The earliest evidence of still life drawings date back to at least the 1st century AD in Pompeii, in House of the Vettii. Here pictures are painting within simulated frames (painted to appear as if they are projecting forwards) on the walls of fruit, fish, game and glass vessels. (p150 of A World History of Art, Honour, H. and Fleming, J. 1982). What pops into most people’s heads when they think of the still life genre are the 17th century Dutch artists. They “would often restrict themselves to a single class of objects.” (p454, World History of Art, Honour, H. and Fleming, J. 1982). This tradition of depicting household objects started in the 15th century, and for a time contained memento mori, reminders of mortality and vanitas, reminding the viewer that worldly goods are ultimately worthless. The purpose of the realism of the paintings to convey these moral messages unambiguously.
Above, Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (c 1602) and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino, Metal Plate with Peaches and Vine Leaves (1591-94). From Independent.co.uk, 9th December 2011, Michael Glover and commons.wikimedia.org.
Above, Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628) and Margareta Haverman, A Vase of Flowers (1716). Both from metmuseum.org. The Claesz painting is a great example of a vanitas painting, worldly efforts are ultimately in vain. Shown here in the reflection of a fleeting moment, an expired lamp, and of course the skull.
Above, Edward Collier (Anglicised from Edwaert Colyer), Still Life (1699) from tate-images.com. The objects depicted in these painting were often those owned by the middle classes who would identify with them and wish to own them as a show of their status. This painting was clearly for the English market, though painted by a Dutch artist. The note of the left translates as ‘life is short but art lasts long’. (tate.org.uk). Depicting a fixed moment in time, and reminding the viewer again of the transience of human life.
Above, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Still Life, Flowers in a Vase (1760-63). From wikiart.org. https://www.wikiart.org/en/jean-baptiste-simeon-chardin/still-life-flowers-in-a-vase-1763. This French painter is considered one of the greatest painters of still life. In a clear move away from the tradition of Dutch genre painting, he chose his subjects for their texture, colours and shapes rather than their symbolic meaning. He employed subtly toned backgrounds, combined with balanced colours and form in the composition. This overall unity of his compositions seems to have appealed to artists such as Cezanne (1839-1906) and Renoir (1841-1919) more than other artists of this period, Hendriks (1744-1831) for example, who continued the intense realism of his 17th century predecessors.
Above, David Cox (1783-1859), Still Life (date unknown). From tate-images.com. http://www.tate-images.com/results.asp?image=N04307&wwwflag=3&imagepos=1. Primarily a landscape painter, in this watercolour on paper Cox is clearly another move away from depicting ‘meaningful’ or ‘status’ objects. These terracotta pots on a shelf seem to have been sketched in situ and for their own simple beauty. Since the middle ages in Europe depictions of the Bible or ancient myths were always regarded as the highest forms of art. We can see here that artists are moving away from this idea of painting for a rich, Christian, patron and depicting what they are interested in themselves.
Above, Vincent Van Gogh, Vase with Zinnias and other Flowers (1886) and Flowers in a Copper Vase (1887) and Still Life with Coffee Pot (1888). By the late 19th century artists are no longer interested in making a photo-realistic painting, with the invention of photography they were freed up to interpret what they saw more experimentally. Colours because more exaggerated and intense and brushwork became freer and bolder. In Still life with Coffee Pot, Van Gogh makes us of complimentary and contrasting colours rather than focussing on tonality. (no. 21, Van Gogh, Uhde, W., 1981). He experimented with this ‘modern’ use of primary colours to intensify each of the colours he uses, a practice also used by Seurat (1859-1891).
Above, Henri Matisse, Harmony in Red (1908), Odilon Redon, Wild Flowers in a Long-Necked Vase (1912), and Pablo Picasso, Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table (1909). In Harmony in Red, Matisse flat, bold colours, repeated pattern and complimentary colours to achieve a balanced composition and a feeling of depth. Clearly in Tribute to Cezanne who died a few years before it was completed, Picasso’s Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table clearly contains recognisable objects and alludes to a traditional set up of objects laid out on a table, but the viewpoint is inconsistent, the perspective is tilted and he varies the use of tone and finish on different surfaces. (pablopicasso.org).
Above, Eric Thake, An Opera House in Every Home (1972), Mary Fedden, The Ringed Plover (c. 1982), Diana Armfield, Autumn Flowers from the Garden (1991), Leonard McComb, Ranunculi (1992). Moving into the late 20th century, artists like Patrick Caulfield, Roy Lichtenstein and Eric Thake, above made us of flat, but often vibrant or contrasting colour printing inspired by Pop Art to depict, sometimes humorously, aspects of everyday life or everyday objects. Thake’s Opera House on the draining board is a social comment on the escalating cost and overrunning building work of the Opera House in Sydney at the time. However, other artists continued the tradition of painting still life subjects like flowers in vases expressively and experimentally. Brushwork is often quite loose and the use of tone is often quite flat but bold.
Above, Laurie Frankel and Diane Gatterdam, Recycled Beauty (from series) (2014), Simon Laurie, Fish Feast (2011), and Cindy Wright, Nature Morte 2 (2010). In some early 21st century work there are obvious allusions to the depiction of status objects as used in Dutch 16th century still lifes. However, the twist is often a political or in other way shocking message to the viewer that the modern world needs improving. Gatterdam and Frankel replace ‘beautiful’ household objects with rubbish and waste, photographing the composition in a way which picks up intense light and shade contrasts. In Nature Morte 2, Wright congrats pretty, ‘safe’ domestic objects with a bloody, gutted fish. The political message seems to be about our over-consumption of and lack of empathy for meat and fish. Laurie references everyday Scottish life and society in his work, utilising rich, vibrant textural ground, abstracted basic forms and recognisable objects. Again, he uses contrasting colours widely and the compositions tend to be quite flat.