A bowl of fruit. A cubist violin. A skull and candlestick. A dizzy-looking vase of sunflowers. What do they all have in common? These comprise the subject-matter of some of history’s most famous still life paintings.
But what exactly is a still life, and why do they matter? It can be easy to dismiss them as mere practice for an artist working toward greater things, but can these simple objects hold as much significance as a portrait or a landscape or even a scene from some momentous occasion in history?
Let’s dive into still life painting, and see why Edouard Manet once referred to them as “the touchstone of painting.”
What Is a Still Life?
Still life is essentially any visual representation of everyday objects. It can be anything from a basket of oranges to a bouquet of flowers to a skull or even a can of soup (more on that in a moment). Traditionally speaking, the items being portrayed are shown resting upon a tabletop, though this is certainly not always the case.
Derived from the Dutch word stilleven, still life painting reached its historic apex during the Dutch Golden Age of the 16th century. But that doesn’t mean that still life painting wasn’t popular before then, and that it hasn’t remained so since.
The History of Still Life Painting
Still life painting dates back at least 3,500 years to when Egyptians would portray food offerings like fish, meat, and crops on funerary tombs. While these were fairly rudimentary, two-dimensional drawings, still life depiction began to take on more realistic depth with the portrayal of food and pottery by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Things flattened out again through the early Middle Ages, but still life as we know it really came into its own in the later part of that era, most notably during the Renaissance. Growing understanding of light and colour along with improving tools and methods allowed Renaissance painters to capture still life scenes with increasing realism. This trend continued through the Realist movement of the early 19th century before the Impressionists promptly took a hard turn.
The Impressionists drew back from realistic portrayal, electing to instead focus on elaborate colouration. This concept was pushed even further by the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists, who were more interested in capturing the feeling elicited by a still life scene. Take a look at any of Van Gogh’s flowers, and you’ll see what I mean. The paintings had less to do with sunflowers than they implied his own tumultuous interior. Picasso and his fellow Cubists took still life painting to its full abstraction with their attempts to capture a scene from every possible perspective.
Then things reversed again when pop and contemporary artists became interested in realistic representations—this is where the soup cans of Andy Warhol or Tom Wesselmann's still lifes entered the picture. Since then artists have experimented with a variety of still life concepts, but the overarching trend has been toward photo-realism.
So What Do Still Life Paintings Mean?
There is a tendency for people to dismiss still life painting as little more than decorative, and while there is certainly an element of that, the true meaning can go much deeper.
Early still life art was an attempt to represent power and ownership through time, which in turn speaks volumes as to the values of a particular period. Later when the artistic scientists of the Renaissance took up the practice, still life paintings represented huge leaps forward in our understanding of the physical world around us, from depth and perspective, to light and color, and more.
But a still life scene can also be intended to portray very specific meaning. Perhaps the masters of this were the painters of the Dutch Golden Age I mentioned above. Their vanitas paintings (inspired by a philosophy of the time called memento mori, which translates into “remember that you have to die”) featured skulls, cut flowers, dripping candles, and hourglasses all to comment on the transitory nature of existence. These vanitas works could also include rich foods, wine, books, musical instruments, and other symbols of worldly pleasure to remind viewers to enjoy life while they could. If these seem like particularly dour implications, well, they were just coming off a plague.
Later, still life paintings in the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Expressionist styles implied that there was perhaps something more important than what is seen, and that audiences should pay heed to what is felt. Avant garde movements to come were similarly interested in looking beneath the surface and beyond individual perspective to ask big questions about how we view and experience the world.
Coming back to Warhol and his cans, we see a return to the still life imagery of the ancients as he attempts to document what modern culture finds most valuable—consumer goods and consistency, comfort and convenience.
So what does all of this mean for you?
When considering a still life, whether you’re viewing it in a museum or choosing one for your home, looking at it purely for its aesthetic value—i.e. because it looks nice—is entirely valid. But your appreciation doesn’t have to stop there.
You can take into account when a piece was made, what the values of that time happened to be, and what the objects portrayed imply about those values. Or you can consider your own values, and how a representation speaks to what is most important to you.
Then beyond what is being portrayed, you can regard how it’s been rendered. Is the still life hyper-realistic or abstracted? Is it dark and chaotic, or light and whimsical?
Still life painting is part of a long tradition that speaks to what we care about most as individuals and as a society, to our evolving scientific, artistic, and philosophical prowess, and to our conception of what is or isn’t aesthetic. It’s about a whole lot more than a bowl of fruit.
So the next time you see a still life, be sure to give it more than a passing glance. The subject-matter might seem ordinary, but the meaning could be anything but.
Article written by Nick Hilden