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Still Life Painting: Yesterday and Today

Although still life art existed in ancient times, it suddenly disappeared from the canvas for a lengthy period. The “autonomous” depiction of objects, entirely without people interacting with them, only spread again during the Golden Age in the Netherlands. The genre has been of great importance since its resurgence at the end of the 16th century and continues to be seen throughout contemporary art. Join Singulart on a journey into the still life painting of yesterday and today.

The History of Still Life Art

Why still life art reappeared as an independent art genre in the second half of the 16th century is the subject of heated debate. While various theories have been proposed to explain this, the most convincing one is related to the denominational situation in the Netherlands.

From 1550 onwards, Calvinist-Reformation movements permeated the Netherlands, which was then occupied by the Catholic Habsburgs. Through uprisings and the destruction of images, the reformers made it clear that they rejected the iconography in the church interior.

Ikonoklasmus Niederlande
Frans Hogenberg, iconoclasm, 1566, copperplate engraving, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

During the 80 Years War, the reformed northern provinces fought for independence from the Spanish crown, which is roughly the territory of what is now the Netherlands. The southern provinces, today’s Belgium and Luxembourg, remained under Spanish Catholic rule. Due to the rejection of religious images under the Reformers, the artists were initially deprived of their livelihood as they pondered what to paint instead.

The bourgeoisie, rising under Protestantism, formulated new demands on paintings and became interested in other forms of painting. The burgeoning genre of still life painting conveyed the great self-confidence of the new upper class on the one hand, but also moral messages, such as awareness of transience and hidden religious symbols. This was done by using very valuable objects and exotic fruits as the focus of the painting, with all objects possessing a meaning that the viewer had to decipher.

Stillleben Pieter Aertsen
One of the earliest “autonomous” still lifes by the Amsterdam painter Pieter Aertsen from 1551.

Still life painting today

Detached from the historical confessional disputes, the still life has not lost its relevance for today’s artists and collectors. We would like to show you how contemporary artists interpret this genre by means of a few selected artists at Singulart.

Using the old masters as inspiration

Some contemporary still life works refer decidedly to their historical predecessors, showing the same objects and reproducing their arrangements and image details. A close study of the old masters, as well as the inclusion of historical objects and fabrics, proves a solid foundation for these works. A fine example of this are the historicizing still life pieces of Sergey Teplyakov. With his detailed paintings, he leads us back to the 17th century.

Still life Teplyakov
On the left, a still life of the painter Pieters Claesz from about 1635. On the right, a still life by our artist Sergey Teplyakov from 2017.

Optic Phenomena

Other contemporary artists, however, place more emphasis on optical phenomena in their still lifes. Chli Massaro‘s work functions almost as a scientific study by showing us the optical distortion of two objects created by the glass in front of them. The meticulous study of this arrangement was indispensable to completing this piece.

Still Life Chli Massaro
Instantané 3 (2016), Chli Massaro, Belgium

Distortion of Reality

A still life does not necessarily mean a detailed representation of the objects. The distortion of reality is impressively demonstrated by Grigori Dor. The stacked objects seem to defy the laws of gravity: The budgie seems to float, the skull bone of a cow is balancing on a flower, and beneath all this, a pink mass seems to melt away. The only optical support is provided by the spatially indicated corner of the room. By using these abstract forms behind the still life, Dor intensifies this crazy visual experience.

Still Life Gregori Dor
Still Life With A Lovebird (2016), Grigori Dor, Germany

Would you like to drift even further into the world of still life painting? Then take a look at our collection of still lifes on Singulart.