Still Life & Florals

An abridged biography


Still Life with Chrysanthemums, 1958
Oil on canvas, 28×32 (28×32)

The BOSTON PAINTERS were masters of still life painting. They raised the art of painting everyday objects to an uncommonly high level of perfection. Both DeCamp and Benson painted still lifes. Still life elements in the paintings of Paxton are rendered with a truth of color and form that has rarely been achieved. However, only a few of the artists in Boston specialized in still life, most notably Herman Dudley Murphy and Elizabeth Okie Paxton, wife of William Paxton. Elizabeth Paxton was one of the great American still life painters. She had a superb impressionist eye and was able to get a clean, rich color note. She lived until 1972 and the young Lack visited with her many times while he was a student and saw her paintings exhibited at the Guild of Boston Artists. He admired the true sense of light and atmosphere in her work and determined that he would try to achieve that in his own painting.

By the time Lack studied with Gammell, the Boston School was primarily a school of still life painters. Still life painting formed a part of the exercises utilized by Gammell to train his students to see. They were easy to set up, did not require a large space to execute, and could be almost infinitely varied. While in Boston, Lack painted “kitchen still lifes,” pots and pans and vegetables. After he returned to Minnesota he was in no position to hire models, and still lifes provided him with inexpensive and convenient subjects. They could be readily used as exercises for experimentation with methods and mediums and, if attractive and well done, were eminently salable. Lack wanted to develop a way of painting rapidly and needed to paint works that would sell.

At that time, no one in the Boston School was painting fresh flowers. Earlier painters such as Murphy and Laura Coombs Hills had done them beautifully, but Lack’s contemporaries, Cumming and Hunter, painted only artificial or straw flowers. Lack wanted to paint fresh flowers, and he was confident in his ability to do so. “I looked at painters like Renoir for inspiration,” Lack recalls. “I needed to make money, but at the same time I wanted to experiment with color and do interesting still lifes.” In 1959, O’Brien’s Art Emporium in Scottsdale, Arizona, began to sell Lack’s flower pieces. Lack submitted other work, but his flower paintings were the most popular.

Lack found that he could paint flowers rapidly and well. The subject was suited to his natural ability for dexterous paint handling. As his career developed, he utilized flowers from his wife’s extensive gardens. “I wanted to capture the freshness of flowers,” he says. “I’d sketch them in a couple of days from a full bouquet to get the color and design, then finish from individual flowers. After the composition and spotting was there, I’d paint them alla-prima.” Although Gammell was an exceptionally original and gifted artist, and a conscientious craftsman, his work exhibited few of the painterly qualities that characterize the work of artists who have a feeling for the expressive qualities of oil paint. Lack, on the other hand, is a consummate painter. His use of paint is luscious and varied. He relished the act of painting—the many ways paint could be applied and manipulated—and he used sumptuous and sophisticated methods. He had an exceptional eye for indoor color. “I tried to handle the paint according to the subject. Flowers lent themselves to a more painterly treatment. I’d set up a vase of flowers and get the paint sloshing around, going for the color. I had the painterly instinct.”

Almost every spring Lack painted a resplendent peony still life, many of which sold off the easel. “I liked peonies because they are showy,” he explains. “Some of the Boston artists painted them, so there is a tradition there.” Lack began collecting vases and jars to put them in. He liked to use porcelain vases for his larger bouquets and would often include small Chinese or Japanese figurines in the smaller works, as spots of color and value to balance and set them off. Smaller bouquets were often arranged in vases of clear glass. Oriental objects and motives appear frequently in Lack’s still lifes. Oriental Still Life and Oriental Figurine are fine examples. They illustrate the variety that he achieved with similar subjects. The former harmonizes cool blue and green with warm accents of red and yellow; the latter harmonizes warm red and pink with accents of cool violet. The centers of interest are finely modeled porcelain figures. Both have vases of flowers that are lost in the background. Chinese vases and Japanese screens were often used by Benson and Paxton.

In addition to flowers, Lack painted other types of still lifes. Hunting Still Life and Duck and Pheasant, the latter in the collection of the Maryhill Museum, are notable for their unusual subject matter and deft paint handling. The former is a masterpiece of drawing with the brush. Later in his career, Lack did several still lifes out-of-doors. He was beginning to see out-of-door color with greater sensitivity, and had more confidence painting outside. “Not many people were doing still life out-of-doors. They presented a real challenge, with the light constantly changing. My experience painting landscape encouraged me to try painting still lifes outside.”

The method in Lack’s still lifes varies considerably. Early still lifes, like Chrysanthemums, have the richness and fusion of paint mixed with stand oil and poppy oil. Many paintings without flowers, such as The Harvest Table and Copper Pot and Cantaloupe are painted with great subtlety. Still Life with Buddha, a small, intimate work with flowers that are lost in the background shadow, is delicate and refined. The statue is underpainted and glazed with the precision and skill of a Dutchman. Kuan Yin, a large still life, was an experiment using sources of both natural and artificial light. The paint quality is refined, but luscious. No matter how diverse the subject or method, Lack consistently endeavored to achieve a lively and interesting paint surface.

Lack continued a great still life tradition. “I don’t think that I brought anything unique to the Boston still life tradition. What I brought was something personal, my kind of still life, my kind of design. Katherine used to say that my still lifes were Baroque, flamboyant, when compared to my contemporaries in Boston. Their still lifes were quite polished, but I wanted mine to have a painterly flair. I was interested in the Baroque painters, especially Rubens, and wanted my work to be a little more animated. As a painter gains skill and experience, he tries to give his paint quality a certain look. It’s an expression of the artist’s personality.” That distinctive “look,” from sumptuous alla-prima painting to jewel-like enamel, is evident throughout Lack’s body of work, and reflects his pleasure in the act of painting, the process of putting paint on canvas.