Although relatively little is known about Severin Roesen's life, working habits, education or artistic training, the body of work he left behind supports his position as one of the leading masters of mid nineteenth-century American still life painting. His still lifes of abundant fruit and flowers, modeled on the Dutch Baroque style, are magnificent examples of the taste for opulence during this period in American art. Dr. William H. Gerdts states that Roesen "is certainly the most famous of all mid-nineteenth-century American specialists today, and judging by the great number of enormous pictures painted by him, it seems that he also was tremendously popular in his own time. Furthermore, the many works that have appeared in recent decades, which are at least similar to Roesen's oeuvre suggest a powerful influence of Roesen upon other artists." (Painters of the Humble Truth, Columbia, Missouri, 1981, p. 84)
The present painting, Still Life, Vase of Flowers, is a superb example of Roesen's interpretation of Dutch Baroque still lifes in its precision of detail and its clear, naturalistic renderings. The work portrays a brilliantly colored bouquet of flowers bountifully arranged on a marble ledge, accompanied by a basket of berries and a bird's nest. Every specimen of flower is represented in intricate detail, as seen in the stems of the poppies which sag slightly from the weight of the heavy blossoms. The grand bouquet overflows from a small glass vase, further enhancing the effect of abundance.
The influence of German still life painters on Roesen's work is also evident in Still Life, Vase of Flowers. New York had already been exposed to German art through an exhibition of important works brought to America in 1847 for safe keeping during the turmoil of civil war in Germany. This seminal event created an interest in the German School among American patrons and artists. Paintings by Johann Preyer, the pre-eminent still life painter from Düsseldorf, were highly sought after among art dealers and collectors. Preyer had studied in Holland where the work of Jan van Huysum, known as the last representative of the great Dutch fruit and flower painters, was still much admired and considered to be the best of its kind even in the nineteenth century. The artist's compositional device of layering several tiers of fruits and flowers in great quantities reflects the European style in which he was trained.
In the manner of many nineteenth-century American artists, Roesen had a number of favored elements that he used time and again in different compositions. Although this artistic practice might make his work appear repetitive, Roesen was highly capable of "capturing the individual characteristics in his subject matter with a sensation of lushness and immediacy that must have, at one point, come from careful study of nature. For example, the tight, luminescent skin of each grape in a cluster looks full and three-dimensional. This is achieved by subtle juxtapositions of colors that change quickly within each orb from white highlights to brownish centers to shades of green and purple. Likewise, the outer skin of the lemon peel is pebbled and hard; the contours of the yellow-to-red peaches are softly blurred; the fragile petals of the roses are almost translucent and their stems are bristling with sharp, fuzzy thorns." (J.H. O'Toole, Severin Roesen, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 1992, p. 35)
Roesen went to great lengths to include a wide variety of fruit and flowers in each work and in his best works, "the fruit and flowers are combined in great proliferation, leaving no area unfilled. The fruit, flowers, birds' nest, and man-made decorative objects of ceramic and glass are sometimes poled up on a double-tiered table, the tiers almost always of grained grayish marble, which appears to have been his preference. While these often gigantic paintings of literally hundreds of objects have been interpreted as Victorian horror vacui, they are also the ultimate embodiment of mid-century optimism, representing the richness of the land, the profusion of God's bounty in the New World, his blessing upon the American Eden throughout his cornucopia of plenitude." (Painters of the Humble Truth, p. 87)
The carefully conceived composition and masterful technique of Still Life, Vase of Flowers is characteristic of Roesen's finest still lifes. These qualities have inspired scholars and collectors alike to classify Roesen as one of only a handful of American artists considered the most significant still life specialists of the mid-century.