research point: the still life genre

Jaded by the world online, I began this research with real-live books. Despite being more than 500 pages long, 1000 Drawings of Genius has just 4 drawings of still life: Cezanne, Matisse, Nicolas de Staël and Warhol. I moved on to Art Since 1900, which at more than 800 pages long offered me eight: one by Matisse and seven by Picasso (all from one year). Something was up. I wasn’t sure what. I suspect the Still Life genre is just not considered as important, or as exciting as Life Drawing or Landscape or Abstract. Maybe not as glamorous – hard to be passionate or find new direction with a jug and a pear.  A shuffle through the stack of postcards I’ve picked up over the years from galleries shows up a decent collection of still life drawings and paintings. Is the Still Life the ‘low brow’ of the art world? We love it but we can’t bring ourselves to raise it up as high as other genres? A jug will always be a jug.



Still Life paintings go back in time beyond 2000BC, created on the inside of tombs by the Ancient Egyptians. In these very earliest of still life images, the objects weren’t placed or composed but appeared very much as a pictorial packing list – items needed on the other side.


Beautiful depictions of food, animals and everyday objects have been found on Greek and Roman mosaics, wall paintings and vases. It’s thought these were created to demonstrate hospitality, as well as celebrating the passing seasons and life itself. Interestingly the skull first appeared in paintings way back in Roman times. Unlike on the ealier Egyptian tombs, items are carefully composed – fruit fills bowls, fish and fowl are strung up. The objects are placed in their environment, on shelves or table tops.

Between the fall of Rome and the early Renaissance, the still life disappeared. Two specific paintings are counted as heralding the beginning of a new interest in still-life painting: Hare, 1502, Albrecht Durer and Still Life with Partridge and Gauntlets, 1504, Jacopo de’Barbari. These two artists knew each other, and both lived in Nurenberg around the time these were painted. From this point on, northern European artists began to develop the still life, often as part of a religious scene or as vanitas symbols – expressing the fragility of life.

By the 17th century, Holland owned the still life; religious painting was out of favour, developments in oil paints helped capture the detail of still life, and Holland was very, very rich. As a centre of trade, merchants were making money and creating an affluent, dominant middle class. Rather than being comissioned by the church or aristocracy, art was commissioned by this new wealthy class – and they wanted art to decorate their homes and reflect their success.


Still Life with Drinking Horn, about 1653, Willem Kalf

Just as today, the status symbols of the time were things not everybody could afford and paintings depicted these things in abundance. Feasts begun and carelessly deserted: a lemon peeled, bread sliced, grapes spilling from over-filled bowls, a lobster slipping from a crowded table. The images are painted in warm hues, soft lights – everything suggests comfort, ease of living. The genre of Still Life seems to have leapt forward from the rather austere partridge and gloves. It’s become ostentatious, some kind of obscene fantasy. Having said that, I love to look at Kalf’s Still Life with Drinking Horn, above. It’s a painting to get lost in. It seems to meet all the senses – I look at it and can hear the fire crackling in the hearth, candles spitting. I can feel the velvet of the rug and the smoothness of the drinking horn. The freshly peeled lemon overrides the delicate smell of fresh lobster and the wine, well the wine tastes fabulous! A great many paintings from this time use a theatrical dark background – giving centre stage to these extraordinary objects.


Flowers in a Glass Vase, 1704, Rachel Ruysch

Flowers and most especially tulips became a popular subject as Holland’s horticultural industry grew. These paintings have the feel of scientific illustration. At the time Holland was a centre for scientific discovery, the microscope was a recent development and scientists were beginning to document and classify every new find. Paintings show specific species of flower alongside a variety of identifiable insects. The daughter of a botanist, Rachel Ruysch fills her paintings with hidden creatures. Like extravagant illustrations in a children’s encyclopaedia these paintings encourage you to come in close and count the insects.


Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber, 1602, Juan Sanchez Cotan

Italy, Spain and France followed suit, but to different degrees. While Dutch still life had theatrical drama – the artists set a scene and invited the viewer to join in – Spanish artists imbued the object itself with drama and mystery. I can’t imagine any other painting whose title is so at odds with the sense of intrigue and unease the image actually portrays. Anything strung up will always create questions. I look at this and I’m not interested in whether people used to hang fruit to keep the ants away, stay fresh, whatever. That the artist has strung up one apple and one cabbage is sinister and weird and wonderful all at the same time. The infinite blackness behind, the cut melon in the spotlight – vulnerable to rest-rotting flesh. I think of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, I think of Spain’s dark hours and I wonder about this artist, what is he saying to us?

Juan Sanchez Cotan’s have clearly captured the imagination of many – I’m aware of seeing many homages – especially photography, and I’m tempted to suggest that he has influenced the photography of food today.

France and Italy lagged behind. Caravaggio is credited with painting Italy’s first still life (Basket of Fruit, above) while Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge is only attributed to him. To my novice eye, Basket of Fruit is extraordinary while Still Life with Fruit is ‘meh’. I’m intrigued by the positioning of basket of fruit, and its yellow background. It’s almost looks like one of those awful wallpaper friezes popular in 1980s kitchens, but it’s not. This is one of those ‘how did he do that?’ paintings. It’s so realistic and yet that leaf out on the right has flattened in its blackness, almost a stencil on the wall. The curled leaves are dry and will crinkle if I  touch them. The grapes are almost past their best. This is what real fruit is and I love it for that. This is no supermarket basket.


Still life with peaches and grapes, 1881, Auguste Renoir

By the late 19th century, artists had become less interested in depicting something with absolute realism, and more in capturing a fleeting impression, and a feeling of what we see. Cezanne developed this even further, putting all the usual rules of perspective and composition to the side as he strove to paint objects as we actually see them. His still life paintings give the impression that we ourselves are moving, shifting our gaze, changing our focus.


Still Life with Plaster Cast, 1894, Paul Cezanne

This seems a world away from previous still life paintings, that by contrast, and even with all their high drama, seem rather forced. Previous still life paintings have followed the rules: a solid table or shelf in ‘correct’ perspective, objects given priority in the space, often positioned centrally. There is a clear idea of the direction of the light.

The cupid is striding forth, but Cezanne has chosen to show us just one leg. Other objects are taken right to the edge of the painting or cropped: the plate, apples, a canvas of a figure. Boards are stacked up behind the cupid – Cezanne is showing us this is a still life painting, in his studio. I can’t begin to tell what the large area is to the direct right of the cupid. Another board? A table? An apple sits at one corner, larger than those in the foreground. But this doesn’t feel awkward. It just feels like the one I have my eye on. The one I’m going to reach out for as I move around the cupid, leaning towards it.

There are two things I really love about this painting. One is the mysterious shadow on the front of the plate. Is this Cezanne? The other is the board behind cupid – the one leaning at the same angle. It feels far away and yet it he has followed the plaster’s form in his brushwork. So is it shadow, or just a way to highlight the white plaster? This board and the board with the lone apple seem to tether the cupid in place. I’ve spent a few minutes squinting and holding fingers up to the image on my computer. I feel that without the fruit at the bottom, this painting would still work, without the lone apple it would be less interesting, but without that board behind the cupid it would fall apart.

  • Add in Matisse and Picasso from 100 Drawings of Genius

Violin and Candlestick, 1910, Georges Braque

Continuing Cezanne’s investigation into how we actually look at objects brought artists such as Picasso and Braque to cubism. Any attempt at traditional perspective is lost -replaced by a multitude of angles from which we look at the violin and candlestick. I can’t get very excited by this or similar works. I just don’t have much to say about it – it’ll be interesting to see as I progress through the course if that changes.

Another art form that doesn’t interest me much (at present) is surrealism, though I’ve discovered that strictly speaking the above two are example of metaphysical painting – something I’ve never heard of!  In The Song of Love, a rubber glove, green ball and sculpted head are brought together – I don’t know why – and I don’t much care. It just feels a bit like being weird for weird’s sake. By contrast Still Life with Triangle does hold my attention. At first this feels like a return to a more traditional still life, but along with the drama of yesteryear,  there is ambiguity and even suspense. It’s not absolutely clear what is coming forward, what is receding.


Still Life, 1955, Giorgio Morandi

I’ve chosen this by Morandi because it’s in my local gallery. When I first spotted it I knew nothing about this artist, but among a room of shouty Picasso’s this stood out as the quiet, centred one. I could look at it for hours. It goes against all the rules of the early still life genre yet it stands so composed and confident. It’s not clear if the objects are right way up or upside down. Or even what is object and what is space. They slot together, five becomes one. He doesn’t use colour or shadow to create excitement. It’s not trying to elicit a response. It is what it is. It just is.


Still Life, 1953, Nicholas de Stael

As I get closer to the end of my whirlwind tour of the still life genre, there seems to be a definite and clear progression as I scroll back through the images I’ve chosen. Some images show clear influence, others take a greater leap. Here, Nicholas de Stael seems to be following closely on the heels of Morandi. And while the Morandi I chose is in my nearest gallery, de Stael lived part of his tragic life in the neighbouring village. He was a local, for a time. De Stael seems to own certain colours: blue, red, black, white. Colours that bear no connection to what he is painting, they feel symbolic.Having fled the Russian Revolution as a child and lived through occupied France, I can’t help but wonder if he felt tied to these colours.


I wasn’t absolutely sure that Pop Art belonged in my potted history of the still life. It seemed to me that the Pop Art movement was more social commentary, the value we place on objects, consumerism. But of course this is exactly how the genre really kicked off in Holland – it was all about the value of stuff – from a lemon to a tulip bulb.

[no title] 1973 by Jim Dine born 1935

[no title] 1973 Jim Dine born 1935 Presented by the artist 1980

Jim Dine, who I discovered via the OCA reading list (Experimental Drawing) is considered a Pop Artist though his images are (for me) pleasingly far from the usual soup can and comic strip I associate with the genre. It feels as though he has placed the actual tool on paper and then sprayed around it to create a stencil. Only it’s not spray, it’s a multitude of marks, stains, splatters. The space is more marked than the item. Is the space, the place more important to him than he tool? The history of the tool – where it’s been, who used it. This is not a detailed and closely observed study of a wrench (?), he gave the whole story. I find the images beautiful – they make my palms tingle!



Donut, 1995, Ralph Goings

Not sure what to say about this. Part of me thinks ‘what’s the point’, another part of me is simply astounded. I think about the hours this took, what it meant to the artist. I want to get up close and find a brush mark. It’s real and it’s not real. It’s like a magic trick. We’re being deceived, I’m not totally sure I know why. I suppose it’s all about the subject – very evocative of a lifestyle. It makes me think of the lonely, on the road. It hints at Edward Hopper. Maybe to someone else it’s fast-paced, high-powered. Though I’m not sure the secret of fast-paced, high-powered people is a doughnut for breakfast.

The reflection in the coffee cup is what draws me in. Blue sky I think. It speaks of the world outside this diner. The more I look, the less trivial I find it, and the more haunting.

Ralph Goings painted Donut in 1995, which brings me to today, because at my age the 1990s is today. I’ve looked at what I consider three different approaches to the Still Life today.


Nature Morte 2, 2010, Cindy Wright

I’ve come across a fair amount of contemporary art online that takes its inspiration from the traditional still life – especially of Holland. Some have taken the original and changed it in subtle ways to add new meaning. Others have reconstructed the original and photographed it.

Cindy Wright paints modern updates on the traditional still life. They are unsettling; fur, feathers and flesh squish up against glass or are forced in to new cubic shapes. This is very much the literal translation of Nature Morte – Dead Nature – rather than the more enigmatic Still Life. This feels like commentary on how we live today, on how we treat the world. We push and shove at nature, we discard it, we farm it, we over produce, we throw it away, we let it decay. It’s no longer something precious, to value and savour.

I came across Angela Eames in the book Drawing Now. While much of contemporary still life seems to be about what the object is saying to how, these images are more about what we see, how we see, what we think is real. Angela Eames draws in the computer – and what she draws may or may not end up on paper. She is interested in the environment of the computer – and how we then feel about the drawing itself and the object she has drawn.


The Perfect Christmas Dinner, 2006, Rebecca Scott

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at when I first saw some of the paintings from Rebecca Scott’s series Perfect Life. Looking closer I really began to appreciate them. I find the series quite funny, she seems to be poking fun, mocking the ‘perfect life’ we are sold and that so many buy in to. But it has a serious side, and a sadness. It feels like she has bought the Still Life full circle from those first days when all that was new and luxurious was wonderful, something to be celebrated. Now we are weighed down by our wealth. We worry about the checklist for our perfect Christmas Dinner. We simply must have: candle with decoration, the right wine glasses, water glasses, crisp linen, a gift for our guests. We are continually be sold the idea that we must have all this stuff for the perfect life. What are we doing with this laden table when one in ten is starving?


Since Egyptian times, Still Life paintings have acted as reminders of mortality and as reminders of morality. They have displayed our status as new consumers in the 17th century, only to bite back and mock that status 200 years later. Today they are used in just the same way – to help us question the way we live our lives and to remind us that we here for just the blink of an eye.

Following the progression of the Still Life has also been a way to chart the investigation by artists into how we actually see, and how we feel about that act of seeing – from Cezanne’s first skew apple through to Angela Eames’drawing in another space entirely.


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