The Wonder of the Familiar: On the Still Life Paintings of Ellen Altfest
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
In an article titled ‘The Power of Patience’, the American art historian Jennifer L. Roberts describes how she asks her students to spend three full hours in front of a painting before starting their research. Three hours. Looking at just one painting. It is a timespan deliberately designed to seem excessive and implausible but for good reason. As Roberts argues, every external pressure in our modern world, social and technological, is pushing us further towards immediacy. The desire for efficiency and productivity encourages us to maximise every single minute - why else is there an automatic read time at the top of this post? She stresses the importance of giving her students both the permission and structures to slow down. This may be a particular priviledge for time rich art history students but one that is nonetheless difficult to embrace when there is simply so much art to see. Why look at just one painting in the time you can look at the entire permanent collection at most galleries? As Roberts states, just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have actually seen it.
I can’t admit to having stood in front of any painting for three hours – I typically find five full minutes a struggle. Within seconds, my easily distracted mind turns to planning dinner or an impulse to check the latest football scores. But in the age of three-minute highlights and the infinite scroll I want to make an unfashionable case for looking at art as a strategy to slow down and appreciate things typically undervalued, particularly through the paintings of Ellen Altfest.
Working from her cosy outdoor studio nestled in the Connecticut forest, Altfest typically works in total solitude. Each painting takes months, even years, to finish. She has enormous dedication to her subject matter, ensuring she is as faithful as possible to each vein in a leaf or every loose strand of hair. Whilst her paintings of decaying fruit and vegetables are a race against time, Altfest’s use of life models and unwavering commitment to painting directly from life comes with its own set of challenges. One model quit three months in, leaving a painting forever incomplete. Another was required to keep his arm raised for several hours a day over a nine month period as Altfest scrutinized his armpit. He ended up straining his rotator cuff and was forced to take an injury break.
The Tree (2000) is indicative of her uncompromising approach. Every fold of bark, grain and hollow, every variegated leaf is faithfully depicted. In revealing remarks, Altfest states “I had training from a young age, much younger than most people. I think painting from observation is like learning a language, and it's much harder to pick up a new language when you're older.” Observation, perhaps due to the immediacy of the visual, is not typically seen as something we have to work at, much less an entirely new language that requires discipline and practice to master. Looking at a painting like The Tree, you start to imagine the patience and close scrutiny required to capture such intense detail. In doing so, the idea of observation as a new language slowly begins to sound more plausible.
The writer Terry Glaspey has advocated for the importance of finding beauty in the ordinary. He draws
attention to Van Gogh’s Shoes (1886) as an example of something seemingly ordinary that is far from mundane. A
simple pair of old boots doesn't immediately come to mind as an ideal subject for a struggling artist. Bought at a flea market, the artist walked in the boots through mud to give them a deliberately worn look. Van Gogh deliberately sought to draw out their heavy usage and strenuous history. As Glaspey notes, they tell of “a story of hard work, a life lived in communion with the earth, of some pain and suffering”. The artist has elevated both the boots and the agricultural labour of their previous owner to a place worthy to be properly looked at and seen. To paint and to look properly at such a seemingly mundane pair of shoes is to acknowledge the sacredness of everyday objects.
The author and psychologist Jordan Peterson has spoken about an artist friend who travels the world but exclusively paints his own two feet on the ground. What seems like a great squandering of opportunity can in fact teach an important lesson. As Peterson states, “What [the artist] is telling you is that everything is worth paying attention to an infinite amount but you don't have enough time. The artist does it for you. The artist looks and looks and looks and then gives you that vision. It reminds you that everything there is, is right where you are.” This reminded me of the art historian David Joselit’s elegant description of paintings as ‘time batteries’ that hold deep reservoirs of experience and information. Not only do they store this gradually accumulated visual information, but they also give it out to the viewer over time. When you look at The Tree you begin to notice more than you ever would have if you were to pass the same plant in a park. The fact that the artist has spent such a great deal of time examining the trunk encourages you to do the same. To look properly at these paintings is to tap into that reservoir of deep looking and benefit from the artist’s devotion to their subject.
I'll finish with Caravaggio’s masterful Still Life with Fruit (c. 1610). It's a gorgeous painting. The Italian artist has depicted shallots which glisten seductively in the light and ripe pomegranate and melons, sliced open to reveal their intricate seed structure. The warm reds and oranges of the apples and peaches shift softly to the earthy greens and yellows of the twisted marrows. The
mottled patina of the pumpkins are echoed in Altfest’s own Green Gourd (2007), an intense study that relishes in the unique colours and patterns of a closely cropped gourd. An artist who painted powerful and dramatic religious works, there is something of the sacred in the respect Caravaggio affords to his fruits. They glow and shine in the soft light that comes at a particular angle from above, casting vivid shadows. Indeed, I would argue that they convey a childlike sense of wonder in the natural world. They help us to re-examine seemingly ordinary produce; and is this not the job of the artist, to reframe how we look at things? Far from naïve, this wonder seems to be the right way to respond to and marvel at creation, as well as an antidote to pervasive and cynical indifference.
I could stand in front of the Caravaggio or any Altfest painting for a long time. Still, three hours might be a bit much.