Saturday, 14 February 2015

Still-life research to 1800

According to Anthony Langdon in the Oxford Companion to Western Art (1), 'Still-life paintings are pictures that are complete works of art in t hemselves and which depict inanimate things of medium size.'

The articles I read that were most interesting on this subject covered it in chronological order, so I have too. The early references are about inanimate objects as the subject of painting, and are included as antecedents of true still life paintings according to this definition.

The origins of still-life
Ancient Egyptians made paintings of tables with food on them, within the pyramids, so that the dead could eat once they had crossed over. (2) The Greeks had a word for painters whose subject was everyday things - rhyparaographoi, literally painters of vile objects. They are referred to, eg Peiraikos in Pliny's Natural History, but there are no surviving examples.

In Roman times, paintings of objects were used to decorate buildings, and they took pride in the natural appearance of the objects. So much so that there was a story that birds tried to eat some painted grapes, and the grape painter tried to draw the curtains painted by his competition.

Wall painting from Pompeii showing the attempt at naturalism

In the early Renaissance, paintings of this kind began to be used in the backgrounds of religious paintings, reflecting an increasing interest in the world of the painter, as opposed to the subject of the painting.

Giotto wall painting in Scrovegni Chapel - Annunciation to St Anne 1304-6
Showing his attention to domestic objects such as the shelf and lamp, and objects hanging on the wall, in contrast to the usual symbolic or God-glorifying backgrounds in pre-Renaissance religious painting.

As the Renaissance grew and spread in 15th century Italy and Netherlands, still life painting was used for the symbolic meaning attached to the objects. An example of this is the appearance of realistic looking lilies in annunciation paintings of the time, symbolising Mary's virginity.

Antonello da Messina c1475 St Jerome in his Study
I don't know what all these objects symbolise, but a lion refers to a story that he pulled a thorn out of a lion's paw,
and books a symbol of learnedness referring to his translation of the bible into Latin. I suspect the peacock on the windowsill may be expected to make the viewer think about pride and the partridge about truth?

In Italy, another use of still life was trompe l'oeil, used in painting and marquetry as a decorative feature in buildings, reflecting progress in perspective drawing, and a resurgent interest in Greek and Roman architecture and decorative arts.

Follow this link to see a wonderful Jacopo de Barbari tromple l'oeil painting. Even his signature is painted on a fake piece of crumpled paper. The link also shows some other still lives mentioned in this blog, and compares them to a contemporary artist's version.

Another stream of still-life painting was the use of dead animals or skulls to remind the observer of the mortality of all people, however rich or famous - called Vanitas.

Follow this link for a watercolour dead bluebird by Albrecht Durer.

and this one for gloriously pretty Joris Hoefnagel illuminated manuscripts from the Getty Museum

This famous painting by Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, is in the National Gallery in London. Oil on oak panel 1434. It has many domestic objects and references, each of which has a symbolic meaning.
Image taken from

Peter Aertson in Flanders, and Passeroti in Italy, painted shops and markets with mounds of produce, this time in the foreground, inspiring many subsequent masters to paint still lives.

Peter Aertson 1507-75 The Fat Kitchen, an allegory

Bartolomeo Passerotti 1529-92 The Fish Stall
Galleria Nationale di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome
photo from
Still-Life as an independent art form
At the end of the 16th Century, the still-life became an independent subject in its own right. Langdon suggests this is for several reasons - the increased cultural importance of the artist (as opposed to the subject), of scientific accuracy, of illusionist skills, and artists trying to show they could do better than classical art.

Flower painting became a speciality for some painters including Jan Phillips van Thielen, Jakob Merrell, and Jan Breughel the elder.

Jan Breughel the elder c.1606 Flowers in a wooden vessel, oil on board

Other still life painters of the period, especially Italians, focussed on fruit.

Fede Galizia 1602 Basket of peaches
Image from
Galizia was a painter of portraits and religious scenes during her lifetime
but is better known now for her small still life paintings. This one is 11 inches across.
These paintings are clearly luxurious in the extreme and aimed at wealthy patrons. However, there were also still lives being painted for humbler customers. For example, the Spanish painter Juan Cotan painted collections of vegetables for bodegas around 1600. Here is a link to some of them which shows that they were beautifully skillful too. Here is a link to some of them which shows that they were beautifully skillful too, and surprisingly modern looking in composition

There was also another new market for paintings growing at this time, the middle classes in Flanders and the Netherlands. Claesz and Heda produced paintings for this market which Langdon describes as an 'understated celebration of a comfortable lifestyle', often in a very restricted range of colours.
This links to Pieter Claesz 1636 Still-Life with Herring, and an appreciative article about his work

But of course there were still wealthy art buyers and still lives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries increasingly overflowed with opulence.

Willem Kalf c1653
image from

Cornelius de Heem Still Life with a Basket of Fruit
He and Snyders started altering the composition in this diagonal way. They appear to have been highly influential.
Image from wikicommons
 At the same time there was a more austere strand in the still lives of Zurburan, Lubin Baugin, and Rembrandt.
Francisco de Zurbaran 1635-40 Agnus dei
Sanfrancisco Museum of Art USA
Image from

Rembrandt van Rijn 1655 The Flayed Ox
Louvre, Paris
image from wikicommons
And the vanitas strand continued. The links lead to images of vanitas paintings by David Bailly, and Pieter Symonsz Potter

Eighteenth Century Still-Life
Rachel Ruysch c. 1704 Still life with flowers
She and Willem van Aelst introduced a diagonal composition into floral still life
Image from wikicommons
The other prominent proponents of still-life in Europe in the eighteenth century were Chardin and Melendez, who had very different styles.

Luis Melendez Still Life with Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments and Kitchen Utensils
Very skilled and almost photographic in its realism.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Francisco de Goya Still life with golden bream is very different, with a freedom of style that gives a more natural feel.
image from wikicommons

Jean-Baptiste Chardin 1760 Glass of Water and Coffee Pot
This is very attractive to modern eyes, with its simplicity and calm atmosphere.

(1) Langdon, A (2001) still-life The Oxford Companion to Western Art ed. Hugh Brigstocke, Oxford University Press (from Oxford Art Online)
(2) Van Miegroet, Hans, J (2006) Still-life Grove Art online OUP

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