of the arrangement. Then display Beal's painting. Engage students in a comparison of their interpretation of the still-life setup and how Beal interpreted similar objects. Discuss how he has juxtaposed elements in the composition to draw the viewer into the scene. Have students complete a new rendering of the still life using the compositional techniques of Beal. To emphasize Beal's dramatic use of color, the compositions could be finished in oil pastel, acrylic or tempera paint. Let students discuss their finished work by identifying how well the work succeeds and why.


Arthur, John. Realists at Work. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1983. Doherty, Stephen M. Dynamic Still Lifes in Watercolors. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1983. Provides an excellent resource of information on the compositional and painting techniques of Sondra Freckelton. Goodyear, Frank. H. Contemporary American Realism Since 1960. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1981. Published in connection with the exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, September 18, 1981. Strand, Mark. Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1983. Examples of Jack Beal's work, including Still Life Painter, and his philosophy about realism are shared in this clear, informative text.
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Author:Cole, Elizabeth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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