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Still Life in the Studio, 1980

Tristram Hillier

English, 1905-1983
Oil on board
16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm)
Norton Simon Museum, Museum Purchase
P.1980.4.2
©Tristram Hillier Estate / The Bridgeman Art Library

Not on view

"Every artist paints himself” is a saying with deep roots in art history, and this still life takes on considerable meaning for the viewer who is familiar with Tristram Hillier’s biography. The artist, who attended Cambridge University and the Slade School of Fine Art, practiced a rigorous approach to drawing
throughout his career. During the 1920s, while living in Paris, he became friendly with Max Ernst and André Masson, who introduced him to the ideas of the surrealist movement in France. In 1933 Hillier joined the Unit One group of experimental painters. “Unit” referred to unity, and “One” to individuality; their goal was to modernize British artistic culture. This further associated Hillier with the approaches of English surrealism.

This tightly organized still life could be viewed as a self-portrait, raising the question of why the single painting in the composition is turned in reverse, and thereby removed from consideration. Perhaps it refers to the artist’s eccentric studio preparations, as he devoted three or more months to priming each canvas prior to initiating a painting in his meticulous technique. Hillier especially enjoyed fine wine, and much of his social life revolved around wine functions. The cigarettes, another indulgence, eventually ended his life, owing to lung cancer. Viewed as an ensemble, especially with the empty wine glass and bottle, Hillier’s still life contains strong intimations of mortality that are akin to traditional vanitas pictures, in which one is reminded that the riches of nature, and pleasure, are transient.

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