Still Life painting describes the genre of drawing or painting ordinary objects without human presence. It has a long history. In paintings on the walls of their tombs Ancient Egyptians portrayed items of food that were offerings to the
gods. Still life representations were popular on Greek and Roman domestic walls and in floor mosaics. There are famous examples in the ruins of Pompeii such as this one dated around 70CE. Still life subjects formed part of a larger design.
Small still life images can be found in illustrated Medieval manuscripts in the fourteen and fifteenth centuries. But they are a component of larger paintings; for example, the Annunciation Tryptich c 1425 by Robert Campin with the lily in the vase on the table in the central picture (a symbol of the Virgin Mary) and Joseph the carpenter’s group of tools on the bench in the picture on the right.
Possibly the earliest pure still life painting in Western art is Basket of Fruit 1599 by Caravaggio. Curiously the fruit depicted is well past its sell by date and some of the fruits
are worm eaten. Possible readings of the image are that it symbolises the fading of beauty and glory or possibly the decay of the Church. It is nevertheless, a stunning and beautiful painting though not in the typical chiaroscuro style of Caravaggio.
Although found in Southern Europe still life rose to prominence in the 1600s in Northern Europe and particularly in the Netherlands. The early examples were mainly floral paintings and by the middle of the century included tulips which were first imported into the Netherlands about 1634 and where single bulbs could command extortionate sums. Below left is a painting Vase of Flowers c.1645 by Jan de Heem displaying a variety of glorious blooms including tulips. Dutch still life depicted domestic possessions and illustrations of wealth and well being, together with products of world trade, all reflecting standards of living in the new urban centres. Some artists also depicted the dangers of wealth and possessions, the brevity of life and the inevitability of death in what are known as vanitas paintings. On the right is Vanitas: Still Life with a Bouquet and a Skull 1643 by Adriaen van Utrecht.
Later in the 17th century displays with the emphasis upon a rather flamboyant aesthetic appeal and decorative function, known by the Dutch name of ‘pronk’ became more characteristically showy.
Still life became more established in Britain in the later 17th and into the 18th centuries. An interesting example of still life being used to portray the growing fascination with science is Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a bird in an air pump 1768.
As well as the apparatus depicted in the scene there is also the curious centre stage glass with a mysterious object apparently on a stick. What exactly this is promotes its own enquiry and hypotheses.
In the 19th century artists such as Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh frequently used still life as a means of experimentation with form and especially colour that mark the foundations of Modernism. Works I love are Van Gogh’s paintings of shoes or boots and the comparison between his painting in 1886 and one in 1887 shows very well his change in technique and particularly is use of brighter colour and light.
I see this beautiful works like icons with which we might reflect on who owned them, their story, their struggles, their humanity. Although still life may be defined as drawing ordinary objects without human presence I have always felt these little paintings are redolent with the presence of their owner.
This use of still life for exploration and experimentation continued with the early 20th century pioneers of Cubism, Abstraction and Modernist art, for example, the work of Juan Gris, Braque and Picasso. In the exhibition Degas to Picasso there was a charcoal and white chalk drawing by Gris, a close friend of Picasso, entitled La Rue Ravignan, probably done shortly after his move from Madrid to Paris in 1906 (Exhibition Catalogue). Compare this with the amazing painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Still Life before an Open Window, Place Ravignan.
There is a succinct description of the Painting on the Philadelphia Museum of Art online collection
In this breakthrough work, Juan Gris combined indoor and outdoor views within the same painting. The artist achieved this blend of interior and exterior through interrelated pictorial elements and subtle modulations of color, including an intense, unearthly blue that suffuses the work with a dreamy softness. The foreground contains a still-life arrangement featuring a newspaper, book, wineglass, carafe, compote, and bottle of Médoc wine on an upturned tabletop. These objects are refracted through shafts of colored light from the open window that bring the neighboring houses and trees into the composition, as well as the canopy of leaves that frames the top of the picture like an umbrella.
Among young contemporary artists working today the still life genre continues to be a source of experiment and innovation. One outstanding development in since the mid 20th century has been the use of actual materials in the making of still life. Good examples would be the (in)famous My Bed 1998 by Tracey Emin and Cornelia Parker’s Thirty Pieces of Silver 2011.
Since 1991 sculptor Marc Quinn has been making still lifes every five years of his own head using his own frozen blood. These represent the tradition in still life of exploring ageing and decline and ultimately death, as depicted, for example in the earlier classical vanitas paintings. Cindy Wright’s painting of a gutted fish in a child’s fish bowl also makes us face death, in this case the killing of animals for our food and the gradual destruction of so many of Earth’s animal species.
Contemporary still life works continue, in line with the traditions of this genre, to present or reveal interests, priorities, fashions, innovations, new priorities, celebrations, things to revel/glory, or to lament and maybe warned about, in the ‘things’ that make up our material world and through them our memories and emotional and spiritual worlds. Still life has always tried to make us think and reflect, for example in the earlier traditions incorporating symbolism such as skulls or violins. Today artists continue to encourage us to reflect but often use more shocking tactics, especially in their use of materials of subject matter – blood, a real bed with soiled sheets, a cow and calf in formaldehyde solution.
One of the things I take away from this small piece of research is how still life has been used over the centuries not only to depict things around us but also to experiment and explore how thing may be depicted particularly in the use of materials and in the many many ways of composing images to express feeling as well as observation. Whilst I don’t currently envisage using my own blood, or other bodily substances, to make drawings I want to find the courage to explore a far wider range of possible materials to make art and through continuous practice of mark making, using my imagination, trying out arrangements and points of view to bring my own style and feeling into more of what I do.