What is ‘Still Life’ ?
It is the art of painting and drawing inanimate objects showing their composition, texture, form and colour. The Dutch word ‘still even’ means still life in English, but Eastern European countries liked the meaning ‘dead nature’. In the early 16th and 17th centuries most artists favoured painting natural and man-made objects together.
Dutch still life can be divided into three genres, floral still lives, breakfast painting and the venitas painting.
The Dutch East Company was founded in 1602 and with monopoly of the new world, new flowers were brought into Holland. Individual flowers had their own symbolic meaning and not chosen for their beauty. In flower painting no two flowers were the same that was due to blooming times.
Rachel Ruysch an important floral artist, painted in a dramatic way, including bees and butterflies which has a tie to Christianity, the bee was the passion and it’s stinger Christ’s crown of thorns. The butterfly represented the soul. Flowers embodied the fleeting nature of life.
Breakfast painting, a genre of still life consisted of a Dutch meal. Food was displayed on a wood table with a dark background, art by Clara Peeters is typical of this. Food in such paintings were Dutch staples and were a reminder of all things moderate. Many breakfast paintings held symbolic meanings, such as fish was the symbol for Christ and bread for the Eucharist.
The ‘Vanitas’ painting uses symbols for mortality, paintings include items like skulls, bones, clocks, oil lamps, candles and hourglasses. ‘Vanitas’ paintings became very popular, as did banquet style paintings, it showed great prosperity in Holland and it was reflected through the still life image. Here are some samples of early Still Life paintings, artists such as Clara Peeters (b.1594-died early 17th century), Rachel Ruysch (b.1664-1750).
(From ’50 Women Artists You Should Know’ by Christiane Klier. Prestel, 2016. Page 25 and 35)
Still Life from Spain, artists, Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627), Pieter Aertsen (1508-75 ) who painted ‘monumental still life’. Pedro de Camprobin (1605-74).
(From ‘Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya by William. B. Jordan and Peter Cherry. National Gallery Publications. 1995. Pages 22, 112 and 183)
Albrecht Durer (b.1471- d. 1528) the earliest artist to paint and print still life images. Here’s his Writing Desk with Books and an Oval Book dated 1521.
(From Durer-the artist and his drawings by Christopher White. Phadion. 1971. Pages 190 and 191)
Vanitas painters, Antonio de Pereda, (1611-78), Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
(From ‘Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya by William. B. Jordan and Peter Cherry. National Gallery Publications. 1995. Page 112)
(From ‘Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya by William. B. Jordan and Peter Cherry. National Gallery Publications. 1995. Page 183)
Francisco Jose de Goya (1746-1828) painted only a few still life images, his famous one being, Still Life with Pieces of Rib, loin and Head of Mutton, c.1808-12, oil on canvas.
These highly realistic and symbolic paintings of still life started to decline towards the end of the eighteenth century, there were some artists who painted trompe l’oeil such as Jean-Simeon Chardin.
The Impressionists of the nineteenth century started to draw and paint in a looser and lighter way. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Van Gogh, and Paul Cezanne, who made the apple popular ! They documented everyday life using bright oil paint colours, which was now in tubes, on crisp white backgrounds.
(From A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson. 1993. Pages 35 and 40. From Cezanne 1839-1906 Pioneer of Modernism by Ulrike Becks. Page 57)
Picasso (1881-1973) completely changed the way we looked at art, and his still life paintings included collage pieces, and of course his introduction of Cubism.
(From Picasso by Franck Elgar. Spur Books Ltd. London. 1974. Page 50)
The twentieth and twenty first centuries have seen many changes in how the still life has been represented. Different thinking using concepts, variety of materials, digital influence and the internet have given artists a rich source to make their art. Here are some examples. Georgia O’Keeffe painted huge sensual flower paintings. Rebecca Horn works with sculpture, video, performance and film. Andy Warhol lead the way with silk screen printing, film, music and painting. Patrick Caulfield painted with acrylic very large brightly coloured interiors and still life settings. Lisa Milroy paints objects on a white background in a regimented way. Tracey Emin makes installations of her bed and personal items.
(From New British Art-in the Saatchi Collection by Allistair Hicks. Thames and Hudson, 1989. Pages 36, 37 and 77) (From ’50 Women Artists You Should Know’ by Christiane Klier. Prestel, 2016. Page 85, 111 and 149) (From Pop Art by Tilman Osterwold. Taschen.1991. Page 180)
It is important to see how still life has changed from the dark chiaroscuro technique to lighter and brighter art of the later centuries. Composition altered from being a formal set up to artists exploring different views, with wider spacing, 3 D art on walls and floors. Artists have gone from working 2 D to using sculpture, film, video, and installation. I think many of the subjects are still the same, and the use of symbols or a story is still there, but it looks and feels different, less traditional with the access to new materials and technologies artists are freer to explore their ideas and concepts.
And finally I saw this art piece on the internet and I have added a link, as this artist has used the latest technology to represent still life.
Worth a look.