What is Still Life?
Still life is a type of art work where a random selection of objects are arranged and then drawn as they appear in front of the artist.
In Ancient Egypt paintings started to appear on the walls of the Funerary Chambers. The paintings were often images of fond items and they appeared to have no awareness of 3D drawing at that time.
In the classical era still life reached it’s height during the 3rd and 2nd Centuries B.C. in Greece consisting of wall paintings and mosaics. Greek painter Zeuxis had apparently ‘painted grapes so life like that birds came to pick at them’ (line 35-36, oxford art online, still life) The Greek artists that painted everyday items were known as ‘rhyparographio’ which means painters of vile objects. In summary, this suggests that the Greeks had understood the notion of still life far better that those who painted in Ancient Egyptian times.
Moving onto the Roman paintings, these seem to be very much inspired by Greek traditional still life art. The Roman still life paintings were realistic although there were are range of styles applied by different artists of that era. The four primary styles were as follows:
Pompeian – The is the sole found in mosaics
Hellenistic tradition – Contains mural decorations
Reductionist Reaction against realism – These paintings were minimalistic
Trompe L’oiel – This is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion and was arguably the most prolific technique of the Roman era.
The 15th Century still life paintings produced in the Christian and Byzantine ‘periods’ became strictly symbolic and decorative.
From the 14th Century leading to the 17th Century painters places their religious scenes within domestic interiors. In 1440 painters in Europe included: Konrad Witz, Stefan Lochner, Hens Multscher and more. These artists incorporated still life elements in their religious compositions.
Still life painting further developed in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th Centuries. Hans Merling painted the earliest flower painting ‘Vase with Lilies’.
This led to the flower still life paintings being produced by Jan Breughel which seemingly set the standard for this type of painting. In the 16th Century kitchen and Market Place scenes also started to appear are were notably produced by Pieter Aertsen and Juachim Beuckelaer. Ambrosius Bosschaert introduced the notion of flowers, fruit and shells into the still life paintings. In early 17th Century still life painting containing symbols of death emerged. Evaristo Baschenis painted still life pictures with musical instruments.
From the 18th century onwards trompe l’oeil became more popular. In the Netherlands asymmetrical flower pieces marked a new compositional type. Artists started to paint decorative flower still life that replaced more traditional waiting. Major painters were Jan Pieter Verdussen, Gaspar Verbruggen and Jean-Francois Van Dael. Cardin was a crucial artist in the 19th century as his work of trompe l’oeil and decorative pieces inspired so many artists.
While trompe l’oeil was disappearing in Europe it was adopted by the USA. In the 19th century art in Europe was less restricted to national boundaries. Moving on new techniques and medias made artists increasingly aware of other cultures. Artists found this very inspiring and there was very little demand for still life. Edouard Manet’s still life evokes atmosphere and abstraction.
Manet’s still life objects that defy gravity opened the way for cubists still life in the 20th century. Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir concentrated on the light, textural effects and analysing the surface of objects. Pierre Bonnard started up an unconventional use of colour using still life in his landscapes. Cozen was influenced by Manet and was focused on nature and qualities of light and volume.
In the early 20th century there ware influences from artists such as; Gogh and Fauvist artists such as Maurice de Vlaminck and Henri Matisse, who focused on rhythmical and bold application of colour. The influence from Cezanne, Seurat and Gaugin combined with African art developed into the work of Picasso and Braque. This led onto cubism still life which depict patterned objects reduced to geometric shapes, collaged techniques and different viewpoints. Surrealists painters bought together unrelated elements of realist and objects in imaginative settings. This is clear in the works of Dali and Rene Magritte.
The possibilities of still life in the 1950’s and 60’s were fully explored in the imagery of Pop Art. Pop artists extended the symbolic role of still life in contemporary art. Claes Oldenburg reduced everyday life objects to simple shapes through the use of contradictions in scale.
Jasper Johns occasionally made still life sculptures using case objects in metal and then painted them. Photorealists, super realist and hype realist experimented with light on reflective surfaces, producing dazzling displays of everyday objects.