A major exponent of the bountiful tradition in American still life painting, Severin Roesen painted floral and fruit compositions in the detailed, meticulous style that prevailed in American art circles during the Victorian era. His elegant, high-style still lifes--avidly collected in both New York and Pennsylvania--had great impact on the many American artists who turned to still life painting during the mid-to-late nineteenth-century.
Roesen is thought to have been born in or near Cologne, Germany, around 1815. Little is known of his early background or training. However, his early activity in Cologne as a painter of flowers on decorative porcelains would have required him to have had some instruction in traditional oil painting techniques.
In late 1847 or 1848, Roesen emigrated to the United States, one of a number of German-born artists who fled the political upheaval that was sweeping their country. Upon arriving in America, he settled in New York, where he quickly developed a successful reputation as a painter of elaborate still lifes. His floral and fruit compositions, characterized by an emphasis on botanical accuracy, high finish, rich color, and painstaking detail, were influenced by the seventeenth-century Dutch still-life tradition, as well as Roesen’s earlier work as a decorative artist. Lavish, opulent images, they effectively captured the prevailing sense of abundance and optimism that characterized the pre-Civil war era, echoing the sentiments conveyed in the landscapes of the coexisting Hudson River School. Many of his works were purchased at the exhibitions of the American Art Union, where he exhibited from 1848 until 1851. During his years in New York, Roesen married Wilhelmina Ludwig, with whom he would have three children.
In 1858, Roesen left New York and moved to Pennsylvania, home to a large number of German immigrants. After brief periods of residence in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Huntingdon, he settled in Williamsport, a thriving lumber community, around 1860. There, Roesen found a market for his still lifes, which were acquired for the dining rooms and parlors of wealthy lumbermen. The artist also supported himself by the barter system, often exchanging paintings for food and merchandise.
A popular and highly successful artist, Roesen’s studio at the intersection of Market and Third Streets has been described as “a rendezvous for many of [Williamsport’s] well-known citizens, who would . . . watch him paint.”1 He also attracted a coterie of students in both Williamsport and Huntingdon, among them Henry W. Miller, Lyle Bartol, Christopher Ludwig Lawrence, and John Tallman, all of whom sought to emulate his style and subject matter. Working at a time when still-life painting was gaining in popularity in America, Roesen served as an example for many of his contemporaries; his lush compositions influenced a number of painters such as John Francis, Fanny Flora Bond Palmer, and John Adams.
Roesen’s name abruptly disappears from local and regional records in 1872, leading scholars to believe that he died around this time, possibly en route to New York City.
Roesen’s work can be found in major public collections throughout the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the White House, Washington, D.C.; the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York; the Shelburne Museum, Vermont; the Allentown Art Museum, Pennsylvania; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts; and the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Many of Roesen’s paintings remain in private collections in Williamsport, where he spent his most productive years. Strong community interest in his legacy resulted in the publication, in 1992, of Judith Hansen O’Toole’s Severin Roesen, the first comprehensive examination of his life and career. Roesen’s activity has also been studied within the general context of American still-life painting, in publications such as William Gerdts and Russell Burke’s, American Still-Life Painting (1971) and in Gerdts’ Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life, 1801-1939 (1981).
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1. Quoted in Judith Hansen O’Toole, Severin Roesen (Lewisburg, Penn.,: Bucknell University Press, 1992), p. 20.