Art Dictionary

Still Lifes

Pieter de Ring and Harmen Loedingh,

Pieter de Ring and Harmen Loedingh, "Früchte und ein Berkemeyer und Chinesische Porzellanschüssel mit Erdbeeren und ein Römer", 1665, detail
Städel Museum, Frankfurt

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For centuries artists and viewers alike have been fascinated by careful arrangements of »still« objects, such as flowers, exotic fruits, wild game, plates, carafes, or musical instruments.

»I will astonish Paris with an apple.« (Paul Cézanne)

Still lifes are not for people with weak nerves. Pallid skulls, insect excrement, mice, broken glass—these are the ingredients for a veritable seventeenth-century vanitas still life (vanitas, Latin for emptiness and the transient nature of vanity) that admonishingly wishes to convey: memento mori (remember that you are mortal).

The term »still life« derives from the Dutch still leven. It characterizes paintings for which the artist selected and arranged inanimate objects: these could comprise fruit, flowers, kitchen utensils, bagged animals, and musical instruments—or even things more gruesome.

Pliny wrote that the ancient painter Zeuxis was able to paint grapes so realistically that birds flew by to pick at them. Illusionistic wall paintings depicting flowers and fruit were also discovered at Pompeii which was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year AD 79.

In the Middle Ages, painting was only a means to illustrate the biblical story of salvation. Flowers and other objects therefore always fulfilled a religious/symbolic function; illusionism was not a concern. The Renaissance was not yet familiar with the still life as an autonomous genre, but it nevertheless developed a great interest in studies of nature and lifelike representations. The first still lives appear around the year 1600 with the start of the Baroque era. But they do not play as important a role in Italy as they do in Spain, where the genre of the bodegones, the kitchen pieces developed during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Still lives achieved their greatest importance between 1600 and 1660 in the Netherlands. Holland was then a global trading power and its Calvinist merchants brought about the high point of the still life. The paintings that often portrayed very expensive flowers or precious objects were intended to denote the wealth of those who commissioned the works. They are simultaneously full of religious or moral symbolism: bread and wine always refers to the Eucharist and a mouse (symbolizing evil) gnawing on an open walnut reminded the viewer of the wood of the cross (symbolized by the shell) in addition to Christ´s life-giving nature (represented by the sweet core). An opened nut can also serve as a vanitas symbol; the many meanings vary according to the context.

If someone is called »Flower Brueghel,« then the painter´s specialty is obvious: it was thus Jan Brueghel the Younger who produced the flowers for Rubens´s Madonna in a Garland of Flowers from 1620—it was common for specialists to assist in a wide range of paintings. Ambrosius Bosschaert avoided overlappings of any kind in order to portray flowers as exactly as possible, and consequently became very influential. Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz were esteemed for their breakfast still lifes with Vanitas symbols expressed in monochrome, often earthy tones. Frans Snijders specialized in poultry and Willem Kalf in precious silver plates and glasses; the latter was celebrated for his »cat´s-eye« or reflector effect in which choice objects shine from out of the darkness in the background.

The illusion of space and corporeality striven after by all painters found it highpoint in the trompe-l´?il, the optical illusion, one of the most famous examples of which is Samuel van Hoogstraten´s pinboard from about 1660. From a certain distance, those unfamiliar with the picture could swear that it in fact was really a confusion of shaving brushes, combs, and pocket books.

An escalation was no longer possible; the still life became less important in the eighteenth century. In could not in fact fulfill the criteria of the »sublime« and therefore always assumed the lowest rung after history painting, portraiture, animal paintings, and landscapes—even though aficionados paid up to one thousand guilders for each painting. The French painter Jean Siméon Chardin had to be told that »You seem to think that a portrait is as easy to paint as a sausage.« He is famous for the clarity of his compositions and the great nuances of his colors. He liberated simple objects of everyday life from any form of allegorical interpretation, thus setting a landmark in modern painting´s paths towards becoming an autonomous artwork in the Age of the Enlightenment.

Chardin´s achievements were first completely grasped by the Impressionists in the nineteenth century. They demanded that subjects were to be chosen solely based on their painterly qualities. The quote heading this text represents the Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne´s declaration of war against the academy and the critics. His pictures depicting brilliant red apples and similarly unspectacular things—Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Bowl, and Apples of 1893/94, for example—decisively contributed to the still life reaching a higher position in the artistic hierarchy; in the first decades of the twentieth century they became a major theme of the still representational painting. Cézanne´s art of allowing perspective and lighting to appear in a non-uniform manner, of disregarding proportions and of reducing objects down to compositional forms influenced countless artists up to and including the Cubists Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso, who invented the genre of the coffeehouse piece. They integrated newspaper clippings or other materials in their pictures: the first collages were invented—and painting was enriched by the additional aspect of three-dimensionality.

Everyday objects´ final leap into space was carried out by means of the Readymade produced by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp or the found objects shown in an altered or unaltered state and declared to be works of art, such as Man Ray´s Gift from 1921—a store-bought flatiron with metal tacks attached to the bottom.

But pictures were still being painted: the same bottles and jars were sufficient for Giorgio Morandi´s meditative still lifes—he was close to Pittura Metafisica (Metaphysical Painting) and therefore also to Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà. His pictures, however, lack the atmosphere of suffocating closeness exuded by their still lifes. This nightmarishness can be found with the Surrealists around Salvador Dalí who produced works of almost »eerie« realism.

In 1960, Daniel Spoerri, a representative of Nouveau Réalisme, developed the idea of creating his own version of a banquet picture—under the label Eat Art he hung the remnants of a meal together with the tableware and dinner table itself on the wall. The Pop Art artists who advocated abolishing the boundaries between life and art also carried out the ironic heroization of everyday items: trivial, occasionally random—that´s the way life is. There is therefore no need not to overcome the boundaries between elite and mass culture.

In 1989, the American artist Charles Ray arranged bowls, cups, and other similar items on simple wooden tables. That which looks like a classic stiff life turns out, upon closer examination, to be his subversion: the objects are not still—they slowly rotate around their own axis.

What is a modern still life? Elements of it can be found today in painting as well as in object art, and naturally also in photography, especially in commercial photography: is a food stylist anything else than the painters of banquets? In post-modernism there is no longer a crystal clear definition of the still life just as there is no longer a fixed world view that could be conveyed by this genre. The still life nevertheless lives on—pluralistically, like our times themselves.

07.05.2008 Carola Eißler

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