Art Term Tuesday: Still Life

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Perhaps the most easily recognized genre in art, the still life painting ranks lowest among the principle subject types of Western art because it excludes the human form. Typically a drawing or painting of an arrangement of objects, whether natural or man-made, the still life depicts inanimate, often commonplace items like food (fruits and vegetables), flowers, dead animals, plants, drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, skulls, and hourglasses. Traced back to Egyptian funerary paintings and present in contemporary artwork today, despite this longevity, the still life was not deemed to have sufficient gravitas by the academies of the 19th century to merit greatness. Why, then, does every Introduction to Drawing class begin with the lesson of still life: a pitcher, a vase, and a loaf of bread on a tablecloth sitting atop a table?

This print, in black and white, shows food circling other foods. Starting from the outside circle pears switch with eggs, followed by a circle of bananas, and then four eggplants and three apples in a reflective bowl.
Martha Mayer Erlebacher, American, 1937-2013. Still Life with Eggplant #1. Lithograph, 1974. Museum Purchase with funds from the Weatherhead Foundation, 1974.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A staple of art, the “bread and butter” for beginners, still lifes rose in prominence in Western art in the 16th century in the Low Countries (Netherlands). As mentioned previously, still lifes of food and drink appeared in Egyptian tomb paintings to become real and consumable in the afterlife for use by the deceased, they decorated Greek and Roman vases and frescoes, and adorned the borders of illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages. Early still life paintings, those completed before 1700, were religious in nature and contained allegorical symbols related to Bible stories. The development of oil painting, with its slow drying time and layering abilities, made it possible to paint everyday objects hyper realistically, and this prompted the rise of family portraits that combined figures with tables of food to show their opulence. The autonomous, monumental still life rose to prominence in the 16th century in Antwerp, and included great spreads of food, often through large kitchen or market scenes. Following the 1700s, and the Age of Exploration, an interest in in the natural world led to an explosion of botanical encyclopedias and, thus, precise scientific illustrations as the elite filled their homes with “cabinets of curiosities”. These cabinets included specimens of both flora and fauna, and the furs and carcasses of dead animals made their way into still life paintings.  

As the middle class rose, patronage of art shifted from the church to individuals, but still life remained a viable genre. Vanitas paintings, with sumptuous arrangements of flowers, books, statues, vases, and jewelry, came in vogue. The inclusion of a skull, timepiece, or candle burning down served as a moralizing message on the ephemeral nature of consumable goods as trade increased. Subsequent styles, however, like Rococo, which placed floral decorations on porcelain, wallpaper, fabrics, and carved wood furniture, led buyers to prefer figures in paintings to provide a contrast. The Academies, institutions that judged what was and was not considered art, denigrated still life work, placing it below all other genres (historical, biblical, landscapes).  

The still life genre, maintained through the changes in use and patronage, from spiritual to scientific to secular, continued to flourish despite the disparagement by the Academies and a turn to abstraction. All representational, or recognizable content, was reduced to little more than bold, flat outlines filled with bright colors in the 20th century as artists sought to express feelings and emotions through color. The definition of still life became even more mutable, as O’Keefe’s flower paintings took on the scientific hyper realism of botanical studies while lavish table spreads languished in the past. Cubism, an avant-garde approach to representing reality that brought together different views of objects or figures in the same composition produced a variety of still life works, as they proved excellent subjects for experimentation. Contemporary art extended the still life into video art, sculpture, performance, and installation. While art history remains focused on the still life as food, a pitcher, and a vase placed on a table, artists have played with this paradigm, molding it to reflect new movements and their own style.  

The still life, a fixture in drawing classes not only for its historical significance but its need for close looking, examination, use of line, perspective, and light has and continues to play an important role in art. Examine the gallery of contemporary still lifes below, how do artists today define the still life? How have they molded the genre to the current “ism” or style? 

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