A still life is a work of art whose subject matter is inanimate, typically artfully-arranged everyday objects like food, flowers, books, jewlery, plants and even dead animals. Still life art dates as far back as the Middle Ages and the Greco-Roman era. However, the most famous still life paintings emerged in Western painting during the late 16th century. The genre peaked with Netherlandish painting during the 16th and 17th centuries. In fact, the English term still life derives from the Dutch word ‘stilleven’.
The still-life genre allows an artist the freedom to experiment with composition or the arrangement of elements within a single painting. Complimentary objects can be arranged in pleasing harmony or dissonant objects can converge to produce contrast. Different objects can stand as symbols or references to various academic disciplines, politics, or stories. In this article, Singulart takes a look at some of the most interesting and famous still life paintings from art history.
A Table of Desserts by Jan Davidz de Heem
This famous still life painting by Dutch painter Jan Davidz de Heem is a striking synthesis of characteristic Dutch precision and Flemish Baroque style. The elaborate still life of a lavish meal was highly fashionable at the time of its creation. The table in question is decorated with fine glassware and dishes, a large assortment of foods and even a half-eaten pie. Leaning against the laden table we see a lute and a recorder, obvious signs of festivity and celebration. While the objects in the painting may look randomly assembled, De Heem gave careful consideration to their arrangement. The edible objects represent the pleasures of the senses while the small blue watch on the edge of the table is an reminder of time’s fleetingness and a call to monitor one’s consumption.
Still Life with Fruits in Porcelain, Jacob Van Es
In 1630, Jacob Van Es painted one of the oldest and most famous still life paintings: Fruits in porcelain. The painting showcases Van Es’ mastery of light. Note the rendition of light upon the semi-translucent grapes and the clear distinction between foreground and background through the use of shadow. As with A Table of Desserts, art historians have assigned various meanings to the items present on the table. One such interpretation posits that the red fruit in the small bowl in the bottom right corner of the frame symbolize sensuality and erotic love. Meanwhile the yellow and plums could represent foolishness or fidelity.
La Raie, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin
Parisian painter and academic, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin is probably best known for his painting La Raie, a famous still life oil painting on canvas, made in 1728 and subsequently exhibited at the Louvre. Copied by Cézanne and Matisse, it has been admired by many prominent French artists over the years including Diderot who questioned his view on the “saving the disgust of certain natures by talent” in other words, how to make beautiful what is not more than ordinary.
Still Life with Skull, Paul Cézanne
Exaggerated volumes, colors and dimensions, both empty and full, are omnipresent in this vanitas still life by Cézanne. It was in 1898 that the impressionist painted Still Life with Skull, one of his most famous works to date. The painting is in direct contrast to the other famous still life paintings explored in this article. Cézanne’s style is impressionist thus decidedly less realistic than the work of Van Es or de Heem. More importantly, Cézanne’s subject matter directly contrasts with the Flemish painter’s symbols of sensory pleasure. Cézanne’s vanitas painting is meant to remind the viewer of death and the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures.
Still Life with Clarinet, Georges Braques
Though often overshadowed by his friend Picasso, Georges Braques was a pioneer of the Cubism movement. Braques produced many famous still life paintings which often feature musical instruments such as the above completed in 1927. A true Cubist painting, Still Life with Clarinet appropriates the traditional theme of the still life while rendering its subject matter in a semi-abstract form, bringing the still life into the 20th century.