CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

The Art of Still Life

This still life in art has a long and rich tradition. From antiquity to the contemporary age, artists continue to use this framework to develop their skills and innovate within their chosen styles and media. Read on to learn the history and characteristics of still lifes and some notable still lifes in art history.
 

WHAT IS A STILL LIFE?


Still life (plural: still lifes) is the name given to the genre of painting that depicts inanimate objects, including fruits, flowers and other small-scale items. But, why is it called a still life? The label “still life” derives from the Dutch stilleven, a compound of stil, meaning motionless or silent, and leven, meaning life.
 

COMMON ELEMENTS OF A STILL LIFE


An artistic technique common to the still life genre is trompe l’oeil. Meaning “deceive the eye” in French, trompe l’oeil is the manner of representing objects with such verisimilitude as to create the optical illusion of real objects within a three-dimensional space. John Atherton’s The Bass Season, which appeared on the June 29, 1946 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, exemplifies the trompe l’oeil technique. The American artist gained success as a commercial illustrator, and this canvas meticulously depicts the stuff of his passion: fly-fishing. The composition includes a fish hanging from a string, a black and white photograph of the proud fisherman, a fly-fishing rod and nine lures. The collection is displayed as if hanging on a wooden shelf, parts with peeling bark. A gap in the wooden backdrop provides a glimpse of a lake ringed with evergreen trees and distant mountains, where a diminutive figure in a canoe hopes for his next great catch.
 
John Atherton, The Bass Season, 1946

 

John Atherton, The Bass Season, 1946.
M.S. Rau, New Orleans.

 

 
A typical subject of the still life genre is food. Historically called “banquet pieces” or “breakfast pieces,” these paintings commonly feature spreads of bread, meat, cheese, fruit, nuts and so on. Another popular subject is the cut-flower arrangement, referred to simply as “flower pieces.” Many still life paintings carry moralizing messages or a vanitas theme, with skulls, hourglasses, guttering candlewicks and timepieces reminding viewers of the fleeting nature of material possessions and life itself. Other objects included in still life paintings, like Chinese porcelain, for example, showcase the belongings and far-reaching networks of wealthy collectors. Meanwhile, the reflective surfaces of metallic, glass or jeweled objects offer painters the opportunity to exhibit their artistic virtuosity.
 

 Martin Johnson Heade, Red Rose in a Standing Vase, 1883

 

Martin Johnson Heade, Red Rose in a Standing Vase, 1883.
M.S. Rau, New Orleans.

 

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STILL LIFE GENRE

 

Precursors to the Still Life in Antiquity

 

The genre of still life painting was particularly popular in the Netherlands during the 17th century but boasts much older origins. Wall paintings of foodstuffs survive in ancient Egyptian tombs, where the pictorial representations were meant to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. Trompe l’oeil frescoes and mosaics depicting food and drink have likewise been rediscovered in the Roman villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum, once buried beneath the ash of Mount Vesuvius. Here, the still life paintings belong to the category of xenia, meaning “hospitality,” and once advertised to visitors the type of accommodations to be expected from the hospitable homeowners.

 

Renaissance “Still Lifes”
Before flourishing as an independent genre in the early 1600s, still life motifs frequently appeared in manuscripts and figural panel paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries. For example, in Petrus Christus’ northern Renaissance masterpiece A Goldsmith in his Shop, two shelves are filled with objects related to his trade, including meticulously rendered glassware, jewels, coral and metallic pieces.

 
Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449.
Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

In Robert Campin’s religious Annunciation Triptych of circa 1425, a still life arranged on a circular tabletop features symbolic objects. Here, Campin has meticulously depicted an open manuscript; a blue and white jug holding white lilies, flowers representative of the Virgin Mary’s purity; and an extinguished candle, symbolic of God’s transformation into man at the moment of the Incarnation. The placement of the still life at the center of the triptych’s central panel underscores the importance of these objects to Campin’s representation of the biblical narrative.

 
Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), c. 1425.

 

Robert Campin, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), c. 1425.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

The Dutch Still Life in the 17th Century

 

Usually small in scale and meant for display at home, Dutch still lifes of the 17th century foregrounded objects, often with didactic or moralizing meanings attached. Exemplary of this trend is Pieter Claesz’ Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill. With its tipped glass, sputtering oil lamp and skull, the painting overtly references the brevity of life and fleeting nature of material belongings. Still lifes of this popular category are known as vanitas or memento mori.

 
Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628.

 

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

Floral still lifes were highly sought-after in the early 17th century and especially prized for their degree of realism or trompe l’oeil effects. The nearly scientific accuracy in depictions of floral arrangements points to the careful observation of flora and fauna from life and the study of sophisticated botanical manuals circulating at the time in print. Floral still lifes, like Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Flowers in a Basket and a Vase, appear to depict blooms freshly cut from a garden. However, the display is an impossible one: tulips and columbines blossom in the spring, roses appear in the early summer months and anemones bloom in fall. Early modern viewers must have appreciated the impossible bouquet’s meticulous detail and vibrant color palette, while the promise of wilting petals reminded them of the transience of beauty.

 
Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Basket and a Vase, 1615.

 

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Basket and a Vase, 1615.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

 

 

Modern Still Life Painting

 

Although largely divorced from symbolic meaning, still life prevailed as a popular painting genre during the modern era. Post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh painted vibrant florals with his signature expressive brushstrokes, while Paul Cézanne depicted tabletops laid with fabrics, glassware, fruit and other objects. In the following century, still life played an important role in the development of Cubism, as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque rendered everyday items from multiple viewpoints simultaneously. Moving away from the careful realism of Dutch still lifes, painters of the modern era combined traditional subject matter with the colors, brushstrokes and perspectives of their personal style.

 

Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Penny, circa 1941.

 

Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Penny, circa 1941. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.

 

 

 

 

To explore M.S. Rau’s entire fine art collection, you can browse our website or sign up for our email list.
 

Sources:

 

Liedtke, Walter. “Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm (October 2003).

 

Stokstad, Marilyn, and Michael W. Cothren. “Seventeenth-Century Art in Europe.” In Art History, 724-82. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2

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