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The Art of Still Life

The genre of still life has a long and rich tradition in art. Spanning from antiquity to the contemporary era, artists have continually utilized this framework to both develop their skills and innovate within their chosen styles and media. Continue reading to discover the history and characteristics of still lifes, along with some notable examples in art history.


Still life (plural: still lifes) refers to the genre of painting that depicts inanimate objects, such as fruits, flowers and other small-scale items. The question arises: why is it called a still life? The term 'still life' is derived from the Dutch 'stilleven,' a compound of 'stil,' meaning 'motionless' or 'silent,' and 'leven,' meaning 'life.



An artistic technique commonly found in the still life genre is trompe l’oeil, a French term meaning 'deceive the eye.' Trompe l’oeil represents objects with such verisimilitude that it creates the optical illusion of real items within a three-dimensional space. An exemplary illustration of the trompe l’oeil technique is John Atherton’s 'The Bass Season,' which graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on June 29, 1946. The American artist, renowned for his success as a commercial illustrator, meticulously depicted his passion for fly-fishing in this canvas. The composition features a fish suspended from a string, a black and white photograph of a proud fisherman, a fly-fishing rod and nine lures. These elements are arranged as though they are hanging on a wooden shelf, some parts of which show peeling bark. A gap in the wooden backdrop offers a view of a lake encircled by evergreen trees and distant mountains, where a diminutive figure in a canoe awaits his next great catch.
John Atherton, The Bass Season, 1946
John Atherton, The Bass Season, 1946.
M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
The quintessential subject of most still life genre paintings 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 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. 



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 of 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 as the type of accommodations expected from 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 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, with flowers representing 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 the fleeting nature of material belongings. Still lifes of this popular category are known as vanitas or memento mori and make up a vast number or paintings that tell a story.

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 the 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 divested of symbolic meaning, still life remained a popular genre during the modern era. The Fauvist painters, adopting the moniker that translates to 'wild beasts,' were Post-Impressionists who boldly diverged from the status quo. Intriguingly, many of these painters, including Henri Manguin, took pleasure in reinventing the time-honored tradition of floral and food still lifes. His remarkable work, titled Nature morte aux cyclamens, is a dynamic composition bursting with a full spectrum of rich reds and verdant greens that swirl together across the patterned tablecloth. In a vibrant display, piles of fruit and charming floral arrangements coalesce, unified by complementary colors and painterly brushstrokes. Both expressive and classical, this monumental painting stands as one of the most remarkable and beautiful Fauvist still lifes in art history.


Post-Impressionist master Vincent van Gogh also 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 style.


Thomas Hart Benton, The Lost Penny, circa 1941.

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

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Liedtke, Walter. “Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (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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