What is Still Life?
A still life is an artwork that typically depicts inanimate subject matter. Still life painting is one of the principal genres in Western art. Typically commonplace objects that are depicted in still life art include plants and flowers, food, books, and many other objects that communicate the intended message behind the artwork. Still life painting gained immense popularity in Europe, particularly the Netherlands, in the 16th century but has roots in Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art.
Notable Still Life Artwork
History of Still Life Painting
The tradition of still life painting can be traced throughout art history. Early cultures created objects, such as pottery, that were embellished with still life elements. Still life elements have been found in Egyptian temples and Greco-Roman wall paintings, including references to food, wealth and death.
In the Middle Ages, or medieval period (around 500-1520 CE), still life elements were an important part of the embellishments commonly found in illuminated manuscripts and votive panels. These still life elements were usually objects, both naturally occurring and artificial, that complemented the narrative featured in the manuscript. Votive panels usually contained symbolic imagery including objects that reflected religious allegories.
Still life painting was formalized in the late 17th century by the French Academy of art. According to the hierarchy of genres, established in the High Renaissance period, still life occupied the lowest rank because it did not depict human subjects. Still life was not truly embraced until the 17th century, when Dutch and Flemish painters arranged inanimate objects to create allegories using religious symbolism.
The first official still life is widely considered to be Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Italian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari, dated 1504. While it is likely that other painters were exploring still life art and engraving around the same time, de’Barbari’s work began to formalize the genre of still life painting in European art.
Dating back to around 1600, still life elements were often added to portraits as a way to embellish the subject matter, whether it was a person’s appearance, condition or reputation. Symbols of wealth, life and death, such as money, skulls, books, hourglasses, candles, musical instruments, food and other material pleasures were most popular in the symbolic paintings known as vanitas. Vanitas paintings were often dark and macabre, reminding viewers of the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of death.
Still life artists, mostly Dutch painters and French painters at this point, depicted their subject matter with growing realism, where painters such as Jan van Eyck often painted everyday objects in a hyper-realistic style. Natural objects and flower paintings were also common within Dutch painting. This was coupled with a break from religious allegory among artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, whose watercolor sketches, drawings and prints featured food, flora and fauna as subject matter.
Trompe l’oeil painting was another popular style of still life painting that emerged in Ancient Greece, gained popularity among Dutch and Flemish painters in the 18th century, and later became a favorite of Rococo painters. Trompe l’oeil paintings were meant to trick the viewer into believing that the depicted scene was real, hence the name trompe-l’œil which translates to “tricking the eye” in French.
Still life painting was also used to celebrate scientific developments, particularly the classification of animal and botanical specimens, as well as the effects of burgeoning industrialization. Sea shells, medicinal plants and once-exotic fruits, such as lemons, were among the subject matter and were frequently depicted.
The tradition of still life subject matter followed a similar trend though the Baroque and Rococo periods, where floral motifs were included almost everywhere from paintings to curtains and furniture to wallpaper. Artists continued to turn away from religious allegories and even the morality of vanitas paintings.
Still Life in Modern Art
By the late 19th century, many modernist artists used still life work in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. Though the religious connotation of still life paintings had fallen out of fashion, many artists still drew on this history if only to reject it further.
Still lifes moved away from symbolic arrangements and toward simple depictions of everyday inanimate objects. However, many artists continued to navigate their own artwork in relation to the Hierarchy of Genres, where still life painting came sixth and last on the list. The hierarchy began with historical or religious painting, portrait painting, genre painting, landscape and cityscape painting, animal painting, and finally, still life painting.
The Hierarchy of Genres was quickly falling out of favor as Realist artists depicted scenes of everyday life rather than religious allegories or historical scenes. Realists were more concerned with the realities of the modern world and while portraits of working class people were popular, many still life elements were included as a way to speak to the conditions many working class people faced.
By the 20th century, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists such as Edouard Manet and Henri Latour rejected the hierarchy and painted many still lifes that often celebrated nature and everyday life. Vincent van Gogh was another painter who often used nature and everyday life as his subject matter when creating paintings. This subversive revival of still lifes was made even more revolutionary by the techniques that such artists used to render their subjects. Once precise and almost scientific in their rendering, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists preferred to use bold colors and thick brush strokes.
Still life painting continued to evolve and became popular once more in Europe and even different continents such as the United States. While European painting conventions were still prominent, still life became its own movement in America. Trompe l’oeil and the natural world were still popular subjects among American painters who often made use of hyper-realistic painting as well.
The shift toward abstraction in the art world also reimagined the way still life paintings looked, which was also true of most paintings produced at the start of the 20th century. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Frida Kahlo are among the artists responsible for innovations in still life painting that are admired to this day.
Still Life in Contemporary Art
By the second half of the 20th century, still life artwork had already gone beyond the canvas and into the realm of sculpture and photography. Artists experimented with the definition of still life and the depth of meaning that household objects could convey. Dadaism and the readymade were one way that still life art broke countless boundaries in the art world and set many more changes in motion for contemporary art movements that followed.
Pop art became a movement almost entirely dedicated to still life art. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein depict mass produced objects and the notion of consumerism using the typical graphic style seen in Pop art work. Lichtenstein’s Sandwich and Soda, from 1964, reinvents still life, including vanitas paintings, to critique American consumer culture.
Still life art continues to be a popular tradition among many contemporary artists. Artists such as Yayoi Kusama continue to produce still life artworks that challenge visual conventions and art itself. Works such as Kusama’s Still Life, from 1996, demonstrate how much still life painting has changed since that of the Middle Ages in Northern Europe. With all of the technological developments made since the turn of the 21st century, still life will no doubt continue to evolve in fascinating ways.
Famous Quote about Still Life Painting
“Cézanne made a living thing out of a teacup, or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive. He raised still life to such a point that it ceased to be inanimate. He painted these things as he painted human beings, because he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything. His color and line are alike suitable to the spiritual harmony. A man, a tree, an apple — all were used by Cézanne in the creation of something that is called a “picture,” and which is a piece of true inward and artistic harmony.”
– Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) Russian painter.
Notable Still Life Artists
- Abraham van Beijeren (1620–1690)
- Adriaen Coorte (1665–1707)
- Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573–1621)
- André Derain (1880–1954)
- Antoine Vollon (1833–1900)
- Balthasar van der Ast (1593–1657)
- Caravaggio (1571–1610)
- Clara Peeters
- Claude Monet (1840–1926)
- Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
- Fernand Léger (1881–1955)
- Floris van Dyck (1575–1651)
- Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)
- Francisco Goya (1746–1828)
- Frans Snyders (1579–1657)
- Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)
- Georges Braque (1882–1963)
- Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)
- Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964)
- Giovanna Garzoni (1600–1670)
- Gustave Courbet (1819–1877)
- Harmen Steenwijck (1612–1656)
- Henri Fantin-Latour (1836–1904)
- Henri Matisse (1869–1954)
- Jacob Foppens van Es (1596–1666)
- Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625)
- Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606–1684)
- Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686–1755)
- Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779)
- Juan Gris (1887–1927)
- Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627)
- Louise Moillon (1610–1696)
- Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716–1780)
- Marsden Hartley (1877–1943)
- Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)
- Osias Beert (1580–1624)
- Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)
- Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)
- Paul Gauguin (1848–1903)
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
- Pieter Claesz (1597–1661)
- Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750)
- Roy Lichtenstein (1923–1997)
- Salvador Dalí (1904–1989)
- Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627–1678)
- Tom Wesselmann (1931–2004)
- Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
- Willem Claesz. Heda (1594–1680)
- Willem Kalf (1619–1693)
- Willem van Aelst (1627–1683)
- William Harnett (1848–1892)
Related Art Terms
- Memento Mori