Still Lifes: History and Significance

Copyright (c) 2006 Dianne Durante

NOTE: This is a companion piece to my essay on landscapes;  I've repeated a few of the broader points so it can stand alone.  Both articles were originally written for Quent Cordair Fine Art, and published on its website.

At the famous Salon exhibitions in nineteenth-century Paris, a mediocre mythological painting would invariably have been displayed more prominently than the most exquisitely composed and executed still life. Why were still lifes considered second-class art for centuries? Is there an objective reason to compare them unfavorably with paintings incorporating human figures?

 History of still lifes as a genre

The earliest surviving still lifes in Western art appear in frescoes in Pompeian homes buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. The Romans, a mundane and practical people, had no qualms about setting still lifes of everyday objects side by side with mythological stories adapted from Greek art.

With the fall of Rome (traditionally AD 476) and Europe's descent into the Dark Ages, artists turned their attention almost exclusively to religious subjects such as Biblical stories and scenes from the life of Christ and the saints. Only toward the end of the Middle Ages, as increasing wealth and freedom made life more than merely a struggle for survival, did artists again show an interest in accurately representing this world. Jan van Eyck of the Netherlands (d. 1441), for example, was fascinated with using the new medium of oil painting to render material objects in meticulous detail: shining kettles, drifting smoke, lush velvet, dogs and feathers and lace and light. (See his Arnolfini Marriage, 1434.)

Still-life painting as a genre reached a pinnacle in seventeenth century Holland. Dutch merchants had built a trading empire that stretched round the world, and they reveled in the goods their wealth could acquire. Building on two centuries' study of artistic technique developed by Renaissance painters, Willem Kalf (1619-1693), Jan de Heem (1606-1664) and others produced superb still lifes such as had never been seen in the history of Western art. Their subjects were the luxury items the Dutch so prized.

But there was a catch. Despite their interest in wealth and material goods, most Dutch were staunch Calvinists. Their artists favored a type of still life known as the Vanitas vanitatum ("vanity of vanities"), which depicted objects of expensive materials and exquisite workmanship. The artists took care, however, to include subtle reminders that death is inevitable and earthly pleasures cannot last. Scattered among the luxury goods are half-peeled fruit, overturned or broken vessels (as if the people using them had died or fled), and short-lived creatures such as butterflies.

While the Dutch were pondering the ephemeral nature of earthly goods, in Paris King Louis XIV (1643-1715; "L'etat, c'est moi!") in 1648 established the French Academy, a state-supported school for painting and sculpture. To counter years of strife between Protestants and Catholics, he encouraged artists at the Academy to produce art promoting patriotism and piety. The subjects of choice for this didactic task were moralizing tales from Greek, Roman and French history. For almost two centuries, history painting was viewed not as one equally valid genre among many, but as indisputably the best type of painting. Portraits, landscapes, and still lifes were merely a way for artists to supplement income between history paintings. At the annual Salon exhibition, where much of the buying and selling of French paintings took place during the nineteenth century, Academy members assigned the prime locations to history paintings.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century a radical change occurred in the way art was marketed and sold. The Industrial Revolution's technological improvements made the dissemination of words and images infinitely faster and easier. Artists began to be known and sought after for their own work, rather than as winners of an award at the Salon. Dealers opened galleries that sold paintings year round, relieving artists of some of the burden of marketing their own works. Among the first to have their paintings sold in galleries were Impressionists Monet (1840-1926) and Renoir (1841-1919). They were followed by artists such as Cezanne (1839-1906) and Van Gogh (1853-1890), whose avant-garde still lifes and other paintings were rejected by conservative Salon judges.

In the meantime, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment's shift to a more secular worldview had made collectors less interested in seeking Christian or didactic messages in the paintings they purchased. We might expect that the Enlightenment's renewed interest in the natural world combined with technical advances in paint and colors during the Industrial Revolution would have led to some wonderful still lifes by the end of the nineteenth century. After all, the best still lifes have been painted by artists who are fascinated with this world. Unfortunately, by that time the dominant philosophical ideas (particularly regarding the nature of knowledge and the nature of art) had led to radical changes in both subject and style. Rather than a Kalf with nineteenth-century sensibilities we got Cezanne and Picasso. For more on these changes, see Seismic Shifts in Subject and Style: 19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy.

The message of still lifes

Even if we grant that paintings need not have a didactic or moral message, the question remains: can a painting of a bouquet of roses "speak" to a viewer as effectively as a painting with human figures?

Art's purpose, according to Ayn Rand, is to provide man with the psychological energy he needs to carry on his life:

Since a rational man's ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process—and the higher the values, the harder the struggle—he needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move farther. Art gives him that fuel; the pleasure of contemplating the objectified reality of one's own sense of life is the pleasure of feeling what it would be like to live in one's ideal world. ("Art and Sense of Life," Romantic Manifestop. 38)

The most efficient way to present such an ideal world is to show human actions and emotions. Still lifes can, however, accomplish the purpose less directly, by relying on what you bring to them as well as what's actually represented. How?

1.    Content. A still life can present exquisite manmade objects, perfect natural objects, or an arrangement of objects that complement each other, making them a delight to the eye and a reminder of how much beauty the world offers.

2.    Style. An artist can show objects in a clear and vivid way, full of interesting colors and textures, flooded with enchanting light. Certain styles can make you glad you have eyes to see and make you feel that you perceive more clearly through the artist's eyes than through your own.

3.    Context. The objects represented may have strong associations for you. Sometimes the significance of a painting lies not in what's represented but in the memories you bring to it.

 Some people have trouble stating explicitly why they like certain works, and therefore don't feel quite comfortable liking them. Perhaps the comments that follow, on a selection of still lifes at the Cordair Gallery, will help you introspect about your own reactions.

NOTE: This essay was originally written on commission for the Cordair Gallery. Some of the paintings discussed are no longer available, in the original or prints. The link to each artist's name will take you to that person's section of the Cordair site.)

Sylvia Bokor

I love the colors and textures in Pewter Pitcher: they're sharp, clear and vivid. It reminds me of the way I see the world on an clear autumn day. Years ago my husband bought a very similar work by Bokor, in part because he liked the style and in part because his beloved grandmother owned a candy dish just like the one in the painting. For him, buying a still life based on that association is perfectly reasonable, although for most viewers the type of silver dish shown won't be significant.

For contrast with Pewter Pitcher, look at Chardin's Still-Life with Plums (ca. 1730) at the Frick Collection in New York. Chardin chose to depict a few pieces of fruit with subdued colors and softened textures. In the center are a very dark glass bottle and a clear glass half-full of water, both humble household objects. All are arranged on a cracked wooden table set against a somber wall. Although the composition is nicely balanced, it speaks of a workaday life that doesn't interest me enough to make me want to contemplate it.

Tom Sierak

I associate bouquets of roses such as those in Glass Cat with special occasions - so many that I now connect roses not to a particular event but to celebrations in general. Merely seeing a bouquet of them lifts my spirits. For some reason that probably goes back to my childhood, the combination of cobalt blue and yellow appeals to me very strongly. I love the textures here as well: the velvety petals, the glints on the vase. Looking at the technique of this drawing also gives me the psychological boost I get from seeing someone perform a job well: having tried to draw with pastels many years ago, I can appreciate the skill that went into producing Glass Cat.

Alfredo Gomez

Cezanne's still lifes make me want to hurl away the fruit and visit the nearest grocery store for fresh supplies. (See his Still Life with Apples, ca. 1890, in The Hermitage.) Gomez's Red Apple appeals to me for its color and its perfect shape - it's like an illustration of Ayn Rand's comment about a painter showing a visual abstraction of an apple.

It is a common experience to observe that a particular painting - for example, a still life of apples - makes its subject 'more real than it is in reality.' The apples seem brighter and firmer, they seem to possess an almost self-assertive character, a kind of heightened reality which neither their real-life models nor any color photograph can match. Yet if one examines them closely, one sees that no real-life apple ever looked like that. What is it, then, that the artist has done? He has created a visual abstraction. He has performed the process of concept-formation - of isolating and integrating - but in exclusively visual terms. He has isolated the essential, distinguishing characteristics of apples, and integrated them into a single visual unit. He has brought the conceptual method of functioning to the operations of a single sense organ, the organ of sight. -- Ayn Rand, "Art and Cognition," The Romantic Manifesto, pp. 47-48

On the other hand, as soon as I saw Red Apple next to Crazy Pears on the Cordair site, my subconscious dredged up memories of sore feet, damp wool and kerosene. As a teenager I spent decades every winter (time crawls when you're not having fun) in a barely heated concrete shed on the family farm, searching out the one bad apple or pear that might spoil the whole barrel. Seeing apples or pears in bunches still tends to make me recall that, and for that reason I don't enjoy contemplating those Gomez paintings side by side. Obviously that's an idiosyncratic reaction. You might well associate them with your mother's apple pies or an autumn weekend in New England.

Jerald Rough

Rough often paints arrangements of objects that are either man-made or significantly man-altered: a pineapple converted into an exotic drink container (Aloha), candy in a wine glass (Kissable), or a delectable dessert (Forever on Sundae). I like his gleaming textures and vivid colors. Although Rough depicts very different objects, his paintings remind me of Dutch artists such as Kalf who chose to show luxury items rather than mundane ones. As an unrepentant lover of puns, I also enjoy Rough's choice of titles.

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These are my personal reactions, not to be confused with an esthetic or philosophical evaluation of the paintings. Your reaction to a particular work ought to be as distinctive to you as my reaction is to me, because it's based on your life and your values.

A still life with the right style, subject and associations can offer as much pleasure and inspiration as a painting filled with human figures. Given that, why would you settle for a picture whose colors nicely match your living-room sofa or bathroom décor, when you could have a picture that speaks to you on a very personal level?