Emil Carlsen was a still-life and landscape painter noted for his serious, classical studies in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Part of a nineteenth-century Chardinesque revival, Carlsen depicted gleaming bottles, copper kettles and dead game animals with a rich, sensuous beauty. His still-life subjects, shining with light, merge into a dark background, creating an emphasis on subtle light and form. By contrast, his large, square landscapes and studies of flowers employ light, bright impressionistic colors.
Carlsen, born in Denmark, studied architecture for four years before coming to the United States in 1872. After a brief, unsatisfying apprenticeship in architecture, he turned to painting, studying under Danish painter Laurits Holst. He was primarily a self-taught painter, however, and eventually became one of New England’s most successful still-life artists.
In 1875, Carlsen traveled to Europe to study the old masters. He was captivated by the work of Chardin; his subsequent subjects and their treatment - the wet scales of a fish, the glint of a glass bottle or the sheen of a copper urn - reflect the influence of the French painter.
Carlsen struggled with poverty until he was nearly 30. By 1884, however, with an established reputation, he was retained by a dealer to produce an annual quota of still-lifes even as his style was changing. After a second visit to Paris, he returned in 1886 with a lighter palette and an interest in landscapes. His backgrounds can be found in some of the fox-hunting scenes of Alexander Pope.
Formally established as a landscape painter, Carlsen spent the next four years in San Francisco, sharing a studio with Arthur Mathews and teaching at the California School of Design, where he also served as director. Eventually, better money and opportunity drew Carlsen back to the East Coast, where he spent the rest of his career in New York and Connecticut, associating with prominent American impressionists.
He is recognized particularly for combining traditional representative art with impressionistic approaches to color and light. Carlsen was faithful to the visual truth of his subjects and is credited with endowing still-life painting with a dignity that would soon be lost in changing artistic fashion.