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.
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.
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
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 www.nga.gov.au
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 www.buffton.edu
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.
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 overlordoftheuberferal.files.wordpress.com/
|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
|Francisco de Zurbaran 1635-40 Agnus dei|
Sanfrancisco Museum of Art USA
Image from cardiphonia.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/atonement-lg.jpg
|Rembrandt van Rijn 1655 The Flayed Ox|
image from wikicommons
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
|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