Representing mundane objects such as bowls, flowers, foodstuffs, and other things found in a common household, was and still is the main preoccupation of still life artists. However, the means, styles, and media in which still life art can be represented vary significantly.
In the early 17th century still life became an independent genre in art, but it was considered less important than historical and allegorical representations of the period. Appearing as an independent genre around Europe in the same years, it is impossible to discern who first developed and practiced still life art in painting. The still life genre’s beginnings can be traced in pictorial traditions around Europe, including Flemish Marian paintings created in the fifteenth century, Italian meat-stall images, and Spanish bodegas. Jean-Baptiste Chardin in the 18th century continued to develop still life painting following the success of Flemish still life artists. He deployed either Dutch-style realism or softer harmonies in his creations and created some of the most famous still life paintings. With the development of art academies around Europe that propagated the hierarchy of genres, still life slowly fell behind and was less practiced than other genre forms. However, as Neo-classicism started to fade with the rise of Romanticism and Realism, still life again became an important theme among the artists such as Francisco Goya, Gustave Courbet, and Eugène Delacroix. The next stage in the development of still life came with Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and dominance of color and light over theme.
In the 20th century still life was considered a theme in art abreast with others. The development of still life art closely followed the stylistic changes of the period, from Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, to Pop Art and Photorealism. Still life objects even transgressed the frame of the traditional medium of painting and entered the art scene as art objects through ready-mades and installations where instead of being represented, they became artworks themselves, as in Arman’s and Judy Chicago’s works.
Editors’ Tip: Nature Morte: Contemporary Artists Reinvigorate the Still-Life Tradition
Leading artists of contemporary time are reviving the still life, a genre that once was more associated with the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Old Masters than with contemporary art. The audacious still lifes celebrated here challenge that historical supremacy and redefine what it means to be a work of nature morte (literally translated from the French: “dead nature”). Whether through painting, drawing, sculpture, video, or other media, contemporary artists have drawn on the centuries-old tradition to create works of conceptual vivacity, beauty, and emotional poignancy in the present time. Structured according to the classical categories of the still-life tradition - Flora, Food, House and Home, Fauna, and Death, each chapter in Michael Petry’s book explores how the timeless symbolic resonance of the memento mori, has been rediscovered for a new millennium.
Paul Cézanne is considered a precursor of Cubism and Modernism in general. His analytical approach to form, lines and color often led him to create his images from fragmentary brushstrokes that will be further exploited by Cubists. In his still life paintings fruits, pitchers, and bottles are laid on corrugated tablecloths and often situated to resemble being one above the other. Instead of creating a realist effect through the illusion of depth, Cézanne experimented with painterly elements. Thus, it comes as no surprise that he was called “the father of us all” by many modernists.
Featured image: Paul Cézanne - Still Life with Skull, 1895-1900. Image via www.ibiblio.org
More than just a leader of Fauvist movement with André Derain, Henri Matisse is considered one of the key figures of the 20th century Modernism. Still Life with a Pewter Jug and Pink Statuette is from his Fauvist period where bright colors and linear style create a dynamic composition featuring one of the artist’s sculptures. Created in a rented house at Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris, the painting shows the wall of his studio, which will appear in numerous paintings from this period. Fauvism gave primacy to expression and color over realistic renderings of the world, and in Matisse’s still lifes such tendency is evident. Colors usually do not correspond with the factual situation, which makes his still life paintings among the first modernist ones of the 20th century.
Featured image: Henri Matisse - Still Life with a Pewter Jug and Pink Statuette, 1910. Image via art-matisse.com
Continuing and deepening Cézanne’s experimentation with painterly elements, Georges Braque created some of his famous still life paintings in the Cubist style, fragmenting objects in the paintings and presenting their different angles all at once. Although he started out as a Fauvist, after meeting with Pablo Picasso he soon changed his style and adopted Cubism as his main mode of expression. During his career he created numerous paintings depicting mundane subjects, and was often using collage technique in his creations.
Featured image: Georges Braque - Still Life with a Bunch of Grapes, 1912. Image via wikiart.org
Perhaps the most famous still life artist of the 20th century, Giorgio Morandi primarily focused on representations of vases, flowers, bowls, and bottles. His style moved from more Metaphsycial renderings, to a very subtle use of color which was often reduced to several gradations of hue and tone. Due to his limited palette and minimalist expression, he is considered a prescient of Minimal Art.
Featured image: Giorgio Morandi - Still Life, 1955. Image via arthistoryproject.com
Pop Art is definitely a high art movement where mundane stuff got the unprecedented prominence. One of the representatives of the movement, Roy Lichtenstein, created some of the most striking examples of the type. Famous for his use of dots and comic book excerpts, Lichtenstein adopted the same approach in his still lifes.
Featured image: Roy Lichtenstein - Still Life. Image via keyword-suggestions.com
Armand Fernandez, or just Arman, is a French artist who started out as a painter using traces of ink and paint left by different objects on his works, to later transfer his interest from painterly effects to the objects themselves. A member of Nouveau réalisme, Arman is best known for his Accumulations - polyester castings filled with different found stuff, from cutlery, shoes, and clocks, to perfume bottles and even gas masks. Accumulations resemble traditional still life paintings with a difference that found stuff here is not represented but literary present in its plastic cage.
Featured image: Arman -Athérosclérose, 1961. Image via italy24.ilsole24ore.com
Deemed as a mother of American Modernism, Georgia O'Keeffe is known for her paintings of flowers and landscapes. O’Keeffe’s painted subjects, motifs, and forms changed with the influence of European Modernism. Although many connected her depictions of iris flower with vulva, she rejected such Freudian interpretations. However, this did not preclude other feminist artists to refer to her as their influence, and even Judy Chicago dedicated a place of her on her Dinner Party piece. Apart from flowers, Georgia O'Keeffe also painted a variety of subjects such as skulls, fruit, and a dead rabbit in her famous still life paintings.
Featured image: Georgia O'Keeffe - Oriental Poppies, 1927. Image via theredlist.com
One of the representatives of Leningrad school of painting and Meritorious Artist of the Soviet Union, Maya Kopitseva is famous for her still life art where she was inspired by colors and textures of fruits, dishes and other objects found in a kitchen. As one of the most famous still life artists, she created expressive color renderings of these objects where play with complementary and contrasting colors is given dominance over the subject.
Featured image: Maya Kopitseva - Still Life with Bananas, 1975. Image via commons.wikimedia.org
Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is considered one of the most significant works of 20th century art. Although it is not made in traditional technique for the genre, this installation refers to both tradition of still life paintings and more importantly to the historical marginalization of women. Table is set for 39 famous women, and each place-setting has a unique hand - painted china plate based on vulvar and butterfly forms, embroidered runners, gold chalice and utensils. The aim of this exceptional still life installation is, in Chicago’s words, to "end the ongoing cycle of omission in which women were written out of the historical record."
Featured image: Judy Chicago - The Dinner Party, 1979. Image via nyclovesnyc.blogspot.rs
Born in 1931 in New York City, Audrey Flack’s adulthood was defined by Civil Rights Movements and Second-wave feminism. Her painterly work reflects on these social conditions. Her still life paintings include depictions of jewelry, perfume bottles, lipstick tubes and other paraphernalia of femininity. Done in Photorealist style, these paintings still provoke debates of whether she represented femininity, if these works show feminist stance, or both at the same instance.
Featured image: Andrey Flack - Jolie Madame, 1973. Image via bookslut.com