Still life is the depiction of inanimate objects such as fruit, dead animals (especially game), flowers. scientific instruments etc. Although there is evidence of still life as far back as Ancient Egypt and the Greek Empire, it is a genre that started becoming popular in the early 1600’s. At this point it was seen as a lowly art form, the only truly worthy art was still of a religious nature or portraiture. Having said this, it was commercially viable and the middle classes would hang exuberant still lifes of banquets and exotic fruit or flowers as a sign of wealth and opulence. As still life was developing, artists such as Pieter Aertsen (1508 – 1575) would create paintings where still life would take prominence leaving the religious aspect to fade into the background somewhat, this can clearly be seen in A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms – 1551 (fig 13). Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) also adopted this style and a good example of this would be Bacchus – 1596 (fig 14) or Boy With A Basket Of Fruit 1593 (fig 15) where it is said that the fruit is so realistically rendered, scientific horticulturalists have been able determine where each individual piece of fruit was cultivated. It appears that Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit 1596 (fig 16) is seen as one of the first paintings to feature a still life as the sole subject. This painting has had much discussion on the meaning behind it, with the realistically rendered depiction of slowly deteriorating fruit, imperfect apples and wilting foliage. The main opinion being that this is a painting depicting the fragility of life.
It was mainly the Flemish masters of the 17th century that made the still life genre popular. Artist such as Willem Kalf (1619 – 1693), Willem Heda (1593/4 – 1680/2) and Abraham Van Beyeren (1620 – 1690) specialised in works to show great banquets depicting large fruit platters, lobsters, game and ostentatious tableware. Others such as Pieter Claesz (1597 – 1661) and Evert Collier (1640 – 1707) were known to specialise particularly in a sub-genre of still life known as Vanitas a particularly morbid form of still life depicting skulls, candles, hourglasses and other objects to symbolise the inevitability of death. Flowers, especially of an exotic nature was another whole sub-genre of still life and was made popular by the likes of Jan Davidsz de Heem (1608 – 1684) and Ambrosius Bosschaert ( 1573 – 1621). These styles of painting remianed popular throughout the 18th century and was by now popular throughout Europe, all the while being developed, with careful observation and highly detailed works remaining the fashion.
It was in the 19th century, with the rise of the impressionism, that still life had a new lease of life. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) , Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919). It was around this time that many artist started concentrated less on detail and more on colour, light and form. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers 1888 (fig 17) is still one of the most famous still lifes of all time and whilst Monet is more well known for his impressionist landscapes we can see in Still-Life with Apples and Grapes 1880 (fig 18) that he was more than versed in the genre of still life. Cezanne’s Still Life with Cherub 1895 (fig 19), is a good example of how colour and light can be used to replace fine detail, without losing feeling.
The 20th century brought with it the rise of cubism, brought forward by Georges Braque (1882 – 1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973). Cubism uses geometric shapes and planes often from different perspectives and vantage points, emphasising the two dimensional canvas whilst viewing three dimensions simultaneously, it rejects the traditional way seeing. It is one of the most influential movements the art world has seen and opened the path to more abstract art. Examples of cubism can be seen in Georges Braque’ s Violin and Candlestick 1910 (fig 20) and in Pablo Picasso’s Still Life With Chair Caning 1912 (fig 21).
The 21st century, a time of technological revolution, is an open minded society full of possibilities. With the invention of digital cameras and computer generated imaging, a world of new media has been opened up to us. Photography is now deemed as a serious art form and has allowed us to not only use photographs as art in themselves but also for the artist using traditional media to slow the world down to a single frame, a singular point in time that can be studied and scrutinised at our leisure. Time After Time: Blow Up No3, 2007 by Ori Gersht (1967 – present) (fig 22) is an example, it depicts a reproduction bouquet of that painted by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904) in the 19th century. He has used a shutter speed of 1/6000 sec to capture the bouquet being exploded. Roy Hodrien (1957 – present) has clearly been influence by the masters of old and uses oil paint in thin translucent layers to create a very traditional looking still life, such as Silver teapot with Lemons (fig 23). I like the look of these paintings and in them you can see the vibrancy of colour that was probably akin to what the 17th century paintings may have originally looked like.
It seems as though still life is as relevant today as it has been over the past few centuries and is certainly no longer perceived as a lowly form of art. Whether creating some new or appropriating the previous fathers of still life, people will always find symbolism in objects. Learning to paint inanimate objects, using careful observation of colour, light, form and mass is still applicable today as not only a good place to start from but also a staple in the diet of any artist. It can always be developed upon or rejected for other subjects but should never be dismissed as unworthy.
Encyclopedia Britannica – https://www.britannica.com/art/still-life-painting
Metropolitan Museum of Art, The – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm
Red Rag Gallery – http://www.redraggallery.co.uk/artist-Roy-HODRIEN.asp?gId=2
Timetrips.co.uk – http://www.timetrips.co.uk/still_life_history.htm
Wikipedia.org – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Still_life