JOHN ROSS KEY (1832–1920)
Hydrangeas and Other Garden Flowers, 1882
Oil on canvas, 36 x 20 in.
Signed and dated (at lower right): John Ross Key 1882
EX COLL: Jane Kitselman, New York; to her estate, 2015
Key exhibited a selection of recent work at the O’Brien Galleries in Chicago in 1881. The show featured 16 landscapes and 14 drawings along with 27 paintings of flowers. The latter group seem to have been especially popular: a reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, for example, lauded Key’s ability to convey the “grace and dewiness” of blossoms, while a commentator for the Daily Inter-Ocean proclaimed:
The trouble with most flower paintings is that they are so practically treated, so refined and sentimental that the strength is polished out of them. In Mr. Key’s pictures there is refinement, but it is always subordinated to strength, and we get flowers that seem to be not ideal flowers but real flowers.
That combination of “strength” and “refinement” that reviewers found so appealing in Key’s still lifes is apparent in the present examples, which were painted in 1882, in the wake of Key’s debut exhibition in Chicago. Executed on vertical supports and bearing identical American Eastlake-style frames with stenciled decorations at the corners, each canvas evokes disparate sides of the floral environment: one featuring a bouquet of common meadow and roadside wildflowers––daisies, black-eyed Susans, cattails, and some sprays of goldenrod––the other composed of garden perennials in the form of pink-white hydrangeas and clusters of red Drummond phlox. Adhering to the highly controlled technique for which he was known, Key applies his pigments with a firm hand, giving us a sense for the individual physiognomies of each blossom, as well as the diverse textures of the petals and leafage. As these paintings demonstrate, contrary to the poetic approach of the Barbizon School, which had become increasingly fashionable in America, Key remained true to mid-century realism.