Although still life paintings typically depict everyday inanimate objects, there is often much more to these works than meets the eye! The artist’s choice of object(s) as well as his/her careful arrangement of them often hold symbolic meaning. As a result, these paintings can represent a wide variety of things including a specific culture or lifestyle, an abstract idea, or the artist’s own personal values. An especially popular genre during the 16th and 17th century, still lifes remain a favorite today as they give artists precise control over the painting’s composition, lighting, and subject matter. Many collectors appreciate still lifes for their quiet, contemplative beauty, attention to detail, and their rich symbolic significance.
Still Life Paintings
Still lifes are one of the five main genres found in Western art. The origins of still lifes can be traced back to Ancient Greco-Roman art (found on Greek vases, Roman wall paintings, and floor mosaics) and Medieval art. In the Netherlands, religious art was slowly replaced by more secular themes, such as still lifes and landscape after 1550. As Church commissions decreased, artists needed to create works that appealed to collectors and patrons. Still lifes would often be found as details in larger compositions--for instance, inanimate objects could be found arrayed on a table in the background of a history painting. In Caravaggio’s painting, “The Supper at Emmaus” (1601), he depicts the resurrected Christ seated at a table with two of his disciples, and the table is set with fruit and a dead fowl. The rise of the European art academies saw the fall of still lifes from favor. In the late 17th century, the French Academy organized the subject matter found in paintings into a hierarchy. Status was accorded to each genre; artists were more esteemed if they worked with the higher genres, and artistic worth was based primarily upon subject matter. The French Academy afforded still lifes the lowest rung of the hierarchy, due to the fact that subject matter did not change nor move. As the Academies in Europe began to lose power in the 19th century and Impressionism rose to the forefront, technique and color harmony became more important than subject matter. Suddenly, still lifes became a genre that artists began practising with more fervor, and was triumphed by such esteemed artists as Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. By the end of the 20th century, the nature of still lifes has irrevocably changed due to the rise of digital art. Many mixed-media still lifes combine mediums and extend beyond the frame. In 2001, John Baldessari created ‘In Still Life’ for an exhibition at LACMA. Visitors were invited to digitally rearrange 3D objects in an original 17th century Dutch painting.
A still life is an artwork that depicts inanimate and everyday objects, such as flowers, food, dead animals, plants, books, jewelry, vases, drinking glasses, skulls, etc. The objects that comprise of the still life are generally assumed to not move nor change, and are arranged by the artist. This affords the artist much more freedom than the other genres, as they are able to arrange the compositions as they see fit. Interestingly, the French term for still life is nature morte, which translates to ‘dead nature.’ Still lifes are often meant to be pleasant and to cater to the senses. Each object depicted in turn relates to one of the senses: smell the flowers, taste the fruit, listen to the musical instruments. Sometimes, though, they can carry a tinge of somberness. Most Dutch Baroque still lifes concern themes of Vanitas (the vanity of all earthly things). These paintings would allude to virtues of frugality, hard work, and temperance, as well as hinting at the inevitability of death via symbolism. For instance, a skull could symbolise death. Vanitas also is referred to as a ‘memento mori’ (meaning ‘remember death’).
For Still Life Paintings
Paul Cezanne is well-known for his still lifes, where he played with perspective and often painted fruit, such as in “Still Life with Apples in a Bowl” (1879-82) and “Still Life with Plastic Cupid” (c. 1895). Cezanne’s famous still life paintings were concerned with drawing attention to the physicality of the objects being depicted, and not in telling a narrative.
Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, such as “Still Life (Vase with Twelve Sunflowers)” (1888) are some of the best-known 19th century still life paintings, and are highly sought after by collectors.
The origins of Collage Cubism or Synthetic Cubism are often considered by art historians to be found in Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) artwork, “Still Life with Chair Caning” (1912).
American artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s depictions of flowers have added a sense of eroticism to the genre of still life paintings. She also created still life paintings in watercolor, beautifully rendering flowers with lush colors and vibrant details.
Other famous artists who created still lifes include Gustave Courbet, Henri Matisse, Jean-Baptiste Chardin, Juan Sanchez Cotan, Harmen Steenwyck, Frans Snyders, Giorgio Morandi, Pieter Claesz Francisco de Zurbarn, Eugene Delacroix, Georges Braque, and Pierre Bonnard. Contemporary still life paintings have been created by Tom Wesselman, Marsden Hartley, and Roy Lichtenstein.