The earliest examples of Still Life go as far back as the ancient Egyptians who believed drawing food images in burial chambers would allow the dead to provide real food in the afterlife. The Greeks and the Romans also left many examples too, ranging from lowly depictions of the working lower classes whilst the upper classes depicted the luxurious range of food they consumed.
Up to this point religious painting had been viewed as the most important and highest genre of all, by the middle of the seventeenth century the Dutch Republic had gained independence and were mostly Protestant. Artists looked towards their immediate surroundings and away from religious subject matter. Genre painting was born, depicting the very ordinary situations of regular, daily life. Still life became popular and although they may appear to be simple scenes, often they hid a more complex message; they painted luxurious objects, flowers and fine foods set against a plain background, painted in realistic detail, with a variety of textures. Vanitas paintings emerged, with poignant reminders of the inevitability of death in candles, skulls and hourglasses.
Willem Claesz Heda (c.1594-1680) was one of the most renowned painters of this time.
The colours are somewhat muted but beautifully arranged in a seemingly careless manner, against a lighter background and highlights of reflected light throughout, masterfully depicting a variety of different textures.
Painting flowers also became popular, complete with vanitas references, such as butterflies and candles.
In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the European Academies, Still Life fell out of favour as it was considered the lowest form in the Hierarchy of Genres, the highest being historical, biblical and mythological subjects.
A new group of artists began to challenge the academies, these were the Impressionists, who were concerned with bold colours, depicting light and technique over subject matter. Goya, Courbet and Delacroix worked with more emotion than realism.
After a period where the background went to its very darkest, Monet then broke away from this, and used colour in an almost shocking way, the brushstrokes seem looser and less precise.
His brushwork has changed from small, detailed movements to broader strokes, the use of colour seems brighter, the colour orange dominates. The Impressionists were inspired by light, the colour schemes of nature and portrayed this in a new way, there was even a change of painting perspective.
Looking at the fruit, it’s not always clear if we are looking from above or in front. Whilst the fruit is not overly realistic we are given a sense of it in shape and colour, the use of broad brushstrokes gives an impression of solid flesh and juiciness.
Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers may appear flattened but the vibrancy of the differing tones of yellow give them a vivid quality. More interesting is his Still Life with Drawing Board, although essentially a still life, in character it is a self-portrait, his possessions allow a representation of him to be depicted.
Post-Impressionist Cézanne’s work bridged the transition from nineteenth century Impressionism to twentieth century Cubism. His work contains a more sculptured quality, for Cézanne colour, line and form were inseparable, as if every item is examined from more than one perspective. His work was a major influence to the Cubists.
He reinvented Still Life, showing that the ‘lowest’ form of art could represent form, light and space, whilst breaking the old rules of perspective and defined edges.
Picasso and Braque together invented Cubism, the first phase of which was Analytic Cubism, due to their focus on the analysis of form. They depicted multiple perspectives, breaking objects down into line and textures. Braque invented collage when he used a patterned oilcloth as a background, incorporating it into his artwork, Picasso was quick to follow suit.
Both Cubist works take a while to decipher, the objects being so fragmented and geometric, combined with a skewed perspective.
Later on, artists like Lichenstein created their own versions of Still Life where the only similarities lay in the type of objects painted, his style is often described as cartoonish, give that the objects have bold outlines and the colour copies the way ink is printed in newspapers. He became a leading figure in the American Pop Art movement, his work seems overly simple but would have been very exacting to produce.
After so much variety it is hard to imagine how Still Life can continue to be reworked but contemporary artists are still doing it. It’s interesting to see the influence of the masters and their very different approaches.
Israeli artist Ori Gersht captures the moment an arrangement of flowers is blown up, contrasting a normally serene picture with violence.
Compare Darren Jones’ still life/self portrait with the Van Gogh Drawing Board image above. This image depicts the personal belongings that come together only for the duration of a trip.
Whilst approaches have differed over time, composition has not changed as much, Still Life as a genre still has a lot to offer clearly, perhaps the connection is with the personal and symbolic statement the artist depicts.