Acknowledgement: all images shown in this post are licensed for use under Creative Commons licensing terms, or are in the public domain, or are licensed for fair use.
A Brief History of the Still Life Genre
Still life as a genre of painting is the depiction of everyday objects whether man made or natural. Very early depictions of such humble objects are seen in Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek cultures as well as in some amazingly preserved frescos and mosaics from Roman culture from Pompeii. However in Western cultures at least still life disappears from art with the fall of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent rise of Christinity. In Medieval Europe art is set within this religious context and any objects painted within religious scenes function as symbols for the religious stories and messages.
The advent of oil paint in 1432 (previously painting was done with egg-tempura) allowed artists to control finer detail on a larger scale whilst maintaining the intensity and freshness of objects to shine through. With the introduction of oil paint we see a rise in the realism of people and objects depicted in the religious scences. Still life starts to become more prominent albeit still in a religious context, but the balance of prominence begins to shift. Works by 16th Century Flemish artist Joachim Beukelaer show still life objects celebrated in the foreground of his paintings whilst the required religious scene is played out in the background.
In his ‘The well stocked kitchen’ (1566) the scene of Jesus is visiting the house of Martha and Mary is painted rather drably through an arch in the background, with the bountiful larder of meats and fruits painted with much colour and life prominent thoughout the whole painting.
Then in 1596 Caravaggio paints what is widely regarded as the first ‘Still ‘Life’ painting with his ‘Basket of Fruit’. The fruits all have religious symbolic meanings but it is the first painting in which such objects are depicted without the accompanying human story. This opens up the possibilities of paining objects for their own sake. This is taken up by many artists in the early 17th Century, notably in Holland. Dutch artists become free from the church through the Protestant reformation which was followed by great economic prosperatory and the rise in demand for secular painting. Still life as a genre really takes off.
The subject matter reflects that the economic wealth in Holland at this time was built on the Dutch maritime shipping trade. We see this reflected in the exotic fruits and flowers exhibited in paintings such as these by Jan de Heem.
Compositionally artists tended to have light coming from left to the right and have objects trailing over the edge of a flat surface.
Whilst there is a sense of heighten reality in the paintings, fictitious compositions were common: the placing together of flowers that would not be naturally in flower at the same time; and the use of motives that enabled artists to draw different compositions using the same image. These ‘copying’ techniques also enabled artists a high output to keep up with demand for paintings.
Along such artistic display of wealth and opulence their was a rise in ‘vanitas’ painting by the Dutch Golden Age artists: depiction of the futilely of material objects and reminders of human mortality.
Often such paintings depicted a skull a long side other objects, or musical objects (music being of a transient nature – at that time at least).
As well and the Dutch painters, Spanish artists were also starting to explore the art of realism through still life in the early 17th Century.Juan Sánchez Cotán was a spanish monk who painted ‘larder’ pieces: simple objects as he found them with no opulence or exaggerated composition. They still conform to compositional norms of objects on a flat surface, with parts trailing over the edge.
In spite of the growth in popularity of still-life painting in countries such as the Netherlands, in France artists maintained that the depiction of everyday objects was the lowest genre of painting an artist could do, an idea dictated by the French Academy who promoted classical figure painting as the highest form of art. It wasn’t until Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin was admitted into the French Academy in 1728 that Still Life painting started to gain some respect. Chardin introduced ideas that the eye doesn’t see everything in front of it in high focus, rather much around a focal point is blurrred.
Light is still depicted as coming from the left, the objects still on a flat table overlaying the edges, but the whole image is softer, more muted as a result of this technique.
The next major leap in the genre of still life came in the 19th Century after the french Revolution when Paul Cezanne developed a painting style radically different from that seen from any other artist previously.
It was a loose, imprecise style with distinct brushwork comprising short strokes: described as an ‘antithesis to realism’ (BBC Four Productions, 2014). Cezanne chose simple objects and was interested in perception, how he saw objects. Gone was the use of still life to display opulence and wealth. Rather he was interested in capturing form and reflection. Whilst not overly popular during most of his lifetime, this revolutionary artistic style has led to Cezanne being widely regarded as the Father of Modern Art, marking the start of the experimental stage in the history of art.
The genre evolves further in the 20th Century when still-life becomes the fundamental form of cubism, an exploration of objects from all angle conveyed in a single image, as seen by works by Picasso, Juan Gris and Braque (Violin and Candlestick, 1910). This art movement was spurred on by the development of photograph happening at a similar time. As still life was the natural starting place for early photography artists such as Picasso became interested in how painting could be developed to do things that photograph (at that time) could not. It is interesting that although the depiction of still life had changed greatly since the 16th and 17th Centuries, many cubists still chose to draw the traditional Dutch vanitas style of still life to portray the frailty of human existence, as seen in Picasso’s Still Life with skull, leeks and pitcher, 1945. This is especially pertinent through the very turbulent times of first half of the 20th Century.
In the 1950’s Pop art started to emerge, a genre described a the ‘depiction of themes from popular mass culture’ (http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/popart/). Artisits such as Andy Warhol portrayed objects in an illustrative way, using bright colours and heightened lines to draw attention to objects that in no way could be considered part of art elitism, for instance Warhol’s depictions of ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ (1962).
We see still life composition as changing during this period too. Gone are the need to contrain objects on a flat table, with parts trailing over the edge. There is no obvious angle of lighting and the whole image takes on an advertising nature. The materials used to create art also start to change away from traditional oil paint with the advent of synthetic materials. Not all artists of this period followed this experimental way towards pop art movement. Some retained the depiction of still life seen by Cezanne, in using objects to explore how we percevied light, form and reflection. Giorgio Morandi was one such artist, who rejected all associations with such fashionable movements.
His used a muted palette to depict many beautiful still lifes of jugs and vases, exploring the basic craft of application of paint on the canvas in doing so (Gombrich, 2006).
In artwork of contemporary artists of the 21st Century we see works of still life bringing together old practices and new. Ori Gerskt, throught he medium of photograph has recreated the still life compositions of 17th and 18th Centry painters and followed them through to the point of destructions. For instance in ‘Pomegranate‘ (2006) he has taken the composition of Juan Sanchez Cotan and captured the moment the pomegranet is destoyed by a bullet. Mat Collishaw in ‘Last Meal on Death Row‘ (2010) has created a series of photographs in the style of 16th Century Dutch Still life of the last meals requested my USA Deathrow inmates. The juxtaposition of the old style lighting and composition techniques displaying modern day food items is made chilling by the circumstances surrounding the composition. It brings the traditional Vanitas paintings to mind, but in this case it is not the objects themselves that remind us of the frailty of the human condition, rather the back story that goes along with them. Perhaps still life hasn’t changed that much from Caravaggio’s ‘Basket of Fruit’ after all!
BBC Four Productions (2014) Apples, pears and paint: How to make a still life painting. Producer Liam McArdle
Gombrich, E. H. (2006) The Story of Art (16th Edition). Phaidon Press Ltd: London