The Acorn Doesn't Fall Far from the Tree

Expertise by Dr. Susan Weininger

Leaf, Egg, Acorn and Marble (Abercrombie’s title) appears in my records of Abercrombie’s work and has a secure provenance, acquired by the current owner’s father. It is a small still life, a popular subject at this time in her career, with a blue egg, a brown acorn and a reddish marble arranged on a flat surface. A green leaf is pinned to the wall behind them with a pink hatpin. 

Like so many of Abercrombie’s deceptively simple, yet slightly strange and mysterious compositions, this one gives us reason to come back to it, seeing new connections and resonances each time. 

Abercrombie noted that this work was given as a donation to “art fair”.  And indeed the painting was acquired by its first owner at the 6th Annual Old Town Holiday Art Fair in June, 1955, securing the provenance.  

The painting itself was done in one of Abercrombie’s most productive periods—the mid 1950s—and at a time when she was creating a great many still life paintings consisting of inanimate objects arranged in austere landscapes or otherwise ascetic and generic  backgrounds, such as the one in this painting. From about 1952-58, she did numerous paintings with elements such as shells, grapes, gloves, dominoes, jacks, dice, ribbon, carnations, and the egg, leaf, marble or ball, and acorn that appear in this painting. Many of these objects, such as the gloves, bunches of grapes, jacks, and carnations appear throughout her career: she began her artistic life drawing gloves for the Sears catalog and gloves featured in her work as a personal emblem as did the carnation, her “personal flower”, and the bunches of grapes that are sometimes seen adorning a hat she is wearing. Although each of these objects had private  meaning for her, the elements of these paintings were always varied, beautifully arranged and meaningful.  

Although each of these objects had private  meaning for her, the elements of these paintings were always varied, beautifully arranged and meaningful.

In the early 1950s she began making tiny paintings, often single shells, destined to become pins or brooches, probably to try to increase her income at a time when she had divorced her first husband, a lawyer and steady provider and married her second, who was a much less stable bread winner. The more complex still life paintings emerged at about the same time. We could speculate that, although she did many figural images, some of them her most resonant and haunting paintings, inanimate objects were far more suited to her skills and perhaps more easily painted. Although she often alluded to her lack of artistic training, Abercrombie had studied classical techniques in classes at University of Illinois (some of her classroom drawings are in the Illinois State Museum) where she became expert at perspective and chiaroscuro, as evidenced in many of her works. She had more difficulty with living beings, both animal and human, and tended to simplify or stylize them. We can see in the careful use of light and shade to create three dimensional forms in the objects in this painting how successful she was at creating a sense of realism. All of the elements cast shadows that indicate a consistent light source. The multiple elegant shadows cast by the leaf and the hatpin that holds it to the wall showcases her skills.  

Detail of the present lot

While she creates a subtle and handsome composition, it is ultimately not just a picture of a collection of objects. As is typical, Abercrombie infuses these pedestrian objects with something more than simply their accurate appearance. First, each of them refers to something meaningful to the artist—she loved games, therefore the marble; and the oak leaf and the acorn resonate with the egg, which contains its own offspring, an idea Abercrombie often explored in paintings which pose the “which came first” question (see, for example, Which Came First?, 1955, private collection). 

The blue eggs (probably robin eggs) appear in a number of her paintings (see Eggs and Dominoes, 1954, Private Collection; Birds, Eggs and Dominoes with Pyramid, 1963, Private Collection), the leaf pinned to the wall recurs often (see Shell and Leaf, 1958, Private Collection; Leaf, Shell and Jack, 1957, Maurer Collection) but it is most often a birch leaf. The oak leaf is matched with the acorn purposefully in this painting.  

The collection of ordinary objects is arranged in Abercrombie’s characteristically beautifully balanced manner. 

The collection of ordinary objects is arranged in Abercrombie’s characteristically beautifully balanced manner. The leaf, acorn and marble are arranged in a diagonal to the picture plane, while the weight of the egg, to the left, anchors the composition. The bottom of the leaf bends slightly toward the egg, while the pin leans toward the right. The pink head of the hatpin echoes the reddish pink of the marble, the brown acorn is close to the color of the ground it sits on and the blue egg is clearly separate from it, creating a stable yet dynamic whole. 

Like so many of Abercrombie’s deceptively simple, yet slightly strange and mysterious compositions, this one gives us reason to come back to it, seeing new connections and resonances each time. Among its messages is the acorn does not fall far from the tree.  

Gertrude Abercrombie 1909–1977

Gertrude Abercrombie was at the center of the Chicago arts scene in the 1940s and 1950s, both as a painter of captivating, surrealist scenes and as the self-proclaimed “Queen of Bohemia,” hosting parties and gatherings for the creative denizens of Chicago.

Abercrombie was born in 1909 in Austin, TX, where her parents were passing through as part of a traveling opera company. The family lived in Berlin for a short time, before moving back to the states when World War I broke out, eventually settling in Hyde Park, Chicago in 1916, where Abercrombie would live for the rest of her life. In 1929, she graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in romance languages and, soon after, studied figure drawing at The Art Institute of Chicago, followed by a yearlong course in commercial art at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Before completely devoting herself to her painting in 1932, Abercrombie worked drawing gloves for Mesirow Department Store and as an artist for Sears.

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Auction Results Gertrude Abercrombie