Norton collection showing at Portland Museum of Art showcases artists who take risks with ‘still lifes’

Cubist masterpieces. Iconic photographs by American modernists. Pop art classics. Three-dimensional works. A Chinese porcelain sculpture.

Creations by Gustave Courbet, Henri Matisse, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

These and other works by well-known and diverse artists are part of the “Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art” exhibit showing at the Portland Museum of Art.

The 50-plus works are done in varied media and have myriad subjects, but many have something in common.

They challenge the traditional definition of the term “still life.”

A still life work is the depiction or arrangement of inanimate objects — food, fruit, game, plants and artifacts. True to that traditional notion are still lifes in “Objects of Wonder” depicting cut flowers, fruit, vegetables, myths, historical figures and musical instruments.

But other pieces — a Chinese porcelain sculpture, photography by Robert Mapplethorpe and Edward Weston, two miniature doll houses and a huge free-standing glass chair by Therman Statom, for example — defy that notion.

“The purpose of this exhibit is to expand views on the still life genre. The most significant element of this exhibit changes your point of view of what a still life is,” said curator Margaret Burgess.

Grounded in seemingly unadventurous subject matter, the genre has, according to the PMA, become a vehicle for artists to take risks and to develop new visual strategies.

With its early European grand masters, wide variety of art objects and vast collection of contemporary art, “Objects of Wonder” is a creative feast for the eyes.

Two featured artists who created traditional still life works in the 17th century are Kasper Van den Hoecke and Daniel Seghers. Hoecke’s work, “The Banquet of Holofernes,” an oil on canvas created circa 1615-1620, is a large melodramatic painting depicting the biblical story of Judith.

Seghers’ traditional oil painting “A Garland of Pink Roses …” depicts a perfect bouquet in a traditional arrangement. It was also done circa 1620.

“A Still Life With Blue Irises,” an oil painting done by Max Beckman in 1948, is an example of still life created in the style of German Expressionism.

Across the central gallery of the exhibit, one can see Pablo Picasso’s oil painting, “Le Guitare,” created in 1917, which depicts a musical instrument in abstract form — reflecting the style of Cubism.

A magnificent still life by Marc Chagall greets visitors as they walk into the galleries. This huge work, “Anniversary Flowers,” radiates with colors of bright blue, white and pink.

A marvelous oil painting by Hartley, “Flounder and Blue Fish,” is exciting to see, an excellent example of the artist’s work.

Selections of O’Keefe, Kunioshi, Lichtenstein, Milton Avery and Alex Katz show the wide range of contemporary art in the Norton Museum collection.

Among the unique works in the exhibit are two miniature doll houses by Yinka Shonibare and a huge glass sculpture, titled “The Chair,” by Therman Statom.

Along with the Norton Museum of Art’s selections, the exhibition includes numerous examples of still life from the Portland Museum of Art’s collection as well as from private lenders. Paintings and works on paper by Maine artists Joseph Nicoletti, Katz and Mary Hart are interspersed with pieces in the Norton collection.

As part of the multilevel exhibit, which runs through June 6, the PMA has prepared an outstanding interactive “cabinet of curiosities” where decorative art objects from the collection are displayed and where visitors can sketch their own still-life arrangements.

The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.” She teaches children’s literature for teacher recertification for the American Institute for Creative Education.

Ralph Norton and his wife, Elizabeth, loved the arts.

They traveled extensively and collected works from Europe and America over a period of 30 years.

Through hard work as a designer of tools and machines at Acme Steel Goods Co. in Chicago, Norton rose to president in 1923, and became chairman of the board in 1941.

The Nortons became well-known philanthropists in Chicago over the years, as well as art collectors. Semi-retired in 1935, Norton and his wife visited West Palm Beach and the couple decided to build a museum there for their collection.

Norton’s knowledge of museums was sophisticated. He had served as a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago and understood museum operations and needs.

Upon his death in 1953, Norton left a bequest of 253 works of art, many of which are in the “Objects of Wonder: Four Centuries of Still Life from the Norton Museum of Art” exhibit showing at the Portland Museum of Art through June 6.