Still Life with Melon and Grapes, oil on canvas, 13.75" x 20" (image), s.l.l.,dated 1884
Joseph Decker was born in Württemburg, Germany in 1853, the son of a carpenter. His family came to America in 1867 and settled in Brooklyn. Decker attended art school at the National Academy of Design, where, in 1875, he was a likely fellow-student with William Michael Harnett and possibly studied under John George Brown. The artist went back to Germany in 1879 to study at the Royal Academy in Munich, but he returned to the U.S. in 1880 as an committed painter of still life. There is some question surrounding Decker’s approach to still life composition and, as William Gerdts suggests in his essay on the artist, “seed packets, issuing especially out of Rochester, New York, as accessory to the extensive nursery cultivation there, offer particularly relevant pictorial analogies to Decker’s paintings.”
Decker’s development is especially interesting in that he evolved two distinct styles: a “hard,” literal style, with the objects, usually fruit, aggressively frontal in the composition, and a “soft,” simpler style, with the objects at a further remove from the picture plane and the edges of the objects blurred. The hard-edged style, which characterized Decker’s work in the 70’s and in the early 80’s, was attacked by critics as analogous to the imitative realism of Harnett. After 1890, however, Decker largely ceased exhibiting his work, by which time his style had changed to the lighter palette and softer edges. As Gerdts once again observes, this late style was a radical departure not only for the artist but for American still-life painters generally and seems to have had its primary source in Decker’s admiration for the work of George Inness: “what Decker accomplished more than any other artist of the day was to apply the popular Tonalist aesthetic to the realm of still life." (Source: William Gerdts, Joseph Decker, Still Lifes, Landscapes, and Images of Youth, Coe Kerr Gallery, 1988)
Decker received considerable publicity in 2004 when a painting of “Ripening Pears,” which had been purchased for $5 at a garage sale, was sold to the National Gallery for $1 million. His work can be found in the National Gallery, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan Museum, among others.
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