Development of still life through the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries
Still life was considered a lowly form of art after the Xenia paintings of Roman times and didn’t exist as a genre at all during the middle ages. The aim of European art, at the time, was to contribute to Christian culture and if it didn’t do this it wasn’t worthy. Symbolic still life images appear in these Christian paintings from time to time, such as vases of lilies representing the Virgin Mary’s innocence and apples representing Eve’s fall from Grace.
As we enter the 16th Century art must still satisfy the Church of its religious intent but we begin to see a bolder use of still life elements. Sometimes the religious figures are pushed into the background – see Joachim Beuckelaer’s Four Elements (1569) in which the tiny figures of the Holy Family can be seen crossing a bridge in the far distance on the left.
I can’t help but enjoy the fact that Caravaggio’s wonderful basket of fruit, mentioned in Part 1 makes a star appearance in his 1601 Supper at Emmaus where it is perched precariously on the edge of the table in full view!
In the 17th Century we enter the golden age of still life in northern Europe, Holland in particular. With the Protestant Reformation visual art is transformed and the Dutch declare a republic free of church and monarchy. With the rise of the merchant classes a new style of non religious painting emerges. There’s an economic boom going on and this is a consumer society in which traders can afford exotic flowers, fruits and Chinese porcelain and they want to adorn the walls of their homes with still life paintings.
There was enormous demand and still life painters went into overdrive. Don’t think for a minute that extraordinary banquet scenes such as Frans Snyder’s The Pantry were actually assembled for the artists to paint. These scenes were created piecemeal using tried and tested motifs from previous works such as lobsters and deer. Each time they were used they were presented a little differently. The same is true of the flower paintings, which feature blooms from far flung trading posts which would have been virtually impossible to bring together in a single vase at the same time.
As we fast forward to the 18th Century Adriaen Coorte shows us an altogether different approach to still life, a commonplace bunch of asparagus presented with a stunning simplicity which is much more appealing to my contemporary eye.
It’s what I had in mind when I tried to paint a bunch of asparagus for the tonal study on a dark ground exercise. We can but try!
Spanish painter Juan Sanchez Cotan delights me with his paintings which feature food stored hanging from string in a stone larder. This was how food was stored in his monastery to preserve it. No surprise then that they are referred to as ‘larder paintings’.
In the 18th Century the world of European art was dominated by the French Academy at the Paris Louvre and they dictated what was important and worthy and placed a high value on figure painting. Still life painting was relegated to the bottom of the heap and it took some daring and talented artists to convince the Academy otherwise.
In 1728 Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin submitted two works (including The Ray, shown left) to the Academy and they were accepted. Chardin was given the lowliest of jobs which was to hang the paintings but despite this his fame grew. He introduced the concept that the eye doesn’t see everything with the same focus and some objects are blurred in his paintings.
Looking at Chardin’s disturbing picture of The Ray (above) I’m surprising myself by drawing another comparison with the work of Damien Hirst and I don’t usually stop to dwell on his output! The Ray with its no holds barred view of the flat fish with its guts falling out and gruesome grin must have been intended to shock. It brings to mind Hirst’s 1990 A Thousand Years – the cow’s head in a glass box with flies.
Anne Vallayer Coster was one of the few women whose work was accepted by the Academy. Women were not allowed to paint male models so like it or not she was forced to paint still life and she did a darned good job of it too. It’s ironic that women were told they weren’t capable of figure drawing when they weren’t given the opportunity to learn.
The advent of photography in the mid 1850s challenged artists to do something that photography could not, i.e attempt to express what we as human beings with our unique emotions and responses see and feel. Van Gogh painted his famous sunflowers in 1888 as a response to photography with an emphasis on the texture and sculptural quality of the seed heads .
Considered the father of modern art, a 19th Century painter from a small town in the south of France declared “With this apple I will astonish Paris.” Realism had dominated European art but what mattered to Paul Cezanne was individual perception, how we see the objects around us through our own eyes. Those who didn’t understand his style thought it looked rushed, unfinished and distorted. Cezanne was born in 1839 and didn’t get the recognition he deserved until near the end of his life. It is said that he was the first painter of the 20th Century, not the last of the 19th. He died in 1906. His work is truly lovely and has been and continues to provide inspiration.
An impressionist approach became widespread and Cezanne’s new way of seeing and painting influenced the likes of Renoir, Monet, and Gauguin.
The 20th Century development of Cubism led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque involved a new way of painting from multiple different points of view. Some times it was difficult to recognise the objects making it a step towards abstract art.
Georges Braque focused almost exclusively on still life creating amazing complex and yet subtle paintings with the objects broken up almost as if viewed through a bug’s eye. In figuring out what is going on, it most definitely helps to read the picture captions!
Spanish painter Juan Gris was also connected to the Cubist movement, which by the way, was considered to be the most important art development of the 20th Century. This is understandable when you consider that art had for centuries been dominated by realism.
His work grabs my attention because the use of colour and the directional splicing of the canvas makes his still lifes feel full of energy and not in the least bit still.
How contemporary artists are interpreting this genre
In a materialist age of over consumption still life is probably more popular and relevant than ever. It gives us a chance to contemplate everyday possessions and objects that we may often overlook and see them in a new light.
Still life as painting continues to be popular and I can’t help but notice how over the course of time the arrangement of objects has changed so that rather than the formal groups of the Dutch still life paintings of the 17th Century, objects are often more isolated as in Elizabeth Blackadder’s Still Life with Arum Lilies.
And still life has leapt off the canvas into the world of multi media with some rather exciting and astonishing results.
In his video Pomegranite Ori Gersht has recreated one of Cotan’s larder paintings and the fruit gets shot with a bullet and explodes. It is oddly compelling if a bit bewildering!
Mat Collishaw remakes 17th-century Dutch still lifes as a contemporary photographs in his Last Meal on Death Row series.. Each work is named after the prisoner who requested the dish before being killed by the state. See the last meal of Martin Vegas on the Guardian website. These are powerful, clever and highly original photographs.
In his work the Venal Muse Collishaw has sculpted flowers with pustules and sores representing sexually transmitted diseases and photographed them. It’s a long way from 17th Century still life flowers arrangements!
Finally, for anyone who manages to get to the end of this research piece, I do recommend taking a look at the Guardian feature The Ten Best Contemporary Still Lifes – I found it eye-opening in terms of subject matter and media. It demonstrates vividly that as a genre still life (or nature morte as they say in French) is alive and kicking!
- BBC Four, Apples, Pears and Paint – How to make a still life painting (April 2015)
- Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanitas
- National Gallery
- National Galleries Scotland
- Tate Gallery
- Guardian website