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Still Life Art Explained

By Yann, published on 14/08/2018 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Drawing > What Is Still Life?

Learning more about art is not exclusively reserved for fine art students and pretentious hipsters, at least it should not be.

With hundreds of free museums and exhibition across London and throughout Britain, getting a culture shot in an air-conditioned museum might just be the perfect way to avoid the summer heatwave.

Any walks through the galleries of an art museum will be made more interesting if you know what you are looking at. Fortunately, art isn’t all that complicated even though the artsy crowds would like you to think otherwise.

In an oversimplification of things, any artwork could be divided into two categories.

The first one which we wrote about in a previous article is life art.  To put it simply it is an art also know as “figure art” and is the art form that represents the human shape in all its postures, using any drawing media possible, from canvass to woodblock and sculptures. Portraits, illustrations, medical sketches all fall under the umbrella of life art too.

The second one, which we will be focusing on in this article, is still-life art. Still-life mainly includes any artwork that does not feature the human matter (understand human model or human representation) as a subject.

This article will sum up everything you should know to understand every still-life art piece that you will encounter in museums.

Annecy Lake painting by Paul Cézanne Oil painting on canvas, “Annecy Lake” by Paul Cézanne.

The Origins Of Still Life Art

Alike life art, still life art is nothing new. It is actually very (very) old, as the first still-life painting and carvings can be traced back to Ancient Egypt.

Still-life as an art form first originated from Ancient Egyptian highly codified mortuary rituals. Egyptians at the time believed that objects represented on the walls of a tumb or inside a sarcophagus would accompany the dead in the afterlife.

They also used still-life paintings as offerings for the gods and baskets of figs, grapes, bread or meat were commonly painted on frescoes.

Greek and Romans later realised similar types of paintings though they did not associate any religious symbolism to it anymore. However, unlike Egyptian frescoes which were not using any perspective or shading, Greek and Roman started to develop a somewhat sophisticated form of still-life ar, more realistic and detailed.

Many mosaics and paintworks survived in Pompeii under the ashes that covered the town when Mount Vesuvius volcano exploded in 79AD. The scenes and objects depicted by the Roman mosaics and paintings show the importance that the Romans put on hospitality, commonly the still-life artworks that have been unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum, show offering of food and water made by the hosts to the guests.

One of the most famous artworks recovered in the ruins of Herculaneum is the Still Life with Peaches which was part of the entrance of one of the most wealthy villas of the city.


“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, the feeling for the things themselves, for reality is more important than the feeling for pictures.”

– Vincent Van Gogh, Dutch Post-Impressionist painter


Still Life Drawing

One of the foundations of still life art is still-life drawing. Most painters, sculptors and illustrators need to draw or sketch the outline of their work before being able to compose and complete their artwork.

What most people tend to overlook when starting still-life drawing is that every person used to do it as a kid. When drawing a house or a tree when you were five years old, you were actually doing still life art.

If you’re like me though you might think that you were terrible at it and that you better find another hobby. If you’re looking at becoming a proper artist, then the best solution would be to find a still-life drawing class or a tutor.

While following a formal training, you will learn how to get the proportions and perspective of your composition right and a primary task such as drawing an apple will actually require a lot of technique and skills.

The Evolution Of Still Life Arts

From Ancient times to the Renaissance

Probably because still-life art conveyed religious symbolism very early, such connotations stuck to this art form and throughout the Middle-Age, still-life representation mostly accompanied sacred Christian text and manuscripts.

One of the best examples of illuminated manuscripts featuring still-life drawing is Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Catherine of Cleves was a wealthy Duchess of what is now part of Germany.  She commisioned her book of prayers in 1430 and it took four to ten years (depending on the historical source) for the Dutch artists she had hired, to finish the book.

The artist who remained anonymous chose an unusually wide variety of subjects for the illustrations of each page. The borders of the pages have been filled with fantastic trompe l’oeil illustrations depicting nature: mussels, fruit, birds, fish and much more. The illustrator also chose to represent man crafted items such as jewellery, tiles, coins, and furniture. He also included humble class every-day occupations such as milking cows, baking bread or selling wine alongside luxurious scenes indicating that the book was destined to a noble client.

The Renaissance Movement

The Renaissance movement started in Italy in the late 13th and slowly made its way across Europe over the four hundred following years, changing European art forever.

It was only during the 16th century that the Renaissance movement fully hit the Low Lands (name of the Netherlands at the time), but it took a bit of time before the Dutch artists really made their mark on still-life art.

The religious aspect of still-life art would remain a significant influence on Rennaissance artists of the Dutch Golden Age. While Italian and French artist of the early Renaissance movement often favoured human matter subjects, some Dutch masters decided to focus their work on still-life and revived the interest for this art style.

The Dutch would develop a particular interest for Baroque still-life painting, often choosing colossal canvas depicting epic feasts usually hiding religious scenes and symbolism in the background. Dutch painters of that time were also famous for painting some fantastic landscapes, another genre of still-life.

A modern Vanitas painting. This modern version of Vanitas painting was complete in 2009 by French artist Jeylina Ever.

Vanitas still lifes were a widespread genre of Dutch still-life. Their composition often included a skull, symbol of mortality as well as rotten fruits, watch and hourglass, all reminders of the passing of time and the fleeting nature of life. Usually featuring a black background, they reminded the viewer of the certainty of death and that all the wealthy objects, lavish feasts and luxurious settings painted by the artist did not matter.

Another frequent subject for Dutch art at the time was flowers in a vase. One particular flower very commonly represented was tulips. As the Netherlands and Amsterdam became the biggest producer of the flower, an arranged bouquet of tulips was a perfectly adequate subject and was usually painted with oil on canvas.

Impressionism and Post-impressionism

Paul Cezanne's "Jugs and fuits" painting. Still Life : Jugs and Fruits is a painting by Post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne who used a classic “nature morte” subject.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the French Academy, hugely influential art institution at that time,  had declared that the subject matter of a painting was more important than the painting techniques and colour harmony used.

The human form was considered the most important and more difficult to depict and so still-life was put at the end of the Hierarchy of Subject Matter. It was not until the end of the 19th century that this point of view declined and the Impressionism movement emerged.

The movement originated in Paris during the 1860’s, under the influence of one group composed of four young artists: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. They had all met while studying for the same master painter but decided to follow the earlier influence of painters such as J.M.W. Turner or Eugene Delacroix.


If I could find anything blacker than black, I’d use it.

– J. M. W. Turner, English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist


Their style put freely brushed colours before well-defined contours and line, emphasised the play on natural lights while boldly painting shadows and paying a close attention to the reflection of light and colours from object to object.

They also used the wet paint into wait paint technique, rather than waiting for the first layer of paint to dry, which resulted in softer contours and overlapping of colours.

While they did not invent any of the painting or drawing techniques that they used, they were the first to use all of them together, giving their work a unique and original look.

Still life landscape by Paul Cezanne. Paul Cézanne used the Mont Saint Victoire as the subject of many of his painting. He declared the mountain “a beautiful motif”.


Shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.
Paul Cezanne, French artist and Post-Impressionist painter


The Post-Impressionism movement, mainly led by Paul Cezanne, was an extension and continuation of the Impressionism movement but it rejected its limitations. Post-impressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Gaughin, still used vivid colours, thick brush strokes and real-life subjects but accentuated the geometric forms, often distorting their subject to convey a message and using subjective colours.

It is from Post-Impressionism that cubism and fauvism, two other painting movement, emerged.

If you are interested in the still-life movement, you can read more about contemporary still-life here.

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