From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A still life (plural still lifes) is a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on). With origins in the Middle Ages and Ancient Greek/Roman art, still life paintings give the artist more leeway in the arrangement of design elements within a composition than do paintings of other types of subjects such as landscape or portraiture. Still life paintings, particularly before 1700, often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted. Some modern still life breaks the two-dimensional barrier and employs three-dimensional mixed media, and uses found objects, photography, computer graphics, as well as video and sound.
Still life paintings often adorn the interior of ancient Egyptian tombs. It was believed that food objects and other items depicted there would, in the afterlife, become real and available for use by the deceased.
Ancient Greek vase paintings also demonstrate great skill in depicting everyday objects and animals.
The popular appreciation of the realism of still life painting is related in the ancient Greek legend of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who are said to have once competed to create the most lifelike objects, history’s earliest descriptions of trompe-l'œil painting. As Pliny the Elder recorded in ancient Roman times, Greek artists centuries earlier were already advanced in the arts of portrait painting and still life. He singled out Peiraikos, "whose artistry is surpassed by only a very few...He painted barbershops and shoemakers’ stalls, donkeys, vegetables, and such, and for that reason came to be called the ‘painter of vulgar subjects’; yet these works are altogether delightful, and they were sold at higher prices than the greatest [paintings] of many other artists."
Still life, more simply decorative in intent, but with realistic perspective, has also been found in the Roman wall paintings and floor mosaics unearthed at Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villa Boscoreale, including the later familiar motif of a glass bowl of fruit. Decorative mosaics termed "emblema", found in the homes of rich Romans, demonstrated the range of food enjoyed by the upper classes, and also functioned as signs of hospitality and as celebrations of the seasons and of life. By the 16th century, food and flowers would again appear as symbols of the seasons and of the five senses. Also starting in Roman times is the tradition of the use of the skull in paintings as a symbol of mortality and earthly remains, often with the accompanying phrase Omnia mors aequat (Death makes all equal). These vanitas images have been re-interpreted through the last 400 years of art history, starting with Dutch painters around 1600.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
By 1300, starting with Giotto and his pupils, still life painting was revived in the form of fictional niches on religious wall paintings which depicted everyday objects. Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, still life in Western art remained primarily an adjunct to Christian religious subjects, and convened religious and allegorical meaning. This was particularly true in the work of Northern European artists, whose fascination with highly detailed optical realism and symbolism led them to lavish great attention on their paintings' overall message. Painters like Jan van Eyck often used still life elements as part of an iconographic program.
The development of oil painting technique by Jan van Eyck and other Northern European artists made it possible to paint everyday objects in this hyper-realistic fashion, owing to the slow drying, mixing, and layering qualities of oil colors. Among the first to break free of religious meaning were Leonardo da Vinci, who created watercolor studies of fruit (around 1495) as part of his restless examination of nature, and Albrecht Dürer who also made precise drawings of flora and fauna.
Petrus Christus’ portrait of a bride and groom visiting a goldsmith is a typical example of a transitional still life depicting both religious and secular content. Though mostly allegorical in message, the figures of the couple are realistic and the objects shown (coins, vessels, etc.) are accurately painted but the goldsmith is actually a depiction of St. Eligius and the objects heavily symbolic. Another similar type of painting is the family portrait combining figures with a well-set table of food, which symbolizes both the piety of the human subjects and their thanks for God’s abundance. Around this time, simple still life depictions divorced of figures (but not allegorical meaning) were beginning to be painted on the outside of shutters of private devotional paintings. Another step toward the autonomous still life was the painting of symbolic flowers in vases on the back of secular portraits around 1475. Jacopo de' Barbari went a step further with his Still Life with Partridge, Iron Gloves, and Crossbow Arrows (1504), among the earliest signed and dated trompe-l'œil still life paintings, which contains minimal religious content.
The 16th century witnessed an explosion of interest in the natural world and the creation of lavish botanical encyclopædias recording the discoveries of the New World and Asia. It also prompted the beginning of scientific illustration and the classification of specimens. Natural objects began to be appreciated as individual objects of study apart from any religious or mythological associations. The early science of herbal remedies began at this time as well, a practical extension of this new knowledge. In addition, wealthy patrons began to underwrite the collection of animal and mineral specimens, creating extensive "curio cabinets". These specimens served as models for painters who sought realism and novelty. Shells, insects, exotic fruits and flowers began to be collected and traded, and new plants such as the tulip (imported to Europe from Turkey), were celebrated in still life paintings. The horticultural explosion was of wide spread interest in Europe and artist capitalized on that to produce thousands of still life paintings. Some regions and courts had particular interests. The depiction of citrus, for example, was a particular passion of the Medici court in Florence, Italy. This great diffusion of natural specimens and the burgeoning interest in natural illustration throughout Europe, resulted in the nearly simultaneous creation of modern still life paintings around 1600.
By the second half of the 16th century, the autonomous still life evolved. Gradually, religious content diminished in size and placement in these painting, though moral lessons continued as sub-contexts. An example is The Butcher Shop by Joachim Beuckelaer (1568), with its realistic depiction of raw meats dominating the foreground, while a background scene conveys the dangers of drunkenness and lechery. Annibale Carracci’s treatment of the same subject in 1583 also called Butcher's Shop begins to remove the moral messages, as did other "kitchen and market" still life paintings of this period.
Even though Italian still life painting was gaining in popularity, it remained historically less respected than the "grand manner" painting of historical, religious, and mythic subjects. Prominent Academicians of the early 17th century, such as Andrea Sacchi, felt that genre and still life painting did not carry the "gravitas" merited for painting to be considered great. On the other hand, successful Italian still life artists found ample patronage in their day. Furthermore, women painters, few as they were, commonly chose or were restricted to painting still life; Giovanna Garzoni, Laura Bernasconi, Maria Theresa van Thielen, and Fede Galizia are notable examples.
Many leading Italian artists in other genre, also produced some still life paintings. In particular, Caravaggio applied his influential form of naturalism to still life. His Basket of Fruit (c. 1595–1600) is one of the first examples of pure still life, precisely rendered and set at eye level. Though not overtly symbolic, this painting was owned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo and may have been appreciated for both religious and aesthetic reasons. Jan Bruegel painted his Large Milan Bouquet (1606) for the cardinal, as well, claiming that he painted it 'fatta tutti del natturel' (made all from nature) and he charged extra for the extra effort. These were among many still life paintings in the cardinal’s collection, in addition to his large collection of curios. Among other Italian still life, Bernardo Strozzi’s The Cook is a "kitchen scene" in the Dutch manner, which is both a detailed portrait of a cook and the game birds she is preparing. In a similar manner, one of Rembrandt’s rare still life paintings, Little Girl with Dead Peacocks combines a similar sympathetic female portrait with images of game birds.
Dutch, Flemish, German, Portuguese, and Spanish still lifes
Still life developed as a separate category in the Netherlands in the last quarter of the 16th century, and the English term derives from stilleven: still life, which is a calque while Romance languages (as well as Greek and Russian) tend to use terms meaning dead nature. 15th century Early Dutch painting had developed highly illusionistic techniques in both panel painting and illuminated manuscripts, where the borders often featured elaborate displays of flowers, insects and, in a work like the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a great variety of objects. When the illuminated manuscript was displaced by the printed book, the same skills were later deployed in scientific botanical illustration; the Netherlands led Europe in both botany and its depiction in art. Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1601) made watercolour and gouache paintings of flowers and other still life subjects for the Emperor Rudolf II, and there were many engraved illustrations for books (often then hand-coloured), such as Hans Collaert's Florilegium, published by Plantin in 1600.
In Spanish art, a bodegón is a still life painting depicting pantry items, such as victuals, game, and drink, often arranged on a simple stone slab, and also a painting with one or more figures, but significant still life elements, typically set in a kitchen or tavern. Starting in the Baroque period, such paintings became popular in Spain in the second quarter of the 17th century. The tradition of still life painting appears to have started and was far more popular in the contemporary Low Countries, today Belgium and Netherlands (then Flemish and Dutch artists), than it ever was in southern Europe. Northern still lifes had many sub-genre's; the breakfast piece was augmented by the trompe-l'œil, the flower bouquet, and the vanitas. In Spain there were much fewer patrons for this sort of thing, but a type of breakfast piece did become popular, featuring a few objects of food and tableware laid on a table.
There was also a type of very large kitchen or market scene developed by Pieter van Aelst (1502–1550) and his nephew Joachim Beuckelaer. Amid an abundance of food and kitchenware still life, supervised by burly Flemish kitchen-maids, a small religious scene can often be made out in the distance, or a theme such as the Four Seasons elevates the subject. This sort of large-scale still life continued to develop in Flemish painting after the separation of the North and South, but is rare in Dutch painting, although other works in this tradition anticipate the "merry company" type of genre painting.
Around 1600 flower paintings in oils became something of a craze; Karel van Mander painted some works himself, and records that other Northern Mannerist artists such as Cornelis van Haarlem also did so. No surviving flower-pieces by them are known, but many survive by the leading specialists, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Ambrosius Bosschaert, who both remained in the Flemish south of the Netherlands.
While artists in the North found limited opportunity to produce the religious iconography which had long been their staple—images of religious subjects were forbidden in the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church—the continuing Northern tradition of detailed realism and hidden symbols appealed to the growing Dutch middle classes, who were replacing Church and State as the principal patrons of art in the Netherlands. Added to this was the Dutch mania for horticulture, particularly the tulip. These two views of flowers—as aesthetic objects and as religious symbols— merged to create a very strong market for this type of still life. Still life, like most Dutch art work, was generally sold in open markets or by dealers, or by artists at their studios, and rarely commissioned; therefore, artists usually chose the subject matter and arrangement. So popular was this type of still life painting, that much of the technique of Dutch flower painting was codified in the 1740 treatise Groot Schilderboeck by Gerard de Lairesse, which gave wide-ranging advice on color, arranging, brushwork, preparation of specimens, harmony, composition, perspective, etc.
The symbolism of flowers had evolved since early Christian days. The most common flowers and their symbolic meanings include: rose (Virgin Mary, transience, Venus, love); lily (Virgin Mary, virginity, female breast, purity of mind or justice); tulip (showiness, nobility); sunflower (faithfulness, divine love, devotion); violet (modesty, reserve, humility); columbine (melancholy); poppy (power, sleep, death). As for insects, the butterfly represents transformation and resurrection while the dragonfly symbolizes transience and the ant hard work and attention to the harvest.
Dutch artists also branched out and revived the ancient Greek still life tradition of trompe-l'œil, particularly the imitation of nature or mimesis, which they termed bedriegertje ("little deception"). In addition to these types of still life, Dutch artists identified and separately developed "kitchen and market" paintings, breakfast and food table still life, vanitas paintings, and allegorical collection paintings.
Especially popular in this period were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, books, statuettes, vases, coins, jewelry, paintings, musical and scientific instruments, military insignia, fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life's impermanence. Additionally, a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Often some of the fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade to emphasize the same point.
Another type of still life, known as "breakfast paintings", represent both a literal presentation of delicacies that the upper class might enjoy and a religious reminder to avoid gluttony. In another Dutch innovation, around 1650 Samuel van Hoogstraten painted one of the first wall-rack pictures, trompe-l'œil still life paintings which feature objects tied, tacked or attached in some other fashion to a wall board, a type of still life very popular in the United States in the 19th century. Another variation was the trompe-l'œil still life depicted objects associated with a given profession, as with the Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrecht’s painting "Painter’s Easel with Fruit Piece", which displays all the tools of a painter’s craft. Also popular in the first half of the 17th century was the painting of a large assortment of specimens in allegorical form, such as the "five senses", "four continents", or "the four seasons", showing a goddess or allegorical figure surrounded by appropriate natural and man-made objects. The popularity of vanitas paintings, and these other forms of still life, soon spread from Holland to Flanders and Germany, and also to Spain and France.
German still life followed closely the Dutch models. German painter Georg Flegel was a pioneer in pure still life without figures and created the compositional innovation of placing detailed objects in cabinets, cupboards, and display cases, and producing simultaneous multiple views. Still life painting in Spain, also called bodegones, was austere. It differed from Dutch still life, which often contained rich banquets surrounded by ornate and luxurious items of fabric or glass. The game in Spanish paintings is often plain dead animals still waiting to be skinned. The fruits and vegetables are uncooked. The backgrounds are bleak or plain wood geometric blocks, often creating a surrealist air. Even while both Dutch and Spanish still life often had an embedded moral purpose, the austerity, which some find akin to the bleakness of some of the Spanish plateaus, appears to reject the sensual pleasures, plenitude, and luxury of Dutch still life paintings. In Catholic Italy and Spain, the pure vanitas painting was rare, and there were far fewer still life specialists. In Southern Europe there is more employment of the soft naturalism of Caravaggio and less emphasis on hyper-realism in comparison with Northern European styles. In France, painters of still lifes (nature morte) were influenced by both the Northern and Southern schools, borrowing from the vanitas paintings of the Netherlands and the spare arrangements of Spain.
By the 18th century, in many cases, the religious and allegorical connotations of still life paintings were dropped and kitchen table paintings evolved into calculated depictions of varied color and form, displaying everyday foods. The French aristocracy employed artists to execute paintings of bounteous and extravagant still life subjects that graced their dining table, also without the moralistic vanitas message of their Dutch predecessors. The Rococo love of artifice led to a rise in appreciation in France for trompe-l'œil (French: "trick the eye") painting. Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s still life paintings employ a variety of techniques from Dutch-style realism to softer harmonies.
The bulk of Anne Vallayer-Coster’s work was devoted to the language of still-life as it had been developed in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During these centuries, the genre of still-life was placed lowest on the hierarchical ladder. Vallayer-Coster had a way about her paintings that resulted in their attractiveness. It was the "bold, decorative lines of her compositions, the richness of her colors and simulated textures, and the feats of illusionism she achieved in depicting wide variety of objects, both natural and artificial" which drew in the attention of the Royal Académie and the numerous collectors who purchased her paintings. This interaction between art and nature was quite common in Dutch, Flemish and French still lifes. Her work reveals the clear influence of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, as well as 17th-century Dutch masters, whose work has been far more highly valued, but what made Vallayer-Coster’s style stand out against the other still life painters was her unique way of coalescing representational illusionism with decorative compositional structures.
The end of the eighteenth-century and the fall of the French monarchy closed the doors on Vallayer-Coster’s still life ‘era’ and opened them to her new style of florals. It has been argued that this was the highlight of her career and what she is best known for. However, it has also been argued that the flower paintings were futile to her career. Nevertheless, this collection contained floral studies in oil, watercolor and gouache.
With the rise of the European Academies, most notably the Académie française which held a central role in Academic art, still life began to fall from favor. The Academies taught the doctrine of the "Hierarchy of genres" (or "Hierarchy of Subject Matter"), which held that a painting's artistic merit was based primarily on its subject. In the Academic system, the highest form of painting consisted of images of historical, Biblical or mythological significance, with still life subjects relegated to the very lowest order of artistic recognition. Instead of using still life to glorify nature, some artists, such as John Constable and Camille Corot, chose landscapes to serve that end.
When Neo-Classicism started to go into decline by the 1830s, genre and portrait painting became the focus for the Realist and Romantic artistic revolutions. Many of the great artists of that period included still life in their body of work. The still life paintings of Francisco Goya, Gustave Courbet, and Eugène Delacroix convey a strong emotional current, and are less concerned with exactitude and more interested in mood. Though patterned on the earlier still life subjects of Chardin, Édouard Manet’s still life paintings are strongly tonal and clearly headed toward Impressionism. Henri Fantin-Latour, using a more traditional technique, was famous for his exquisite flower paintings and made his living almost exclusively painting still life for collectors.
However, it was not until the final decline of the Academic hierarchy in Europe, and the rise of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, that technique and color harmony triumphed over subject matter, and that still life was once again avidly practiced by artists. In his early still life, Claude Monet shows the influence of Fantin-Latour, but is one of the first to break the tradition of the dark background, which Pierre-Auguste Renoir also discards in 'Still Life with Bouquet and Fan' (1871), with its bright orange background. With Impressionist still life, allegorical and mythological content is completely absent, as is meticulously detailed brush work. Impressionists instead focused on experimentation in broad, dabbing brush strokes, tonal values, and color placement. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were inspired by nature’s color schemes but reinterpreted nature with their own color harmonies, which sometimes proved startlingly unnaturalistic. As Gauguin stated, "Colors have their own meanings." Variations in perspective are also tried, such as using tight cropping and high angles, as with Fruit Displayed on a Stand by Gustave Caillebotte, a painting which was mocked at the time as a "display of fruit in a bird’s-eye view."
Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" paintings are some of the best known 19th century still life paintings. Van Gogh uses mostly tones of yellow and rather flat rendering to make a memorable contribution to still life history. His Still Life with Drawing Board (1889) is a self-portrait in still life form, with Van Gogh depicting many items of his personal life, including his pipe, simple food (onions), an inspirational book, and a letter from his brother, all laid out on his table, without his own image present. He also painted his own version of a vanitas painting Still Life with Open Bible, Candle, and Book (1885).
In the United States during Revolutionary times, American artists trained abroad applied European styles to American portrait painting and still life. Charles Willson Peale founded a family of prominent American painters, and as major leader in the American art community, also founded a society for the training of artists as well as a famous museum of natural curiosities. His son Raphaelle Peale was one of a group of early American still life artists, which also included John F. Francis, Charles Bird King, and John Johnston. By the second half of the 19th century, Martin Johnson Heade introduced the American version of the habitat or biotope picture, which placed flowers and birds in simulated outdoor environments. The American trompe-l'œil paintings also flourished during this period, created by John Haberle, William Michael Harnett, and John Frederick Peto. Peto specialized in the nostalgic wall-rack painting while Harnett achieved the highest level of hyper-realism in his pictorial celebrations of American life through familiar objects.
The first four decades of the 20th century formed an exceptional period of artistic ferment and revolution. Avant-garde movements rapidly evolved and overlapped in a march towards nonfigurative, total abstraction. The still life, as well as other representational art, continued to evolve and adjust until mid-century when total abstraction, as exemplified by Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, eliminated all recognizable content.
The century began with several trends taking hold in art. In 1901, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Sunflowers, his homage to his friend Van Gogh who had died eleven years earlier. The group known as Les Nabis, including Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, took up Gauguin’s harmonic theories and added elements inspired by Japanese woodcuts to their still life paintings. French artist Odilon Redon also painted notable still life during in this period, especially flowers.
Henri Matisse reduced the rendering of still life objects even further to little more than bold, flat outlines filled with bright colors. He also simplifyied perspective and introducing multi-color backgrounds. In some of his still life paintings, such as Still Life with Eggplants, his table of objects is nearly lost amidst the other colorful patterns filling the rest of the room. Other exponents of Fauvism, such as Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, further explored pure color and abstraction in their still life.
Paul Cézanne found in still life the perfect vehicle for his revolutionary explorations in geometric spatial organization. For Cézanne, still life was a primary means of taking painting away from an illustrative or mimetic function to one demonstrating independently the elements of color, form, and line, a major step towards Abstract art. Additionally, Cézanne's experiments can be seen as leading directly to the development of Cubist still life in the early 20th century.
Adapting Cézanne’s shifting of planes and axes, the Cubists subdued the color palette of the Fauves and focused instead on deconstructing objects into pure geometrical forms and planes. Between 1910 and 1920, Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris painted many still life compositions, often including musical instruments, as well as creating the first Synthetic Cubist collage works, such as Picasso's oval "Still Life with Chair Caning" (1912). In these works, still life objects overlap and intermingle barely maintaining identifiable two-dimensional forms, losing individual surface texture, and merging into the background—achieving goals nearly opposite to those of traditional still life. Fernand Léger’s still life introduced the use of abundant white space and colored, sharply defined, overlapping geometrical shapes to produce a more mechanical effect. Rejecting the flattening of space by Cubists, Marcel Duchamp and other members of the Dada movement, went in a radically different direction, creating 3-D "ready-made" still life sculptures. As part of restoring some symbolic meaning to still life, the Futurists and the Surrealists placed recognizable still life objects in their dreamscapes. In Joan Miró’s still life paintings, objects appear weightless and float in lightly suggested two-dimensional space, and even mountains are drawn as simple lines. In Italy during this time, Giorgio Morandi was the foremost still life painter, exploring a wide variety of approaches to depicting everyday bottles and kitchen implements. Dutch artist M. C. Escher, best known for his detailed yet ambiguous graphics, created Still life and Street (1937), his updated version of the traditional Dutch table still life.
When 20th century American artists became aware of European Modernism, they began to interpret still life subjects with a combination of American realism and Cubist-derived abstraction. Typical of the American still life works of this period are the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley, and the photographs of Edward Weston. O’Keeffe’s ultra-closeup flower paintings reveal both the physical structure and the emotional subtext of petals and leaves in an unprecedented manner.
In Mexico, starting in the 1930s, Frida Kahlo and other artists created their own brand of Surrealism, featuring native foods and cultural motifs in their still life paintings.
Starting in the 1930s, Abstract Expressionism severely reduced still life to raw depictions of form and color, until by the 1950s, total abstraction dominated the art world. However, Pop Art in the 1960s and 1970s reversed the trend and created a new form of still life. Much Pop Art (such as Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans") is based on still life, but its true subject is most often the commodified image of the commercial product represented rather than the physical still life object itself. Roy Lichtenstein’s Still Life with Goldfish Bowl (1972) combines the pure colors of Matisse with the pop iconography of Warhol. Wayne Thiebaud’s Lunch Table (1964) portrays not a single family’s lunch but an assembly line of standardized American foods.
The Neo-dada movement, including Jasper Johns, returned to Duchamp’s three-dimensional representation of everyday household objects to create their own brand of still life work, as in Johns’ Painted Bronze (1960) and Fool’s House (1962). Avigdor Arikha, who began as an abstractionist, integrated the lessons of Piet Mondrian into his still lifes as into his other work; while reconnecting to old master traditions, he achieved a modernist formalism, working in one session and in natural light, through which the subject-matter often emerged in a surprising perspective.
A significant contribution to the development of still life painting in the 20th century was made by Russian artists, among them Sergei Ocipov, Victor Teterin, Evgenia Antipova, Gevork Kotiantz, Sergei Zakharov, Taisia Afonina, Maya Kopitseva, and others.
By contrast, the rise of Photorealism in the 1970s reasserted illusionistic representation, while retaining some of Pop's message of the fusion of object, image, and commercial product. Typical in this regard are the paintings of Don Eddy and Ralph Goings.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, and in the early years of the 21st century still life has expanded beyond the boundary of a frame. Especially in the wake of the computer age, and the rise of Computer art and Digital art the nature and definition of still life has changed. Some mixed media still life work employing found objects, photography, video, and sound, and even spilling out from ceiling to floor, and filling an entire room in a gallery. Computer-generated graphics have expanded the techniques available to still life artists. With the use of the video camera, still life artists can even incorporate the viewer into their work.
- Dutch Golden Age still life painting
- Food still life
- History of painting
- List of Dutch painters
- Painters of silence
- Still life photography
- Living Still Life