Old Master Paintings, Drawings, and British Portraits

Stark 1.jpg

L. STARK (American School, early 1860s) 

A Watermelon

signed and inscribed L. Stark N.Y. in the lower right

oil on artist’s board

13 ¾ x 22 inches        (34.9 x 55.9 cm.)


Paul Magriel, New York, (1906 – 1990) from whom acquired by

James H. Ricau, Piermont, New York (1916 – 1993), by 1958

Richard York Gallery, New York, 1993, from whom purchased by

Private Collection, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1993-2017



Newark, New Jersey, The Newark Museum, Nature’s Bounty & Man’s Delight, June 15 – September 28, 1958, no. 42, (lent by James H. Ricau)

Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Museum, April 9, 1969 – June 24, 1993, (on long term loan from James H. Ricau)

New York, Richard York Gallery, American Paintings from the Collection of James H. Ricau, November 4, 1993 – January 8, 1994, no. 17



Katherine Coffey & William H. Gerdts, Nature’s Bounty & Man’s Delight, American 19th Century Still-Life Painting, The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey, 1958, no. 42

Richard York Gallery, American Paintings from the Collection of James H. Ricau, New York, 1993, no. 17


Perhaps best expressing a prevailing attitude in nineteenth century America, Mark Twain wrote of watermelons, “chief of this world’s luxuries” and “King by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it he knows what angels eat.” [1] Watermelons were not native to America, originally an African gourd, they were brought to the New World by the Spanish in the seventeenth century. Cultivated throughout the country, they were widely consumed and appreciated for their versatility. Watermelon was served cold in salads and turned into preserves. They were used in the making of alcohol, as a sugar substitute, and the rind mulched for fertilizer. It was what Americans ate on the Fourth of July. [2]

By the 1860s still lifes had become a popular feature of American art exhibitions. Many artists specialized in them, yet information on these individuals, other than their recorded names, in numerous cases remains elusive. Occasionally one of their works surfaces, as in the case with L. Stark. There are perhaps three possible explanations. Many of these were women who were unable to maintain careers as artists, other immigrants who later returned home, [3] or young men soon lost in the Civil War. Thus, it is hardly surprising that all we know about L. Stark is the “he” painted this work in New York.

Yet the painter has left us a message embedded in the artwork. Watermelons were regarded as the perfect exemplification for the theme of a land of abundance. [4] By depicting a broken watermelon, the metaphor is turned on its head. The melon is transformed into a visualization of a fractured nation—a reference to the Civil War which raged from 1861 – 1865, the period of this painting’s execution. Shana Klein wrote in The Fruits of Empire: Contextualizing Food in Post-Civil War American Art and Culture of the war period, “many national leaders… called upon Americans to replace weapons of war with weapons of agriculture… the ‘agricultural leader Marshall P. Wilder in 1862… expressed hope for the day when our fields shall no longer be ploughed with the deadly cannon, or fertilized with the blood of our brethren—and when peace shall again wreath her olive leaves around these distracted States.’ Thus, still-life paintings provided artists a powerful platform to comment on the conditions of war and violence in America.” [5]

William Gerdts noted in Painters of the Humble Truth, the importance of the two original owners of the Stark. “In general,… collections specializing in still-life painting were not conceived until well into the twentieth century. The first such collection of significance was formed by Paul Magriel in the early 1950s. The Magriel collection in turn inspired a number of others in New York City, notably those of James Ricau.” [6] Rediscovered by Magriel, and subsequently purchased by Ricau, the Stark was included in one of the earliest shows of the twentieth century devoted to nineteenth century American still lifes. Titled Nature’s Bounty & Man’s Delight, it was held at The Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey in 1958. In 1969, Ricau again loaned the Stark, this time to the Brooklyn Museum, with such other luminaries from his collection as Benjamin West, Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, and David Johnson, among others. There it remained until his death in 1993. In November 1993 the Richard York Gallery in New York mounted an exhibition of Ricau’s collection that memorialized its importance, and it is there that the last owner purchased the Stark.

Today Stark’s depiction of a divided nation by means of a ripe watermelon remains as relevant as it was when first painted.


[1] Shana Klein, “The Fruits of Empire: Contextualizing Food in Post-Civil War American Art and Culture,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of New Mexico, May 2015, p. 108.

[2] Nancy Siegel, Art and Appetite, American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, Archer Daniels Midland, 2007, p. 60; and Shana Klein, op.cit., p. 108.

[3] William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth, Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801 – 1939, University of Missouri Press, Colombia, MO., 1981, p. 102.

[4] Lee Kogan, Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America, American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2013, p. 73.

[5] Shana Klein, op.cit., p. 118.

[6] William H. Gerdts, op.cit., p. 26.


Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts

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