Instagram and Facebook might be where you find the most still-life photographies, every shot of juicy burgers and fancy cocktails falling into the still-life picture category, but still-lifes have been around for a while now.
Ancient Egyptian were the first (that we know of) to be producing still-lifes. Fortunately, it did not stop there, and thousands of years later, the art of still-life is alive and well.
As the centuries passed, this particular art form evolved, changed, mutated. From very utilitarian Ancient Egyptian frescoes to ultra-realists Dutch Golden Age paintings and modern three-dimensional installations, still-life artwork continues to be a recognised art form and constitute an essential share of any reputable museum of art.
This article will take you through the development of still-life art throughout history.
“What is a television apparatus to man, who has only to shut his eyes to see the most inaccessible regions of the seen and the never seen, who has only to imagine in order to pierce through walls and cause all the planetary Baghdads of his dreams to rise from the dust.”
– Salvador Dali, Spanish artist
Carlos Calvet was a Portuguese surrealist painter. This 1951 painting depicts the street of Ribeira (by pedrosimoes7)
Alike life art, still life art is nothing new. It is actually very (very) old, as the first still-life painting and carvings can be traced back to Ancient Egypt.
Still-life as an art form first originated from Ancient Egyptian highly codified mortuary rituals. Egyptians at the time believed that objects represented on the walls of a tumb or inside a sarcophagus would accompany the dead in the afterlife.
They also used still-life paintings as offerings for the gods and baskets of figs, grapes, bread or meat were commonly painted on frescoes.
Greek and Romans later realised similar types of paintings though they did not associate any religious symbolism to it anymore. However, unlike Egyptian frescoes which were not using any perspective or shading, Greek and Roman started to develop a somewhat sophisticated form of still-life ar, more realistic and detailed.
Many mosaics and paintworks survived in Pompeii under the ashes that covered the town when Mount Vesuvius volcano exploded in 79AD. The scenes and objects depicted by the Roman mosaics and paintings show the importance that the Romans put on hospitality, commonly the still-life artworks that have been unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum, show offering of food and water made by the hosts to the guests.
One of the most famous artworks recovered in the ruins of Herculaneum is the Still Life with Peaches which was part of the entrance of one of the most wealthy villas of the city.
Probably because still-life art conveyed religious symbolism very early, such connotations stuck to this art form and throughout the Middle-Age, still-life representation mostly accompanied sacred Christian text and manuscripts.
One of the best examples of illuminated manuscripts featuring still-life drawing is Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Catherine of Cleves was a wealthy Duchess of what is now part of Germany. She commisioned her book of prayers in 1430, and it took four to ten years (depending on the historical source) for the Dutch artists she had hired, to finish the book.
The Hours Of Catherine of Cleves, illuminated by a Ducth artist between 1430 and 1440, it features many still-life illustrations.
The artist who remained anonymous chose an unusually wide variety of subjects for the illustrations of each page. The borders of the pages have been filled with fantastic trompe l’oeil illustrations depicting nature: mussels, fruit, birds, fish and much more. The illustrator also chose to represent man crafted items such as jewellery, tiles, coins, and furniture. He also included humble class every-day occupations such as milking cows, baking bread or selling wine alongside luxurious scenes indicating that the book was destined to a noble client.
Learn more about still-life artists and their art.
The Renaissance movement started in Italy in the late 13th and slowly made its way across Europe over the four hundred following years, changing European art forever.
It was only during the 16th century that the Renaissance movement fully hit the Low Lands (name of the Netherlands at the time), but it took a bit of time before the Dutch artists really made their mark on still-life art.
The religious aspect of still-life art remained a significant influence on Rennaissance artists of the Dutch Golden Age. While Italian and French artist of the early Renaissance movement often favoured human matter subjects, some Dutch masters decided to focus their work on still-life and revived the interest for this art style.
The Dutch developed a particular interest for Baroque still-life painting, often choosing colossal canvas depicting epic feasts usually hiding religious scenes and symbolism in the background. Seventeenth-century Flemish painters were also famous for painting some fantastic landscapes, another genre of still-life.
Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose is an oil painting on canvas by Baroque Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán completed in 1633. It is currently displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, as part of its permanent collection. It is the only still life signed and dated by him and is considered a masterwork of the genre.
Vanitas still lifes were a widespread genre of Dutch still-life. Their composition often included a skull, symbol of mortality as well as rotten fruits, watch and hourglass, all reminders of the passing of time and the fleeting nature of life. Usually featuring a black background, they reminded the viewer of the certainty of death and that all the wealthy objects, lavish feasts and luxurious settings painted by the artist did not matter.
Another frequent subject for Dutch art at the time was flowers in a vase. One particular flower very commonly represented was tulips. As the Netherlands and Amsterdam became the biggest producer of the flower, an arranged bouquet of tulips was a perfectly adequate subject and was usually painted with oil on canvas.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the French Academy, hugely influential art institution at that time, had declared that the subject matter of a painting was more important than the painting techniques and colour harmony used.
The human form was considered the most important and more difficult to depict and so still-life was put at the end of the Hierarchy of Subject Matter. It was not until the end of the 19th century that this point of view declined and the Impressionism movement emerged.
The movement originated in Paris during the 1860’s, under the influence of one group composed of four young artists: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. They had all met while studying for the same master painter but decided to follow the earlier influence of painters such as J.M.W. Turner or Eugene Delacroix.
The Starry Night is an oil on canvas by the Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. Painted in June 1889, it depicts the view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
It has been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City since 1941
“The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.”
– Eugene Delacroix, French Romantic artist
Their style put freely brushed colours before well-defined contours and line, emphasised the play on natural lights while boldly painting shadows and paying a close attention to the reflection of light and colours from object to object.
They also used the wet paint into wait paint technique, rather than waiting for the first layer of paint to dry, which resulted in softer contours and overlapping of colours.
While they did not invent any of the painting or drawing techniques that they used, they were the first to use all of them together, giving their work a unique and original look.
This painting titled Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s “La Desserte” was painted by Henri Matisse in the fall of 1915.
The Post-Impressionism movement, mainly led by Paul Cezanne, was an extension and continuation of the Impressionism movement but it rejected its limitations. Post-impressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Gaughin, still used vivid colours, thick brush strokes and real-life subjects but accentuated the geometric forms, often distorting their subject to convey a message and using subjective colours.
It is from Post-Impressionism that cubism and fauvism, two other painting movement, emerged
In more recent years, Georgia O’Keefe’s work laid the foundation of American Modernism with her New York’s skyscrapers cityscape and New Mexico landscape paintings. Her large-scale paintings representing close up flowers is some of the best examples of modern still-life artwork.
O’Keefe’s legacy on the American art scene is undeniable, and only a few years after moving to New York in 1918, she became the highest paid American woman artist, paving the way for many others.
With the advance of technology and the advent of the Abstract art movement, still-life artwork has been following many roads.
In the early 1950’s the proto-Pop Art movement, followed soon after by the Pop Art movement which redefined the meaning of still life art.
Recent art work have been using element of Pop Art and Impressionism to compose contemporary still-lifes. Here is the New York Harlem Old Tube. (by balestra_art.fr)
“Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.”
― Keith Haring, American artist
Artists such as Andy Warhol, used prints on canvass as a media stuck between painting and photography.
Some contemporary artist took still-life art one step further in exhibiting massive artwork installations. Such a setup was created by epic feminist artist Judy Chicago in 1979. Titled The Dinner Party, the masterpiece consisted of a triangular table of nearly 15 meters on each side. Each side was laid down with 13 settings and each set included on the table, a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and a chalice along with a golden embroidered napkin.
This massive installation, which took more than six years and a quarter million dollars to complete was made to honour women of importance throughout history. Each seat was dedicated to a different woman, her name embroidered into the tablecloth. Each side of the table corresponded to a different period of history.
This piece by Jimmie Durham, titled “Still Life With Xitle and Spirit,” is made of a car, volcanic stone, and acrylic paint. (by Malaysia Business Insider).
Still-life art had long been only represented through two-dimensional artwork, paintings, drawings or photography. Such visually impactful, three-dimensional installation allowed to immerse the viewer into the still-life art piece and bring a much more interactive approach than classical still-life drawing.
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