Visual Arts

“Still life is the touchstone
of painting”

Dolya Dogal mingles the visionary with simplicity

Caravaggio is said to have considered a still life of a vase of flowers his finest work, and that it was as difficult to make a good painting of flowers as it was to make one of human figures.1 The painted still life of flowers and fruits in domestic settings has a long history in European art. Initially, still life—often in a virtuostic sytle—combined natural elements with messages warning us of the inevitability of death (memento mori), alluding to prestigious or humble surroundings, or displaying botanical discoveries. Later, design and color harmonies defined the genre. Today, still life has expanded to include photography, textiles, sculpture, video, and mixed media. Many of these preserve a link to cultural commentary.

Dolya Dogal’s sole discipline is the traditional still life, an over-simplified description that fails to  project her distinctive and evocative works of art. For anyone wondering if still life painting is an outdated—or worse, calcified—genre, practiced by amateurs (often stereotypically women), her naturalist’s eye and inventive brush are a revelation. Leaving any story-telling implications to the viewer, she mingles the visionary with simplicity in a way best summed up by French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon:

I have in my mind’s eye as one of the good things that I have painted, this vase of flowers,

which has remained a vision for me…I do not know of anything that has given me more pleassure than such an appreciation of simple flowers in their vase breathing air.[1]

Early days in Russia

As an inquisitive child in her native city of St. Petersburg, Dogal loved flowers—their many colors, and how they felt against her fingers. Her favorites were the hardy dandelions that sprang up in May, when the long Russian winter was finally over. She would collect handfuls and bring them to the 3rd floor apartment she shared with her parents and sister. With colored pencils, she carefully drew their tiny florets and smooth, deeply-notched leaves. When the warming season turned the dandelions to fragile fluff, she found that a trip up 3 flights of stairs made most of the seedheads drift away. She learned  to draw the gossamer filaments that survived, composing the rest from memory. Years later, she would discover that quick bursts of hairspray would preserve them longer. Today her exacting skills still capture dandelions’ bright yellow petals and—with a very fine brush tip—their starburst white tips.

A bunch of plump grapes exemplifies Dogal’s talent for contrasting bold natural forms with their more delicate parts. (Figure 1)

oil painting of a bunch of yellow grapes, 1/4 of which have plucked from the bunch

1. Dolya Dogal, Unfinished Job, oil on canvas

The wittily titled “Unfinished Job” refers to a hungry passerby who has left the artist with less than her original subject. The bunch of grapes appears to float in almost-black space, unachored to any surroundings. So, each plump grape with its individual glints of light and subtle color variations seems both naturally weighty and magically buoyant. Branches coil in and out of the overlapping grapes; stems seem to dance across the top. There are small but lively design elements, such as the stems’ pale red markings and tiny deep-green leaves.

At the division of the University of St. Petersburg that specialized in teacher education, Dogal received a Master’s degree in Literature and Fine Art. She continued painting during her career as a high-school teacher, concentrating on still life. At the time, the Hermitage allowed members of the public to sit in on its formal painting classes. One day while attending such a class, concentrating on a floral study, Dogal was startled to realize that the teacher had left his post and was gazing down at her painting. Awed, she said, “I’m really just doodling.” After another moment of absorbed looking, he told her “keep doodling” before he walked back to his students. The two words of encouragement were of high value, as Dogal was and remains primarily self-taught. 

A new life in  Delaware

I became acquainted with Dogal’s work in 2012 when I oversaw The Aesthetic Moment: The Art of Still Life, an exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum that featured a selection of artists from the mid-Atlantic region. I learned that she had continued her painting after coming to the US in 1981, when she joined her daughter and son-in-law in Wilmington, Delaware. Once there, she participated in classes given by Edward Loper.[2] His paintings’ intense colors and fractured viewpoints were not consistent with her own style, but she appreciated his ability to observe and personalize the influence of earlier masters, an approach that she favors. Since then, Dogal has exhibited her work in the US, Israel, Japan, and the UK. She has also developed a strong following of collectors in the those countries, as well as in the Russian Federation. Her work appeared in The Encyclopedia of Flower-Painting Techniques, with her comments about how best to achieve certain effects of lighting and spatial effects in still life.[3]Today she paints every day, teaches privately, and exhibits her work regionally. In her home-based teaching studio—its dusty-green- and apriccot-colored walls densely hung with a selection of her paintings— she occasionally hosts guests for relaxed conversation about art. 

Have you ever noticed that, the more true a work is, the more style it has?

Alberto Giacometti[4]

I was struck by the naturalism of Dogal’s paintings. She makes no attempt to be photographic. We would never be tempted to brush a painted fly off her canvas. She invites us to see the beauty of nature as she does, and at the same time to see the beauty of painting. Her still lifes, set against neutral backgrounds, include groups of fruit or flowers on a table or shelf and single stems in a vase. The paintings are lively but restrained; there are no elaborate masses of blooms. She paints on a small scale. Her canvases usually don’t exceed 18 inches in height or width, and many are smaller. Once she creates a still life grouping, she photographs the arrangement for reference. That scene, however, rarely becomes the final one. She changes objects’ positions and explores varying atmospheric effects as she paints, sometimes constructing cardboard box enclosures to experiment with angles of sun and artificial light. This fluid approach animates her paintings as hues, tints, and shades merge imperceptibly and illumination moves subtly through the setting.

A natural imperfection—an orchid’s missing petals—lets us notice entwined stems in a bouquet replete with tinges of color. (Figure 2)

oil painting of pink orchids in a glass pitcher, half filled with water.  Grapes are scattered on the marble table top next to the pitcher

2.  Dolya Dogal, Orchids in Glass Pitcher with Grapes on Marble Table,oil on canvas

In Purple Orchids in Glass Pitcher with Grapes on Marble Table, washes of dark-olive green flicker along the wall and throughout the translucent glass. Almost hidden slight brushstrokes of purple glow from the pitcher’s silver neck. Graduated tones of violet shimmer across both sides of the petals. The table’s edge clearly defines our place in space. Its veined marble lends a cold brightness to the scene. The water seems perfectly still, but the velvety flowers seem in motion. Stems interlace, and petals whirl toward and away from us as if in flight.

Dogal invites us to open our eyes to the moods of the natural world as they unfold. Equally present is a sense of the intelligent eye and hand that have chosen our vantage point.

“Our illustrious predecessors”

The Louvre is the book in which we learn to read. We must not, however, be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious precedessors. Let us go forth to study beautiful nature…let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperaments.       Paul Cezanne[5]

To say that Dogal is self-taught is true only in the literal sense. More properly put, the works of her teachers line the walls of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg’s Russian State Museum, Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, and other international museums. Caravaggio’s Lute Player (1595-96) was a touchstone.[6] A crystal vase holding a flowery pyramid next to a group of fruits and vegetables on a veined marble table accompany the young musician. Dogal noted its hallmarks: both dramatic and muted plays of light and shadow, a variety of textures, and deft spatial relationships. Among her other favorite artists are De Heem, Snyders, Zurburan, and Chardin, recognized masters of still life when the subject occupied the low rung of the traditional hierarchy of genres. (Figure 3)

oil painting of oranges in a silver bowl, glass pitcher with silver lid, more than half full with water, a glass filled  half full with a slice of lemon, cut lemon and a silver spoon, all on a wooden table

3.    Dolya Dogal, Fruit, Glass, Silver Pitcher, Bowl and Spoon with Half Lemon on Wood Table, oil on canvas

Fruit, Glass, Silver Pitcher, Bowl and Spoon with Half Lemon on Wood Table has the precision and elegance treasured by the 17th and 18th century Dutch painters in the Hermitage collection. Dogal’s attention to gleaming surfaces, carefully positioned objects, and color relationships is evident. Rough surfaces on the oranges and lemon add texture that contrasts with the high polish of silver. The spoon’s curved edges echo the bowl’s outline. The pitcher’s finial is also a series of curves; corners of the table are the only sharp edges in the scene. The off-center spoon and a cut lemon bring to mind not just an arranging hand but also daily activities. Our imaginations are free to roam beyond this kitchen glimpse and add our own stories.

Dogal’s influences also encompass 19th-century painters such as Manet and Fantin-Latour, artists whose inventive flower paintings reflect the acceptance of floral still life as a worthy genre. Like their artistic forebears, their styles ranged from reserved to flamboyant. The varied lessons of all these models remain with Dogal as she perfects her own techniques. She particularly seeks to embody Redon’s belief that “[I]n order to reveal beauty, the painting must be complete, solid, supple, rich in substance, also suggestive of this richness, this grandeur, whereby it reveals the presence of man: the ambience of thoughts surrounding it.”[7] (Figure 4)

oil painting of a tall galss vase with blue violets and white lillies of the valley.  A white circular ceramic box with a hinged lid with blue flowers painted on it.  It has a blue interior. All on a brown background.

4. Dolya Dogal, Lilies of the Valley and Violets with Blue-and-White Ceramic Box, oil on canvas

Lilies of the Valley and Violets with Blue-and-White Ceramic Box conjures up thoughts of blooms—some delicatre, some sturdy—chosen from a finely-tended garden. Sprays of lily of the valley radiate into the shadows, and arch down to the open ceramic box. The bell-shaped white flowers mix with a cluster of violets at the center, as the blue flowers and a few green leaves come toward us. Stems mingle in a glass jar that glints at its base. The still life sits on a warm-brown wood table, which merges almost imperceptibly into the greenish-gold background. Near the top of the floral pyramid, a glow suggests a ray of sunlight in a cool, darkened room. What may appear to be a limited palette reflects instead a mastery of hard-to-define colors, all mixed by the artist, such as the coruscating tones of the background.

Art historian Irina Bolotina notes that still life did not appear as an independent genre in Russian art until the 18th century, when an increasingly secularized society and naturalistic artistic tastes freed flowers and fruit from their restrictive role solely as symbols in religious art.[8] Dogal learned from Russian still life artists who rose to prominence in the mid-19th century, including Ivan Khrutsky (1810-1885). In examples of his work at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and The State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, she observed Khrutsky’s skill in rendering still life subjects. Art historian Svetlana Usacheva described the effect: “[T]he spectator can almost feel their density, weight, softness to the touch, and smoothness. Such effects are achieved not only through smooth and careful brush-work but also by the lateral ‘natural’ light, as if it is streaming in from a side window.”[9] Such dexterity underlies Dogal’s lighting, textures, and color harmonies in Three Green Glasses and Apples on Wood Table. (Figure 5)

oil painting of an orange background and a brown wooden table.  The table holds two whole apples and one half apple, a sparse bunch of grapes, plus three green wine glasses with flared, ringed glass stems.

5.  Dolya Dogal, Three Green Glasses with Apples and Grapes on Wood Table, oil on canvas

A close study of the painting reveals that two of the three sturdy jewel-green goblets reflect leafy plants at a window. Dogal balances the glasses’ crystalline surfaces with the frosted opacity of purple grapes. Two tiny apple pits reflect the light. The apples have scattered red markings; each grape has a small bit of red on its shadowed side, as light falls from the left across the rust-colored wall. The deep green of the overlapping glasses is balanced by their slightly darker shadows. There are no flowers, so leaves and petals do not add informal grace notes. Clearly delineated and unlikely to move in a breeze, the objects take on an almost severe aura. But natural asymmetries abound. The grape stem bends and curls upward. The apples and their stems turn in different directions. One grape escapes the tabletop. Such nuances make us pay attention to the moment, aware that the infiltrating light will change shadows and colors even while we’re looking.

Dogal captures nature’s often unexpected proportions. (Figure 6)

oil painting of pink flowers on black branches in a blue and white bowl with chinese like characters drawn on the bowl, on a peachy/pink tablecloth

6.  Dolya Dogal, Pink Flowers in Blue-and-White Bowl

In Pink Flowers in Blue-and-White Bowl, a few large, exuberant blossoms burst forth among smaller flowers and tiny oval buds, some still green and unopened. In a tour-de-force of color dexterity, the shadowy monochrome background intensifies the dusty-pink shared by flowers and tablecloth. Dogal creates the fabric’s texture, the depth of its creases, and the sharpness of its edges with the same color as suffuses the flowers. Two crossed stems leaning over the rim of the white ceramic bowl echo its calligraphic designs.

New directions

Recently Dogal returned to an earlier interest in landscape. For this, she is experimenting with black and white acrylic painting. For this, she is experimenting with black and white acrylic painting. While Winter Landscape may seem like a radical shift, her treatment of the paint creates effects similar to those in her color still lifes. The countryside offers ever-changing natural forms, and lambent light turns a restricted  palette into something quite expressive. To compose this painting, Dogal re-worked the details of a photograph into a serenely atmospheric wnter scene.  (Figure 7)

oil painting mainly in black and white, with snow on the ground and a small expanse of water two thin bare wood trunks in the center of the painting and other frees in the background all reflected on the water

7.  Dolya Dogal, Winter Landscape, acrylic on canvas

Silvery grays darken to soft black, and shadows in the snow and on stones at the water’s edge suggest a rocky terrain. Bare tree trunks are reflected in shimmering but calm water. Deeply shadowed trees hover in the distance, breaking just enough to show the forest beyond. Clarity fades in the distance, but we can discern leaves’ tracery in the misty woods. Beams of light brighten a path ahead that may seem haunting, entrancing, or both, depending on our own mood.


Clearly, Dogal’s mastery is seasoned by imagination, observation and discipline. She continues to interweave nature and art. Her long and ongoing dedication to the art of still life recalls Fantin-Latour’s remark: “I have many things to tell you still, but it is getting late and one needs to get up early tomorrow to finish a bouquet that has already withered. My life is among flowers.”[10]   

Dolya Dogal is represented by Somerville Manning Gallery, 101 Stone Block Row, Greenville, DE 19807. 302 652 0271.

[1] Quoted in Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams, exhibition catalogue, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1994, p. 294. As cited in Odilon Redon (1840-1916) / Fleurs: 2020. Viewed February 26, 2020

[2] For Edward Loper’s paintings: Jenine Culligan, Edward L. Loper: From the Prism’s Edge (Wilmington DE: Delware Art Museum, 1996). For examples of Loper’s paintings: Wesley Memeger, http://www.loperart,com.

Viewed February 26, 2020

[3] Sue Burton, The Encyclopedia of Flower Painting Techniques (Collingdale, PA: Diane Publishing Company, 1997

[4] Alberto Giacometti / Écrits, Michel Leiris and Jacques Dupin, editors, 2nd edition (Paris: Herrmann, 1997), p.273.

Cited by Tobia Bezzola, “Phenomenon and Imagination: Giacometti’s Concept of Vision,” in Christian Klemm, Alberto Giacometti (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2001), p. 33

[5] Letter to Emile Bernard (1905). Cited by Herschel B. Chipp, “Paul Cezanne: Excerpts from the Letters,” in Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 21

[6] Caravaggio’s The Lute Player:!ut/p/z1/jZBNT8MwDIb_Cjv0SOK0TVt2i4LEGBudJj5CLiibujSoTao2rBK_noC4gKDMN0uPXz82llhgadXRaOWNs6oJ_ZPMnkvGMpJwWJacXgIrtxu65bdXQFL8-AnAH8UAy1PmJwA5Hb_8b0G4IO7XfK2x7JSvz409OCyAoLONMtYbqwcsEkIJCS7yR9r1TR7S7uiiLB94zNMvYNrH7Fo07lsEiMYUSHIBUORxnhbZhwyzu6QIMn11qPqqR699-HLtfTfMI4hgHEekndNNhfaujeC3kdoNHovvJO7ae_G2WsALbY4rNpu9A6yFcvE!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/?lng=en

[7] Redon, op. cit.

[8] For the history of Russian still life painting, see: Irina Bolotina, Still Life in Russian Art (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1987); and Svetlana Usacheva, “Objects of their Time,” The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine, #3 2012 (36): Viewed February 26, 2020

[9] Usacheva, ibid.

[10] Quoted by Raphael Chatroux, “My Life is Among the Flowers,” viewed February 26, 2020.

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