George Cochran Lambdin

Calla Lily

  • 20 x 11 3/4 inches (50.8 x 29.8 cm)
  • Oil on panel
  • Signed lower left: Geo. C. Lambdin / 1874
  • 1874

Why We Love It

George Cochran Lambdin is best known for his still life paintings of roses; however, he also painted many other types of flowers, as seen in this stunning painting of a calla lily. The black lacquer background demonstrates Lambdin’s interest in Asian art and also adds great dramatic effect, making the brilliant white of the flower appear even more striking by contrast.

The Value

We know of only three still lifes (including this one) of calla lilies by Lambdin, making them his most rare works. They stand apart from his paintings of roses and other flowers in their value. This example is the finest still life we have seen by the artist. Its condition, provenance, period frame, and of course, subject matter, make it a museum-worthy acquisition.

Artist Background

1830: Born in Pittsburgh. Received early artistic training from his father, James Reid Lambdin, who was a successful portraitist; 1838: Family moved to Philadelphia, where he lived until his death; 1848: Began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; 1855: Studied in Munich and Paris; 1857: Began to focus increasingly on still life painting, particularly floral scenes, rather than his earlier more sentimental genre pictures; 1867: Exhibited “The Dead Wife” in the Paris Universal Exposition; 1868: Elected to the National Academy of Design; 1870: Studied art in Rome. His paintings of flowers, especially roses, became very popular and were widely produced as chromolithographs; 1896: Died.

George Cochran Lambdin’s paintings of flowers, particularly roses, against a dark background became his most popular works. A native of Philadelphia, specifically the Germantown section of the city, Lambdin took advantage of the area’s superb reputation for domestic rose cultivation. Although he lived on a modest property in Germantown, he hired a gardener to grow the roses that became the principle subject matter of some of his best paintings.

Although Lambdin is primarily known for his paintings of roses, he also depicted numerous other types of flowers, such as wisteria, nasturtiums, cyclamen, and calla lilies. His paintings of calla lilies are among his most rare; in addition to this the magnificent example from 1874, we know of only two other paintings of calla lilies by Lambdin in existence. In each of these works, Lambdin displayed the calla lilies against a rich black background, with no trellice or support, so that the blossoms appear to spring up out of the darkness. Moreover, while the background remains lost in shadow, he illuminates each bloom with a brilliant light, emphasizing the distinctive form of each flower with an incredible level of attention and detail.

 

Mark Mitchell in his excellent article on Lambdin’s roses writes about the public’s reception of the paintings and their place in the history of still life. In essence, Lambdin’s flower paintings were of many periods and ideas at once.  They speak to the rich tradition of still life painting in Philadelphia begun by the Peale family, yet the uniqueness of their compositions looks forward to more modern interpretations of the genre.  The exacting detail of the flowers themselves demonstrates the influence of Pre-Raphaelite realism.  Yet the lacquer-like backgrounds and asymmetrical arrangement of the flowers convey Lambdin’s interest in Asian art and the emergent tastes of the American aesthetic movement. More broadly, Mitchell writes that Lambdin’s used his paintings to engage a viewer’s pathos through their poignant symbolism. 1 Indeed, these paintings beautifully capture the cycle of life, while also providing a pure sense of enjoyment.

1 Mark D. Mitchell, “Rose Fever: The Paintings of George Cochran Lambdin,” The Magazine Antiques (November/December 2011), pp. 116–21.