A closer look at still life.

As I understand it a still life consists of an arrangement of inanimate objects as the subject. This can be anything that is not alive or moving. There seems to have been different themes throughout the ages, however popular subjects include food, (especially tables set up with meals, flowers, chairs, plants, shells, water glasses, and more popular in the 16th and 17th century, dead animals, game kill, slaughtered animals and the like.

A Meat Stall
Pieter Aertsen – A Butchers Stall

It seems that throughout popular still life themes, they tend to be objects that are important or familiar to people. Food and feasts seem to be favored a lot in earlier 14-1600’s still life’s, as well as flower arrangements, making way to more tabletop items such as vases, glassware, table clothes in the early to mid 20th century. A curious revival of contemporary still life has seen a trend towards objects that make a statement, portray a certain thought or idea, or have an underlining message to them. This mirrors many of the earlier works where objects would be chosen for their symbolic meaning, flowers dying in their vase representing the fragility of life and the certainty of death, compasses, watches, the deterioration of time, skulls, letters, books etc.

Natural Morte2 Cindy Wright

This is apparent in works s such as Cindy Wright’s Natural Morte 2. An image of a gutted fish crammed into a goldfish bowl, it’s haunting eye peering out at the viewer in an almost sympathetic manner, the bowl rests heavily on a quaint doily, and you can see the reflection of a bedroom in the glass. A beautiful piece of juxtaposition to outline the issue that eating meat comes at a cost of killing a once living animal.

This is also a good example of the contemporary trend towards ‘hyper realistic’ painting styles. A technique where the viewer would believe they are looking at a real photograph seen in works by such 21st century artists as Richard Estes from the late 1960’s, and Italian painter Roberto Bernardi in the 1990’s.


Still life through the ages.

The first notions of still life was apparent in the Roman ere, especially in developed cities such as Rome and Pompeii.

Even from this era we are still seeing the ripples of familiar objects depicted throughout the ages, feasts, tables, dead animals, skulls and the subject of morte, glasses, flowers, vases and tableware. However an interesting point to look at is not so much the under lining commonplace subject matter, but the radially different ways that it was portrayed throughout the ages from the popularity of the Renaissance up until the modern times.

Middle ages, Vanitas and the Renaissance.

Still life seemed to take popularity and flourish in Northern Europe in the 1400’s, especially in the Netherlands, but also to a lesser extent in Germany, Spain, Italy and France.  Some painters from the 1400’s often drew fictional representations such as Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder who often drew inspiration from botanical books and gardens. These flower arrangements depicted flowers that would not normally be in bloom at the same time and would have been far too precious to cut for studying, seen in such works in the 13-1400’s by painters like Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Batlhasar Van Der Ast and Roelandt Savery. Before the 1700’s the majority of subject matter remained largely influenced by religion, using symbols and allegories to send across meanings for God and the bible.


Market scenes and feasts were popular in the mid 15-1600’s notably with works from renowned artists such  as Pieter Aertsen, Jacopo de’ Barbari, Juan Sánchez Cotán.

Other styles such as the Vanitas movement meaning emptiness chose highly symbolic subject matter concerning ideas of life and death. The fragility of life and the certainty of death. Employing  objects to depict ideas such as skulls: certainty of death, rotten fruit: decay, smoke watches, hour glasses: the brevity of life, musical instruments: ephemeral nature of life. The subject matter was becoming more and more symbolic and representational whereas certain inanimate objects arranged together could tell a story and take on a collective meaning that wasn’t always obvious to the viewer.

Works by artists such as Pieter Claesz, Davidsz de Heem and Pier Francesco Cittadini where popular around the 16th 17th century in and around the Netherlands. The morbid concepts that life will always lead to death is, I guess, a truthfulness that we as human beings cannot escape, and that it is our destiny to fulfill. Other themes included the idea of ephemerality of sensory pleasures and the fleeting passing of earthly delights.


Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century.

As well as the Vanitas movement, still life was really starting to taking off around northern Europe the Netherlands, and the painting style were becoming more and more towards realism. The scenes were starting to depict more dramatic and fantasticBatlhausar Van Der Ast arrangements such as the works of Jan de Heem, Cornelis Norbertus, Pieter Claesz, Floris van Dyck. A sudden explosion in the availability of encyclopedias made way for an interest in subject such as insects, shells, exotic fruits and other curiosities, moving further from the classic ideals of religion, and further towards more peculiar and fascinating objects.


These works seem to be developing the symbolism further with specifically placed pictures, letters and subject matter to portray feelings, thoughts, ideas or social concepts.

Symbolism and allegories

Still life had always exercised the use of symbols using objects to represent ideas and meaning.

Originating from early religious art works, before the 1700’s still life was heavily influenced by this kind of symbolism. Flowers, fish and harvests were popular themes in early still life. The butterfly represented the soul or the rising of christ. A white cloth or shroud set in an upward triangle represented the birth, death, resurrection of Jesus or the holy trinity, however an upside down triangle is an ancient symbol for fertility, the womb, or mother earth. The deceptive allure of earthly delights is depicted in a peeled lemon. Something that is pleasing (and expensive) to look at, tastes so sour and sharp. Other symbols include musical instruments, animals, mice, bees, books, candles, feathers, ivy, clocks, apples and cats.

Heavily influenced by life and death, Vanitas painters relied heavily on symbols to exhibit their ideas of time running out (clocks, watches, hourglasses) to skulls and dying flowers (death and decay). The flowers depicted in renaissance paintings had symbolic meaning  dating back to early meanings linked to the Christian times, such as the rose (The Virgin Mary,love, transience), lily (virginity, purity of mind or justice, female breast), sunflower (faithfulness, love, devotion), violet (modesty, reserve, humility), poppy (sleep, death or power).

After becoming aware of these hidden messages, the painting can be read almost like a book, as the meanings can change depending on the arrangement, the other objects, and how they are arranged.

Another technique that was employed was  trompe l’oeil which originated in the baroque period and utilised the idea of perspective and rendering light and shade to give the illusion that the viewer was looking at 3D objects. Painters such as Jacopo de Barbari (1500’s) rendered hanging objects in his paintings, as did William Michael Harnett  (1800’s), Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten.



Eighteenth Century.

Nothing radical really happened in the eighteenth of still life apart from a refinement of earlier 17th century styles. It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century and into the 2oth century when we start to see a radical progression and a complete upheaval not only of style, but of the thoughts, ethics, ideas and materials of the artists of the time. The most notable change that was apparent was the artists started to ask questions about their surroundings, challenging techniques, pushing boundaries, and seeking individual voices.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

At the turn of the 1800’s still life was on the decline due to the rise of the European Academies and their ideas on the hierarchy of the arts, declaring a hierarchy of genres, whereas an paintings merit was governed mainly by its subject matter, ranking still life at one of the lowest rungs in the system.

However there was a style that was beginning to evolve towards the mid 1800’s that would catapult still life back into the limelight, when, for the first time in artistic movements, colour, feeling, expression and individual technique would surpass subject matter and become a characteristic of the artist in their own right.

Born from a group of French artists in the later half of the 1800’s Impressionism broke the rules of conventional art and radically changed the mindframe of many artists to come,  concentrating on tone, light, shade, colour and brush techniques as opposed to subject matter and traditional painting procedures. Ripping up the rule book and taking style into their own hands subject matter was no longer top of the ‘hierarchy’ and still life started to creep back into vogue with a startling transformation.

Painters such as Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, led the trend in the late 1830’s which gave influence to Van Gogh and Seurat in the 1850’s , lead a chain of influences that trickled into a new and fresh look at still life. Experimental colour and brush techniques were being piloted by Manet, Cezanne and Pissaro,

and by 1870, the still lifes  started to gain character and depth that had never been seen before. And the public eye duly followed.

Even though the style had changed and the handling of light, tone and colour had become the dominant feature in still life, the subject matter had slowly been moving away from the  Christian and Church dominated themes to more abstract, yet still strongly symbolic themes such as Antoine Vollon’s ‘Mound of butter’ (1875-85)mound-of-butter

Then came the most radical change, not only in still life, but also in art with avant garde groups of artists moving to the more complete abstract, taking influence from the shifting planes of colour seen in the impressionist era, and solidifying them into cut up planes of movement and form. Sometimes even taking away the whole recognition of objects.

These spanned from paintings by the cubist and futurist movements with artists such as Braque, Gris, and most prominently Picasso,

One of the biggest progressions was in the emergence of collage, which was said to have been pioneered or developed, but definitely made famous by Picasso. Still life suddenly became an amalgamation of mixed media, sheet music, sand, cut up papers, text, and lines became more abstract than their painted predecessors depicting items such as tableware, musical instruments, glasses, bottles and fruit.  This Even spanned to 3D collage made from cut up mixed media and mounted.

This was developed around the same time by a group of European artists called the Dada movement. Artists such as Marchel Duchamp, Tristain Tzara, and Man Ray experimented with cut up magazines and what was called ‘readymades’ pioneered by Duchamp and included pointless object being put together in absurd and meaningless ways in order to represent nothing!

An artist called Max Ernst also took collage to another level with his frottage techniques. He used ancient ‘rubbing’ techniques of interesting textures and spontaneously drew symbols and images that took form as he worked mixed mediums into the shapes that emerged.

Whereas The Renaissance and early still life used religion as their symbolic messenger, although worlds apart, this type of still life kept true to using objects as symbolic subject all throughout the ages.






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