In the mid-nineteenth century, folk painting, the problematic term commonly used to denote works by unschooled or little-trained professionals, found a committed clientele in the lower- to upper-middle classes - tradesmen, merchants, doctors, and lawyers eager to decorate their houses with pictures that provided permanent records of the people they knew, objects they used, and places they lived. Though they were less expensive than canvases by trained artists, folk paintings nonetheless served as tangible evidence of their owners' economic well-being.
In this painting the awkward attempt to model forms, to develop space three-dimensionally, and to imitate the colors and textures of the various objects indicate that its painter, who is unknown, was aware of but little practiced in the academic methods basic to American artistic training in the nineteenth century. At the same time the clumsy negotiation of the table, oddly shaped plate, and watermelon as well as the skewed table top contribute to the work's charm. Though the artist did not deliberately intend them, the distortions in the space of the picture and shapes of the objects also give the work a peculiarly modern appeal. Those distortions, which are typical of folk art generally, explain in part the revival of interest in studying, collecting, and exhibiting this art beginning in the 1920s when aesthetic sensibilities shaped by exposure to the works of Cezanne and other Post-Impressionist and Cubist artists were receptive to the folk painter's stark, direct style. Paradoxically the current popularity of folk paintings has put them beyond the financial reach of the very kinds of people for whom they were originally made.
Although European still lifes rarely feature watermelons, they were common in both folk and fine art in the United States. They were, for example, a favored fruit among members of the Peale family, appearing in still lifes by Raphaelle and James Peale as well as pictures by Margaretta Angelica Peale and Sarah Miriam Peale. The watermelon's desirability as a still-life object was two-fold. With its mottled green rind, pink flesh, and dark brown seeds, it offered the painter a variety of colors and textures. Moreover, water melon was a popular American food. The seeds of the watermelon, which originated in Africa, were brought to the United States by slave traders as well as slaves and cultivated throughout the country. Although derogatory associations between African-Americans and watermelons became commonplace in the later decades of the nineteenth century, they were rare at the time this still life was painted. The watermelon, instead, was consumed by members of all classes during the summer when its cool, wet pulp proved most refreshing. In addition to eating the watermelon flesh, people pickled the rind, particularly in New England, and boiled the fruit to make sugar and molasses.
This text was adapted from Karyn Esielonis, et al, "Still-Life Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1994).