There was a terrific BBC programme in April 2015 called Apples, Pears and Paint – how to make a still life painting. It was so good that I watched all 90 minutes of it twice and made notes second time around, with the knowledge that this research point was coming up. The programme provided an overview of the development of still life from the Xenia art of Pompei to today’s multimedia re-interpretations of the genre. It charted the highs and lows of still life in history and gave insight into how art reflects our relationship with the material world around us.
This is a broad research topic and putting down some thoughts on why artists choose to portray material possessions feels like a good place to begin. So why have artists through the ages turned to still life?
To depict the kind of hospitality a guest might expect? This is certainly the case with the Roman Xenia art (the earliest form of still life we know), painted on the walls of Pompeii or depicted in floor mosaics. It features bowls of figs or eggs (for example), strung up game and flagons of wine as if to say “we live well and treat our guests well too.” Xenia means a gift or hospitality in Greek.
To show off wealth and the splendour of our possessions?
The Dutch banquet pieces depicting extravagant foods such as lobsters and citrus fruits on expensive platters certainly tell the viewer that the owner is not short of a bob or two. But is all this wealth making the owner happy? And what’s going on when a still life shows jugs tipped over, bowls upturned and chaos descending? Do these perhaps represent a Calvinistic reprimand about excessive consumption and misplaced pride in possessions? Cut flowers tell stories too… about their exotic origins in trading posts around the world and sometimes exorbitant cost. At the height of tulip mania (c. 1637) a single bulb could cost three times as much as a house. What does that say about a whole vase of cut tulips?
To convey more subtle messages about life and death?
Thoughts on life and death, transience and mortality are expressed in the Dutch 16th and 17th Century Vanitas paintings. See iconographic significance below.
To practice and demonstrate skills?
A model willing to pose for hours on end may be hard to find and difficult to afford but still life objects are almost always at our disposal and offer a way to practice and improve technique. And when the sun goes down they can be lit by artificial light.
While still life went into a decline after Xenia art and was considered a low form of art, this changed when Caravaggio painted his famous basket of fruit in 1599 displaying plenty of skill and technique. He said: “It costs me as much effort to make a good painting of fruit and flowers as figures.”
Note the composition, how the basket sits right at the edge, the insect nibbled leaves, the worm hole in the the apple and the dead leaves. All life and death is here as well as astounding detail in what is in actual fact quite a small painting..
Thoughts on life and death, transience and mortality are often expressed in still life. Dutch 16th and 17th Century Vanitas paintings include, among other motifs, skulls, flowers that will wilt and die, the passing of a time on a pocket watch or egg timer, candles in which the light will flicker and die. These may be contrasted with objects representing pleasure and the material world – jewels, musical instruments, exotic objects such as shells or culture and learning as in the case of the book featured in Utrecht’s Vanitas painting above. Note also the coins representing wealth and status.The two main elements of the painting are the vase of flowers (some are withered and dying) – they emphasie the relationship between life and death.
Interestingly I now realise that Damien Hirst’s notorious diamond encrusted skull is a kind of Vanitas work, except in his case case he claimed to have subverted death.
Loosely translated from the Latin, the word Vanitas relates to the meaninglessness of earthly life and transient nature of earthly goods and pursuits.