The early 1940s mark a decisive transformation in Milton Avery's oeuvre in which the artist adopted the bright palette and reductive forms that have come to characterize his finest works. Painted in 1943, the year that Avery left the Valentine Gallery to join the Modernist dealer Paul Rosenberg, Still Life with Flowers is an important work from this crucial period in Avery's artistic evolution.
Avery characteristically employs bold colors and simplified forms in Still Life with Flowers, omitting extraneous details and distilling the image to its essence. He manipulates complimentary and contrasting colors and shapes, rather than traditional chiaroscuro, in order to modulate space and create tension and balance in the composition. A vase of flowers, a lamp, several of the artist's paintings, a paper weight and a green ceramic fish made by his wife, Sally, sit atop a bright pink table. Both the table and the striking orange wall are reduced to broad blocks of saturated color and the composition is horizontally bisected by the diagonal line that denotes their encounter. This construction, which presages the simplified horizon lines of Avery's later landscapes, flattens the pictorial space and makes color relations central to the work. The vertical still life elements are juxtaposed with these planes of heightened color to add structure and complexity, while the flowers, lamp shade and the artist's characteristic use of sgraffito add pattern to the composition. Avery's awareness of color theory is evident in his use of various greens and reds (including the pink table and orange wall), the discourse of which heightens the strength of each color adding to the visual intensity of the painting. He further explores this concept by inverting the overall relationship of the colors in his painting of the woman, which leans against the wall.
While Avery often denied the influence of Henri Matisse on his work, "saying that it was too hedonistic for his taste," (B. Haskell, Milton Avery, New York, 1982, p. 73), the influence of the French artist's acclaimed painting The Red Studio of 1911 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is unmistakable in both palette and compositional elements. Matisse's work depicts a small retrospective at the artist's studio with paintings variously hung and laid around the room, and a table in the foreground covered with still life elements. All of the walls and deliberately primitive furniture are a deep red, delineated by thin white lines. In Still Life with Flowers, Avery similarly adopts a reduced palette of reds to depict the simplified wall and table top and incorporates still life elements as well as several of his own paintings. Indeed, Barbara Haskell writes, "Matisse remained a major impetus behind his striking adoption of saturated, arbitrary color. Although Avery's awareness of Matisse's work had preceded his affiliation in 1935 with the Valentine Gallery, his new alliance with Matisse's American dealer revitalized his interest in an artist whose sensibilities were much like his own...A similar desire impelled Avery, whose own commitment to color and to form reduction had been firmly established early in his career. But until his contact with Matisse's work, he had not totally embraced the Fauve attitude toward non-associative color, except in isolated paintings. Essentially, Matisse's example gave Avery license to extend the concerns he was already pursuing." (Milton Avery, p. 72)
Avery's thoroughly modern approach to the traditional genre of still life painting represented by Still Life with Flowers marks a pivotal juncture in the artist's career and the establishment of a new foundation for pictorial exploration, which would determine the stylistic trajectory of the remainder of his career.