Research: The Still Life Genre

The Still Life genre (from the Dutch Stil Leven) has been defined as images of inanimate objects; however, this definition is loosely applied, as even in early works, images of insects, etc., were included.

The earliest known still life paintings are Roman murals called xenia paintings (gifts for guests).  As in the image below the light is from the left (a convention largely maintained throughout the history of the genre); the objects are arranged on steps (a common Roman devise); the complementaries red and green are predominant; and there is a simple depiction of the transparency of the water jug.  The image has a somewhat modern feel about it.

Still Life with Peaches and Water Jug, from insult IV, House of Stags, Herculaneum, c 41-68AD

Some of these compositional devises are repeated in the next image below which again is lit from the left and objects are arranged on steps.  Of course, the original purpose of this image may have been a trade sign for a money lender as it depicts bags of coins and writing materials but it is now considered a work of art.  This brings into focus the changing purpose and use of images.

Fresno from a tablinum, Praedia of Julia Felix, Pompeii

There is a long gap then in the history of the genre as religious art dominants with still life motifs appearing only in larger images.

A significant image in the history of this genre appears in 1596, painted by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1596.

Much has been written about the symbolism within this painting.  The decaying and imperfect fruit representing life, death and resurrection; the apples referencing Adam and Eve.  Whilst symbolism was more important at the time this was was painted I wonder if Caravaggio had this in mind when painting the image or was he just painting a basket of fruit, some of which were imperfect?  Was the symbolism applied after the painting was finished to fit the painting into the predominate religious genre once it was donated to the church, or by an art critic to validate their knowledge, or to increase the status or value of the painting.  In many ways does it matter, as today art is about what the viewer takes from the image and therefore all views are valid.  What I find interesting about this painting is the vivid yellow background and the way the basket is sitting right of the edge of the table; it is if the basket is going to fall into the room of the viewer.

In the 17th century we enter the ‘Golden Age’ of Still Life painting, particularly from Dutch painters.

William Heda, Still Life, 1637

These paintings mainly display the wealth and processions of the newly emerging traders and in many ways set the general composition rules for this genre which are followed throughout the 17th and 18th century – glass and metal containers of various kinds and/or other foodstuffs placed on a table; or arrangements of flowers.

Jean Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, Still Life with Game, c 1760/65

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules.

Francisco Zubbaran, Still Life, c 1630

It is in the 19th century that still life for me starts to become a bit more interesting as we move away from the formal displays of wealth and start to see depictions of more ordinary interiors.

Edouard Manet, Still Life with Melon and Peaches, c 1866

I find the limited range of colours interesting, with the yellow present in the lemons, melon, the grapes and the background.  I also like the high contrast between the white and dark tablecloths which leads my eye up to the objects on the table.

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Cezanne said ‘I should like to astonish Paris with an apple’.  In the above two images I like the expressive brushstrokes and the way he uses colours across the image to unite the paintings.  In Vessels, Basket & Fruit (the Kitchen Table) it is interesting how he moves out from a pure table view to a more semi-interior view including a chair and worktop in the painting.

Gauguin, The Ham, 1889

I like the simplicity of the ham and glass on a small metal table against the bold stripe background.

Matisse, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, 1905-06

The objects in the still life by Matisse seem to wrestle for attention with the bold pattern of the blue and white tablecloth.  I especially like the bold strokes where only one or two brush marks define the form of the objects and also the almost abstract background.

Kandinsky, Interior (My Dining Room), 1909

This very colourful work by Kandinsky remains me of a number of paintings by Matisse.  I think it is many different patterns within the image – the table cloth, the wallpaper, the wood effect of the cupboard, etc.  (Matisse used a lot of patterned textiles in his paintings).

Braque, Still Life with Tenora, 1913

This paper collage features a tenor, which is a Catalan instrument similar to an oboe.  The tenor is drawn in charcoal around the collaged paper.  I was drawn to this image, partly because is marks the start of the break from representation and also because of the subject matter which has echoes of my drawings of my clarinet.

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I choose the three Picasso images as for me they indicate the changing style of the artist.  Still Life: Bowl and Apples take a female form with bold strong flat shapes; whilst in Guitar, Compote Dish and Grapes the line is fragmented and pattern is used in an interesting manner to both bisect and unite the elements; in The Enamel Saucepan the objects become more easily recognised whilst retaining fragmented shapes.

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Paul Klee is one of my favourite artists.  In all these images I especially like the simple geometric shapes and bold use of colour to define the objects.  In Still Life with Plants and a Window, the simple shapes define the flowers and leaves of the plant, similar simple shapes define the curtain at the window with a three-quarter moon in the sky.

Morandi, Still Life with Violet Objects, 1937

Still Life dominates the output of Morandi.

Bonnard, The Red Cupboard, 1939

This Bonnard caught my eye for a number of reasons – the predominate red colour scheme, the view of an interior of a cupboard and the fact that it looks like it was an existing view rather than the objects having been arranged.

Nicholson, July 22-47 (sill-life Odyssey), 1947

It is difficult to see what the objects are in this Ben Nicholson painting but the fragmented nature of the image certainly shows the influence of cubism on art even as late as the 1940s.

Pop art and still life.

Hockney, A Realistic Still Life, 1965

I find the title of this still life by Hockney quite interesting.  The use of tone on the pile of cylinders and acting as shadows for the three blocks at the front do add shape to the forms and make them seem more realistic; although, I do not understand the leaf-like elements acting as a frame.

Richter, 4.6.1999 (99/45), 1999

This picture of a tea mug which looks like it is on the floor near a corner of the room is interesting to me as it shows the gestural marks of the pencil and also includes long strokes of an eraser across the paper.


My look at the still life genre has increased my appreciation and knowledge.  It has also made me realise that whilst my default is to be quite detailed and realistic in my own artwork, the artwork I look at and admire in others is much more gestural in nature and tends to include strong elements of pattern.  In my feedback for assignment one my tutor mentioned that students often make work for their ‘teacher’ – this and researching still-life has made me think that subconsciously perhaps I am making work for others rather than myself?  Something to think about as I move forwards through this unit.

I will do further research specifically looking at drawing and still-life later in this unit.


Author: gbond1104

Studying Drawing 1 as my first course on a BA (Hons) in Painting

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