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Carl Schuch

* 1846 – † 1903

Still-Life with Leeks, Onions, and Cheese

Oil on canvas

Labelled with a facsimile signature: CSchuch (ligatured)

Still-Life with Leeks, Onions, and Cheese

The German word porree, from the French poireaux for “leeks,” is mentioned twice in Carl Schuch’s Paris notebooks.1 It first appears in combination with tableware, “greens,” and raw meat in the spring of 1884.2 Inspired by street markets as much as by the art dealers he visited, Schuch had begun collecting still-life motifs while roaming the streets of Paris.3 Besides noting down the subject along with a hasty compositional sketch, he also took care to name the artists – in this case “Gilbert,” which presumably is a reference to Victor Gilbert (1847–1935).4 Nearly twenty pages – and several months – later, in the autumn of 1884, Schuch sketched a new variant combining “cabbage, clay pots, tin cans, onions & poireaux,”5 in which the clay pots (± reddish-brown) serve as a substitute for the raw meat (± dark red) (fig. 1). Schuch, it seems, was pondering an exchange of nuances, but without forfeiting the tension generated by the contrast of complementary green and red that was an immanent aspect of the painting. One of the two complementary colours nevertheless “had to dominate,” reasoned Schuch at Whitsuntide (24 May 1885), as he continued striving for a “richly orchestrated” work.6 While that particular train of thought was sparked by artichokes, leeks turned out to have a similar capacity, as the five or six variants of them in Schuch’s Parisian oeuvre prove.7 The pairing in these works is not with meat or clay, however, but only with apples. Dominating the “colouristic treatment”8 are the bunches of leeks fresh from the market, arranged on a layer of raw-cut boards – either on the ramp at the front or lying at an angle – against a dark ground. The polyphony is provided by the colourful apples, sonorously accompanied by changing constellations of pewter and tin, porcelain and glass, and sometimes a white serviette, while the chèvre under the glass cover is sometimes replaced by a camembert wrapped in tin foil on the same porcelain plate but without the glass dome. The most obvious differences between the various versions have to do with the objects, as when a metal pot is removed and its place taken by porcelain or glass, or when the items at the back are cleared away to expose the bare boards. The essential differences, however, cannot be accurately analysed with the naked eye and probably have the same cause: Schuch did not use pigments straight from the tube – as no artist did back then, and certainly not one who considered himself a “colourist,” as did Schuch himself (at least) from 1879.9 What counted for him were the nuances yielded by his palette, i.e. by the artist’s choice of pigments made before he began painting. Each palette load yielded a different set of nuances and Schuch tried plenty of them – on a range of subjects. He also weighed up the alternatives, as we know from the seemingly endless lists of pigments in his Paris notebooks. Two bunches of leeks instead of one, onions instead of apples, a pewter jug and cheese plate that have swapped places – none of this changes the colour scheme. All the more apparent is what sets this work apart. In the other versions (figs. 2–6), the front edge of the boards is very close to the lower edge of the painting, while elements such as the clay dish full of apples, the serviette alongside it or the row of three apples on the bare board are retained in what are ultimately rather routine explorations of the interaction of form and colour, such as Schuch himself would have regarded as out of the question or irrelevant – at least until Whitsuntide 1885.10 For all their plump vitality, therefore, the two bunches of leeks in our work look almost as if under a spell, precariously poised on much narrower-looking boards that slope up sharply to the right. What unfolds upon them in sublime gradations is the full splendour of a colour composition that is anything but spartan. The white and ochre of the leeks are answered by derivatives of the same in the rolls of ripe chèvre under the glass dome, extending even to the gold border encircling its porcelain foot. The matte pewter of the jug reflects the surrounding nuances – the cheese, the glass and porcelain, the green of the leeks, the brown of the boards – while the dominant green hues are crisply complemented by the dry, red-tinged onion skins peeling off the onions. The incidental quality of this coup de fanfare is bold indeed and informs the whole staging. No less bold is the laisser-aller that accompanies it. Esprit, a quintessentially French flair, is very much in evidence here, as is intuition overriding calculation and the lightness of touch that Schuch had discovered in Edouard Manet, whose work in all its breadth must have been familiar to him – at least since the exhibition of Manet’s estate at the École des Beaux-Arts.11 Even Karl Hagemeister, Schuch’s friend and biographer, was willing to concede that much.12 Unable to resist this French flair was one Oskar Schmitz, a German businessman with a Swiss passport, born in Prague and later active in Le Havre, who, advised by the Impressionists’ doyen Paul Durand-Ruel, in the 1890s began amassing an exquisite collection of modern French painting. Schmitz retired to Dresden in 1903, and this still-life hung in a dining room at his villa in Dresden-Blasewitz (fig. 7), Schmitz having presumably bought it more or less at first hand soon after Wilhelm Trübner had ordered the estate of his friend and fellow painter, as agreed during Schuch’s lifetime. Eduard Schulte, the Berlin art dealer charged with selling it on behalf of Schuch’s widow, put the first works up for sale in the winter of 1904/05. The leek paintings were soon sold, probably long before 1911, when Karl Haberstock, Schulte’s competitor in Berlin, located one last copy in private hands.

  1. Schuch’s notebooks are reprinted in Carl Schuch – Ein europäischer Maler, ed. A. Husslein-Arco & S. Koja, Weitra 2012, pp. 173–187 (Venice I), pp. 189–201 (Venice II), pp. 215–225 (Paris I), pp. 227–235 (Paris II).

  2. Paris I, pag. 14, 15.

  3. Paris I, pag. 9

  4. Victor-Gabriel Gilbert (1847–1935) is named in the catalogues of the Paris Salon, the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français, as a pupil of Adan, Basson, and Levasseur; “méd. 2e cl.” 1880, “méd. arg. 1889” and “H.C.” from 1890. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k497795/f43.item (21.05.2018). – The still-life by Gilbert that Schuch sketched Paris I, pag. 14 is no more traceable than is Hunk of Meat on Yellow Paper with Greens Paris I, pag. 13

  5. Paris I, pag. 33.

  6. Paris II, fol. 29r – 30r.

  7. One version (fig. 4) is known to us only from illustrations; its authenticity and provenance therefore require further verification.

  8. Paris II, fol. 29r: cf. note 5.

  9. Venice I, fol. 39r: ± December 1879.

  10. The compositions with a bunch of leeks (figs. 2–6) form a separate group, which perhaps should be dated a little later, probably ca. 1890.

  11. Exposition des œuvres de Eduard Manet, École nationale des beaux–arts, Paris, 6–28 January 1884 Digitalisat: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148bpt6k5738216?rk=21459;2 (20.5.2018).

  12. Karl Hagemeister, Karl Schuch, Leben und Werke, Berlin 1913, p. 152.

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