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Still Life with Grapes, Watermelon and Peaches; 1839, 1839
Thomas B. Thorpe (1815-1878)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
24 1/8 x 29 1/8 inches
Signature Details: Signed lower left
Status: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Though he is best known today as the author of The Big Bear of Arkansas, an 1841 sketch widely considered the most famous yarn by a Southwestern humorist, Thomas Bangs Thorpe initially pursued a career in art.  Born in Massachusetts, but raised in Albany and New York City, he studied painting with John Quidor, whose enthusiasm for the stories of Washington Irving would have a major influence on him, and then spent two years at Wesleyan University.  In 1837, partly as a result of poor health, Thorpe left college and, along with several southern classmates, moved to Louisiana.  From 1837 until 1839 he painted portraits and still lifes in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  Unable to make a living as an artist, though he continued to paint, he turned to writing and editing.


Thorpe published his best work in the 1840s and early 1850s, tales and sketches he would later collect in his books.  Many described the natural beauty of the Southwest.  Others, like “Tom Owen: The Bee-Hunter,” focused on fictitious backwoods characters.  During this period Thorpe wrote for the New York Spirit of the Times, and contributed essays to an English journal, the London New Sporting Magazine.  By the end of the 1840s, Thorpe was painting and writing editorials for the Baton Rouge Gazette.  He became active in Whig politics, and turned down that party’s nomination for Congress.  When the Mexican War broke out, he enlisted in the Army.


On his return to New York City in 1854, Thorpe began writing articles for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.  Many were natural history essays, such as “Cotton and its Cultivation,” for which he also provided the illustrations.  During the late 1850s Thorpe practiced law, edited a newspaper, and served as an officer in the Union expedition that captured New Orleans in 1862.  Reconstruction politics soon attracted his attention, and Thorpe served as vice-president of the Republican Party’s first post-war state convention.  In 1864 he became city surveyor of New York City; five years later, he was appointed chief clerk in the warehouse department of the New York Customs House, where he was employed until his death.


Still Life with Grapes, Watermelon and Peaches was painted in the summer of 1839, around the time Thorpe’s first sketch, “Tom Owen: The Bee Keeper,” appeared in Spirit of the Times.   In that year the twenty-four year old artist left New Orleans and moved to Jackson, and then to St. Francisville, a small town in West Feliciana Parish.  During these early years in Louisiana, Thorpe cultivated the image of a gentleman.  He made friends with a number of plantation owners in the area, and joined them in hunting and fishing, activities that would later provide a plethora of material for sporting essays.  Bennett H. Barrow, who had recently inherited Highland Plantation, hired Thorpe to paint a portrait of his daughter, and likely commissioned the still life.  Barrow was intent on making “Highland” the most beautiful plantation in Louisiana.  He enlarged the house to include a dining room and parlor, and planted a live oak grove on the grounds.  A race tract, a large sugarhouse, and a dance hall and hospital for the slaves were also added at this time.


Though Thorpe painted throughout his life, few of his pictures are extant.  This is the first known still life.  Not surprisingly, the painting is similar to the tabletop still lifes of the Peale family of artists.  Thorpe’s choice of fruit is also similar, watermelon being a particular favorite of Raphaelle, James, and James’ youngest daughter, Sarah Miriam Peale.  Like those famous precedents, Thorpe indulged in a bit of trompe l’oeil realism---a handful of grapes and a stem project beyond the tablecloth, along with a curly peach skin---but illusionism was not his preoccupation.  Thorpe’s attention was on the fruit, especially the watermelon---the pink and white flesh, the black seeds emerging from the pulp, and the sensuous contours of the greenish-white rind.  To add greater elegance to his composition, Thorpe covered the table with a creased white cloth, and placed the melon on a silver platter.  The foreground fruits and the platter are highlighted with dashes of white impasto, giving a rich texture to the surface. The partial landscape view in the left background, and the vines and leaves at the right, are unusual characteristics for still lifes of the time, and reflect the artist’s burgeoning interest in natural history.




Shaw, Nancy Rivard.  Charleston, South Carolina:  Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., Inc., 2000. 

1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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