Still Life Painting
Dutch Vanitas, Banquet, Pronkstilleven, Modern Still Lifes.

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Still-Life with an Aquamanile, Fruit,
and Nautilus Cup (1660)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
By Dutch Realist Willem Kalf.

Still Life Painting


What is Still Life Painting?
Still Life As an Art Form
Types of Still Life
Northern Renaissance and Dutch Realism
Italy, France, Spain
19th Century Still Lifes
20th Century Still Lifes

See also: Best Still Life Painters.

Still Life with Fruit (c.1879)
by Impressionist Paul Cezanne.

What is Still Life Painting?

In fine art, the term 'still life' denotes a specific genre of painting, typically comprising an arrangement of objects (traditionally flowers or kitchen utensils, but almost any household object may be included) laid out on a table.

The term is a direct translation of the Dutch word 'Stilleven', which was used from 1656 to describe paintings previously called simply 'Fruit' or 'Flower Pieces', or 'Ontbijt' (Breakfast Piece), Bancket (banquet) or Pronkstilleven pieces (from the Dutch word 'pronk' meaning ostentation), or if with religious overtones, in line with the new aesthetics of Protestant Reformation art - Vanitas painting.

Still-life painting was much practised in the ancient world, but thereafter declined and did not re-emerge in the history of art as an independent genre until the 16th century. As the origin of the name suggests, still-life was particularly favoured in the North of Europe, especially in Holland and Flanders, among painters of the late Northern Renaissance. This was partly due to the effects of the North European Reformation which led to a decline in religious painting among Protestant nations. Even so, there were significant schools of still-life art in Italy (especially Naples) and Spain, and to a lesser extent France, although Chardin was arguably the greatest still-life painter of the 18th century and Paul Cezanne of the 19th century. Contemporary still lifes may include a limitless range of contemporary objects, from urinals to beer cans.

Bouquet of Flowers (1884)
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
A marvellous still-life painting
by Ivan Kramskoy.

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit
(1910) By Alexei von Jawlensky.
Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Irish artists noted for their stll lifes
include Mark O'Neill (Classical),
Brian Ballard (Expressionist or
Colourist), James English (realist),
Peter Collis (Post-Impressionist)
and Conor Walton.

Still Life as an Art Form

To beginners, pictures of still life may seem quite boring, when compared with action-packed history painting, evocative landscapes or emotional portraits. However, some of the greatest still lifes contain complex messages (narrative) encapsulated in the type of objects displayed and how they are arranged. Thus when studying a still-life composition, be aware that the items displayed may be symbols, infusing the picture with symbolic significance. As a result, although, like landscape, still life painting does not usually contain human forms, it is as capable of presenting a political, moral or spiritual message, as the most complex examples of history (istoria) painting. This conflicted with the 'official line' adhered to by advocates of academic art, that ranked still-life art as the lowest of the five genres, after: history, portraiture, genre-painting and landscape.

Types of Still Life

In simple terms, still lifes may be classified into four principal groups, including: (1) flower pieces; (2) breakfast or banquet pieces; (3) animal pieces. Many of these works are executed purely to demonstrate the technical virtuosity and drawing ability of the artist. Or they may be painted to convey a particular view of art (as in the case of Paul Cezanne's pre-Cubist still lifes) or to demonstrate artistic emotion (as in Van Gogh's 'yellow' sunflower studies).

Sometimes, however, an artist may have a more complex message in mind. Hence the final group (4) Symbolic Still Lifes. This is a wider category that denotes any type of still life with an overt symbolic narrative, usually religious or quasi-religious in nature. A specific example of such symbolism is the type known as Vanitas painting (so-called from Ecclesiastes 12:8 "Vanity of vanities saith the preacher, all is vanity") which contain symbolic images (eg. skulls, snuffed candles, hourglasses with the sand running out, watches, butterflies) to remind the viewer of the transience and triviality of mortal life. However, the symbolic imagery may be more overtly religious, comprising bread in some form, wine, water and other obscure references to the Eucharist, the Passion, The Holy Trinity or the Saints. One of the greatest exponents of this genre, which flourished between 1620 and 1650, was Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56) from the Delft/Leiden schools.

History of Still Life Painting

Still-life art was not uncommon in the ancient world. Murals with still-life compositions have been discovered in numerous Egyptian tombs (presumably the foodstuffs displayed were intended to be used by the deceased in the Afterlife), and in Roman homes excavated at Herculaneum and Pompeii. See for example the 'Transparent bowl of fruit and vases' (c.70 CE) by an unknown artist, found in Pompeii). In addition, still-life artistry is actually referred to in the ancient Greek legend of Zeuxis and Parrhasius. However, during the medieval era following the fall of Rome (c.350) still-life painting disappeared completely. It reappeared in the early Renaissance, but merely as background for religious paintings, or as items in Jan Van Eyck's interiors, rather than a genre in its own right.


Still Life After 1517: Northern Renaissance and Dutch Realism

The earliest recorded still-life paintings were Hare (1502) by the German painter Albrecht Durer, and Dead Bird (1504) by the Venetian-trained artist Jacopo de' Barbari, who worked at courts in Germany and Holland.

During the 1520s and 1530s, the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) painted a series of portraits which also included still life imagery, complete with Vanitas-style moral messages and symbols. See, for instance: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523), Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1527–28); The Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) and The Ambassadors (1533).

The undisputed master of Baroque still-life was the Antwerp artist Frans Snyders, with such masterpieces as Pantry Scene with a Page (c.1617), The Pantry (c.1620), and A Game Stall (c.1625). Snyders work was developed by several Dutch Realist painters of the Utrecht and Delft schools who polished the genre still further. The earliest dated pure flower piece was executed in 1562 by the German Ludger Tom Ring.

The fact that all these developments occurred in Flanders, Holland and Germany was no coincidence. As a result of the Reformation - the Protestant revolt against the Church of Rome (c.1517) - religious painting suffered a serious decline in Northern Europe, thus facilitating the re-emergence of the still-life genre (Stilleven). The popularity of oil painting on canvas in these countries - which permitted greater re-working of a picture and thus finer detail - also helped to develop the genre. The apogee of still life art was reached in Dutch painting of the 17th century, in a style known as "Dutch Realism", which is considered to represent the most true-to-life manifestation of the genre. It also provided a means for religious expression, as symbolic moral messages were introduced, which further widened its appeal. One particular form of symbolic still-life (called vanitas) comprised arrangements of symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of the pitiful transience of life on earth. Still-life in general and vanitas pieces in particular, strongly appealed to the puritanical Dutch middle class, and their growing patronage led to an upsurge in Stilleven which then spread to Spain and France.

Other examples of still-life by Dutch artists include: The Vanities of Human Life (1645) by Harmen Steenwyck; A Vanitas Still Life (1645) by Pieter Claesz; Breakfast of Crab (1648, Hermitage, St. Petersburg) by Willem Claesz Heda; Still Life with Lobster, Drinking Horn and Glasses (c.1653) by Willem Kalf; The Slippers (1654) by Samuel Hoogstraten; The Still Life of Fruit (c.1670) by Jan Davidsz de Heem; Flowers and Insects (1711) by Rachel Ruysch.

Still Life After 1600 in Italy, Spain, France

Still life remained unpopular with most Italian artists, and rarely appeared in Italian fine art painting, independently of a subject, except for the Small Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio; although there were exceptions. These included the Fruit, Flower and Fish pieces of the Neapolitan School of painting and the Neapolitan Baroque in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (eg. by Recco and Ruoppolo) and the Musical Instruments painted by Baschenis.

In Spain, the genre was more popular, and painters like Francisco de Zurbaran and Juan Sanchez Cotan invested the simplest still-life with drama. Examples of Spanish works included: Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose (1633) by Zurbaran and Still Life with Game Fowl (c.1602) by Juan Sanchez Cotan. Other Stilleven artists included Sanchez and Melendez. The Spanish dramatic element culuminated a century later in Francisco Goya's still-lifes Calf's Head and Plucked Turkey.

In France, perhaps due to the conservative influence of the Parisian Academie des Beaux-Arts, still-life painting took longer to develop than in its northern neighbours. It wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries as French aristocrats began to commission opulent and trompe l'oeil still life subjects that virtuoso examples of the genre appeared in the paintings of Moillon, Stoskopff, Oudry, and especially Jean-Simeon Chardin, although he eschewed 'objets de luxe' in favour of kitchen utensils and simple arrangements of food and drink. Chardin's exquisite small-scale paintings - eg. Still Life with Bottle of Olives (1760), and Rabbit, Thrush, Straw (1755) - are so 'real' you want to touch them. The wealthy French Romantic-Realist Theodore Gericault also produced several unusual works of this genre, such as Anatomical Pieces (1818).

Nineteenth Century Still Lifes

During the 19th century, Academic painting declined along with the influence of the academies themselves and their hierarchy of genres. As a result, landscape and still life flourished. Henri Fantin-Latour became renowned for his still-lifes of flowers such as, White and Pink Roses (1890), as well as other compositions such as, Still Life with Vase of Hawthorn, Bowl of Cherries, Japanese Bowl, and Cup and Saucer (c.1880). The Impressionists explored the colourist effects of flower compositions while Paul Cezanne gave both his still-lifes and landscapes an unprecedented monumentality from which Cubism is largly derived. Cezanne's masterpieces include: Pears on a Chair (1882), Still Life with Basket (1890), and Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1895). The Dutch Post-Impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh excited everyone with his use of rich yellows in his famous Sunflower paintings. In the United States, Well beyond the cramping influence of the European Academies, American artists painted still life throughout the nineteenth century. Leaders in the genre included the Philadelphian Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825).

Twentieth Century Still Lifes

The Fauvists further developed the colourist approach to the genre - as in Henri Matisse's Still Life with Geraniums (1910) - while artists like Emil Nolde, a member of Die Brucke the pivotal German Expressionist group produced individualistic works such as Still Life with Dancers (1914), and Red Poppies (1920). Meanwhile, Cubism was busy extending Cezanne's geometric assemblies in a series of multi-surfaced Cubist paintings such as: Violin and Candlestick (1910) by Georges Braque, Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) by Picasso, and Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin (1919) by Juan Gris. Indeed, Georges Braque continued his efforts for decades, with works like Studio V (1949). The genre was also developed later by the reclusive Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, who became renowned for his still-lifes of simple objects (eg. bottles) of great almost poetic delicacy.

In the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, still life painters like William Harnett and John Peto became known for their trompe l'oeil arrangements of objects and collages of newspaper cuttings. The genre was then explored by widely differing artists such as the Kandinsky and Jawlensky-inspired Expressionist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), the Cubist Stuart Davis (1894-1964) and the exotic image-creator Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). In the most recent art, still life has figured in Surrealism and Pop Art - example: Roy Lichtenstein's 1972 painting, Still Like with Goldfish Bowl (oil and magna on canvas).

• For more about the different types of painting (portraits, landscapes, still-lifes etc) see: Painting Genres.
• For more about still life painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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