‘In the hierarchy of genres (or subject types) for art established in the seventeenth century by the French Academy, still life was ranked at the bottom – fifth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and landscape. Still life and landscape were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter.’ (Tate.org S.D)
Originally the still-life painting began in the Northern, Spanish areas of the 17th century. before this still life was considered for botanical books and pages to document items/flowers and plants. Artists began to use still life as their art form during a very religious, affluential time, most pictures would reflect this as it would be a mix of natural and man-made objects together. Although the composition may sound random, there was so much more meaning behind this art and many peices contained warning of life and mortality. Through this article I will be annotating a few pieces of art work from the 17th century right to modern artists and how the development of the genre has changed throughout the ages.
Figure 1 – A Vase With Flowers, Vosmaer, J, 1613 85.1 x 62.5cm
Vosmaer was considered a pioneer of still life. He shows amazing control and technique of the oil paints and uses vibrant colours to attract the eye to the bloomage of flowers. If you look closer, however towards the bottom of the boquet the flowers are wilting and starting to die, this could be symbolic to mean that everything natural; no matter how beautiful dies, eventually wilts and then dies.
Figure 2 – Still Life with Skull and Writing Quill, Claesz, P, 1628 24.1×35.9cm
Skulls were used as a reminder of mortality and that life is short. In the 17th century if you had writing equipment it implied that you were wealthy and well educated. I like this painting as the wine glass is placed strategy giving deeper meaning to the composition. It makes me think that Claesz was trying convey the message of affluence and drink was the end of this particular writer – the books are worn and closed implying they have not been opened or written in for a while as the writer has been enjoying his success. But the skull which is a main feature continues to say that all things must end and all things run out for example, the wine glass is empty, the quill is out of ink, the lamp has no oil.
As you can see traditionally the method for still life was normally oil paintings and a very realistic approach in their interpretation. Artists also used still life as a way of showcasing their talent and procession of the ordinary and mundane objects of every day.
Figure 3 – Still Life with Water Jug, Cezanne, P, 1892-3 53×71.1cm
Cezanne was quite obsessed with drawing still life objects over and over again. He feels the one view point was not enough as it did not give an artist’s unique perspective as a result he was often draw the same still life from several angles as he has done with the water jug. It gives and jaunted and almost disconnected look to still life. Unlike the masters of old Cezanne didn’t usually have hidden messages with the items he chose, however with his choice of several view points in one painting sends a message that not everything is as it seems. He often did not finish his paintings as a way of showing that everything is a ‘work in progress’ and there can be more connection and pattern between the shapes and movements of our regular every day objects.
Figure 4 – Bottle of Vieux, Marc Galss, Guitar and Newspaper, Picasso, P, 1913 46.7×62.5cm
Cubism is seen as the most influencial movement in art in the 20th century – why – because it gives such a unique perspective on the ordinary. It can simplify what masters spent their whole careers perfecting and it opened the the door to almost endless possibilities of what can be done and created with art. Picasso demonstrates this with the above image. the traditional medium of oil paints was not used for this piece but paper and ink. In it’s simplicity you can see the basic shape of the guitar and newpaper which automatically shows the viewer they are looking at a still life. The composition however makes the viewer use their imagination and try to connect all the disconnected items together, to help their minds makes sense of what can at a first glance look like chaos.
Figure 5 – Still Life with Lettuce, Buhler, A, 2011. (size: unknown)
Buhler is a modern artists who works mainly with oil pastels. she shows great skill and understanding of the medium. As you can see the colours are a little more unnatural than when still life started in the 16th century. If you look at the dark lines you can see the influence of the pop art movement between the contract of the outlines and the block colours.
Throughout the ages of art, still life has shown to be a useful and effective way of trying new techniques as well as being a way of the artist to convey a message. In modern day people have become a lot more health conscious and I feel this shows in Buhler’s still life depicting fruit and vegetables. the way she compsitions the work by zooming in to the items and having them fall off the page implies that shes really wanting us to focus on the healthy food and maybe get the viewer wanting to eat healthier as a result.
Still life will continue to be a great way to help artists develop, style, composition and medium. It is also a great way to lean the contrast of light and shadow on items and how this adds to the texture and atmoshpere of a peice of art work.