Research point: Still life

Updated on 20 February 2017 (Harvard referencing and reworking of contents).

14 April 2016. While in the everyday world we have everything but a still life it is an attractive idea to sit down and do some research on just that, objects around us taken and captured for what a human mind might call an eternity, by the means of paint.

On the Tate homepage I found a most to the point definition of still life: “One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead” (Tate, n.d.). What seems commonplace from a 21st century viewpoint was revolutionary at the time the genre was developed. Until the 17th century only a few privileged private persons or institutions like the church or royalty could afford paintings at all. With the rise of the new merchant class in the Netherlands they came within reach of a wider public and so subjects changed away somewhat from the traditional demonstrating of ruling power. Still lifes thus became immensely popular with both artists as a field of experimentation and budding art lovers, who were without doubt introduced to a radically different concept of seeing the world around them.

17 April 2016. Having a closer look at the history of still life painting I react in the same way as I used to when I was still a child. I cannot keep my eyes off the breathtaking arrangements, the incredible translation of light into paint, and still … The French “nature morte” is for me exactly what I feel when looking at still life arrangements. There is, maybe only for me, something dead about the objects, whether tools of everyday use, fruit, vegetables or animals. There is a feeling of abandonment, not as if the owner of the objects had just left the room to go for a walk, but as if they had been interrupted in a feast by some invisible disaster. They remind me of the famous 1957 novel by Nevil Shute “On the Beach”, where after an unprecedented nuclear war the last people alive on Earth await their certain end by radiation sickness. Shute describes such abandoned places in his novel. Briefly I thought of including the novel in my planning for Assignment 2, but a short read made me aware that as things are I may not be strong enough mentally. Never mind, back to the 17th century.

I started my journey with one of the most renowned of the Dutch still life painters, Willem Kalf (1619-1693) (Fig. 1):

Figure 1. Willem Kalf: “Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl” (1659″, oil on canvas. Source: Willem Kalf (1619-1693) [Public domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I cannot help but admire the wonderful use of the chiaroscuro technique in the chosen painting above. The objects are arranged, before a very dark background which makes no other contribution to the painting except being the background, in a pyramid shape, where from the base upwards the objects become increasingly delicate until there is nothing but a reflection on glass to form the tip of the pyramid. Although the bowl containing fruit is tilted to the left, there is an incredible balance in the arrangement. Neither the folded carpet in the foreground not its counterpart in balance, the illuminated corner of the table with some wonderfully delicate piece of jewellery (probably an earring or similar), would be believable without its counterpart. Interestingly, the earring itself has a further counterpart in balance in the bright reflection off the glass of white wine. If I cover it with a finger, the reflection on the glass of white wine is directly affected, the balance of the painting is thereby pushed towards the left. If on the other hand, the reflection is covered, the overall balance of the painting seems undisturbed, but one of the main points of interest is suddenly gone. What I learn from looking at this painting is that it takes outstanding sensitivity to create, control and paint an arrangement in such a way. The objects interact with one another in a multitude of ways, none of which can be omitted or replaced without unbalancing the composition and very likely its hidden meaning. The peeled lemon, and other fruit, are some of the many symbols used by painters of the time to point out the ephemeral nature of life (commonly known as “vanitas paintings”). Other symbols include skulls, musical instruments, all sorts of dead animals and plants, smoke or objects measuring time.

In contrast to the above is another still life painting, this time by Jan Weenix (ca. 1641?-1719) (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Jan Weenix: “Gamepiece with a Dead Heron (“Falconer’s Bag”)”, 1695, oil on canvas. Source: Jan Weenix (ca. 1641?-1719) [Public Domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although in the above painting without doubt both arrangement and painting are delicate and breathtakingly realistic, and while the objects depicted are full of meaning and the background provides an idealized landscape, I do not feel the same awe as with Kalf’s much more reduced approach. Maybe again it is just me who as an ecologist prefers life to hunter-inflicted death, but there is also too much of everything packed on the canvas, just as if Weenix had wanted to impress his viewers by saying: “Look here, I can do this, and this as well, and this, and that …”

A representative flower painting from the 17th century was created by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) (Fig. 3):

Figure 3. Jan Brueghel the Younger: “A Basket of Flowers”, 1620s?, oil on wood. Source: Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) [Public domain] via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Again, and probably due to my modern biologist’s training, I would rather want to see the overwhelming number of different flowers in their respective habitats or a garden. The arrangement itself however is wonderful, light and colours carefully balanced, and the characteristics of each species faithfully reproduced, including even some visiting insects. At the time of painting the approach will have been nothing less but revolutionary, going hand in hand with the increased interest in the workings of nature, the beginnings of explorer travelling and the early approach to understanding nature. The latter was fuelled by the feeling of living on a vast planet with endless resources, most yet undiscovered and undescribed and by an urge to collect and bring back home and own much, much more of what was found than was would in the end be needed (own experience gained over a long period of time when working in our local natural science museum). Not surprisingly the whole was, as always, another expression of power. Coming to think of that, most still lifes of the time will have served exactly that purpose after all.

During the 18th century still life painting techniques were, from what I could find, not much changed if somewhat less sombre concerning their backgrounds, so that I omit examples from that period. A number of examples can be found on Wikimedia Commons (2016).

In the 19th century there was a side by side existence of traditional still life painting with a tendency to be more adventurous regarding both style and subject. For example, the  “Mound of Butter” by Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) (Fig. 4) has all the traditional characteristics including a dark background, a staggered arrangement, both front to back and bottom to top and a carefully balanced position of the objects, but although Vollon was a realist painter, the brushstrokes appear impressionist. Both eggs and butter might of course be interpreted as vanitas symbols.

Figure 4. Antoine Vollon: “Mound of Butter”, 1875/1885, oil on canvas. Source: Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) [Public domain] via the National Gallery of Art

In contrast to the above Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890, Netherlands) in one of his “violent” still lifes below disregarded all conventions (Fig. 5): viewpoint from above, seemingly arbirary arrangement in more or less two dimensions, light background, fierce brushstrokes draw the view towards the centre and by means of what I would call “lines of energy” back out towards the edges. Some of the fruit and leaves appear not to lie on a firm surface, so I suspect that what looks like waves may well be shallow water.

Figure 5. Vincent Van Gogh: “Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples”, 1887, oil on canvas. Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) [Public domain] via Art Institute Chicago

One of the highly productive still life painters of the 19th century leading far into the 20th century was Henri Matisse (1869-1954, France). While his approach was somewhat more traditionalist, Matisse was highly interested in including background and further surroundings in the arrangement. He played with patterns of cloth and walls and was much less interested in the realistic reproduction of natural characteristics than in expressing a feeling coming with an arrangement. In the early painting below (Fig. 6) that particular morning light (I may be wrong) comes with a wisp of summer air hovering above the arrangement with a hint of freshly made coffee. But even in this case, strangely enough, I have a feeling that someone just left the breakfast table for good, never to return.

Figure 6. Henri Matisse: “Fruit and Coffeepot”, c.1898, oil on canvas. Source: Henri Matisse (1869-1954) [Public domain] via the State Art Museum

See in comparison one of his later still lifes “Large Red Interior” (Matisse, 1948), where the play with patterns is pushed very far. I get the impression that the whole room became a pattern itself in the process. This painting could not be further from the early Dutch approach.

The same could be said of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973, Spain) and Georges Braque (1882-1963, France) during their Cubist periods. In the painting below by Georges Braque (Fig. 7), the real boundaries of objects are dissolved and rearranged in a more abstracted manner, while a three-dimensional representation was not intended. Is is rather that it was attempted to include the information taken from several viewpoints in order to create an increased density of knowledge about an object to be transported to the viewer (The Art Story, n.d.):

Figure 7. Georges Braque: “Still Life with Clarinet”, 1927, oil on canvas. Source: Georges Braque (1882-1963) [Fair Use] via Philips Collection

Today, the drawing and painting of still lifes is still considered essential in mastering all the basic techniques required of a painter. The professionally created arrangements are, however, much more adventurous, mostly less aimed at faithfully reproducing nature or exploring the characteristics of paint and light, but there to provoke unusual thought and illusions, e.g. this collection of Postmodern Still Life (Pinterest, 2016):

Finally here comes a selection from Saatchi online gallery illustrating some more of today’s diverse still life landscape. I made the choice not with favourites in mind, but to show a small potpourri of possibilities: “Still Life” (van de Lande, n.d.), “Something Like a Still Life” (Edmunds, 2015), “Still Life with Check Tablecloth” (McEwan, n.d.), “Plastic Animal Still Life with Leopard Print Cloth” (Ridley, n.d.), “21st Century Still Life” (Hinojos, n.d.), “Blue Still Life (Puyandaev, n.d.) or “Box and Nail Box Still Life Square” McHarrie (n.d.).


Braque, G. (1927) Still Life with Clarinet [oil on canvas] [online] Philips Collection, Washington, DC. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Brueghel the Younger, J. (1620s?) A Basket of Flowers [oil on wood] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Edmunds, B. (2015) Something Like a Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Hinojos, J.A. (n.d.) 21st Century Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Kalf, W. (1659) Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl [oil on canvas] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Lande, van de, P. (n.d.) Still Life [acrylic on wood] [online] [n.k.] Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Matisse, H. (c.1898) Fruit and Coffeepot [oil on canvas] [online]. State Art Museum, St Petersburg. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Matisse, H. (1948) Large Red Interior [oil on canvas] [online] Georges Pompidou Center, Paris. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

McEwan, S. (n.d.) Still Life with Check Tablecloth [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

McHarrie, S. (n.d.) Box and Nail Box Still Life Square [acrylic on wood] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Pinterest (2016) Postmodern Still Life [online]. Avaliable at: %5BAccessed 20 February 2017]

Puyandaev, V. (n.d.) Blue Still Life [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Ridley, T. (n.d.) Plastic Animal Still Life with Leopard Print Cloth [oil and MDF on wood] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Shute, N. (1957) On the Beach. Pan Books, London.

Tate (n.d.) Still life [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.) Cubism [online]. The Art Story. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Van Gogh, V. (1887) Grapes, Lemons, Pears and Apples [oil on canvas]. Art Institute Chicago. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Vollon, A. (1875/1885) Mound of Butter [oil on canvas] [online]. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Weenix, J. (1695) Gamepiece with a Dead Heron (“Falconer’s Bag”) [oil on canvas] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]

Wikimedia Commons (2016) Category:18th-century still-life paintings [online] Wikimedia Commons. Available at: [Accessed 20 February 2017]


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