Fruit continued to be a frequent theme of still life paintings throughout the nineteenth century, despite the growing popularity of floral paintings. De Scott Evans, Joseph Decker, John McCloskey, and Levi Wells Prentice all painted fruit in a hard-edged or trompe l’oeil style during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Almost entirely self-taught, Prentice began his career in 1871 as a landscape painter in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. It was not until he moved to Brooklyn in 1883 that he began to paint still lifes, usually of fruit, although occasionally of flowers and fish. Prentice supplemented his living by designing furniture, building houses, making frames, and creating stained glass windows. He also made all his own palettes, brushes, easels, frames, and shadow boxes.
Prentice made painting apples somewhat of a specialty, depicting the fruit in no fewer than forty pictures. In the 1840s, the Boston writer-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson declared the apple to be America’s “national fruit.” An integral part of the American diet for four centuries, apples have traditionally been used in pies, jellies, applesauce, and cakes, eaten plain or baked, and made into cider-especially hard cider, a staple in the nineteenth century. Prentice’s paintings of apples depict the fruit variously spilling out of baskets, bags, and hats on the ground or on a tabletop, growing on boughs, or loosely resting on the ground. The Museum’s picture, his best-known still life, shows apples in a tin pail, on a rough table, and in a bowl. Bruised and blemished, the apples are undoubtedly to be used for cooking or for cider. While the subject matter of the painting is humble, Prentice’s technique is meticulous. He portrayed each apple with hard-edged realism and painstakingly conveyed the reflections of the apples and the bowl in the curved, gleaming surface of the tin pail. A striking composition of rounded forms in vibrant colors, Prentice’s painting celebrates a plentiful harvest in rural America.