When you begin studying fine arts and start practising drawing, painting, sculpture, photography or filmmaking, two different form of art often oppose themselves in every artist’s portfolio. Life art and still-life art.
Whereas the means, medium, and drawing techniques used to create both genres are often the same, the subject is what differs.
In this article, we will guide you through still-life art, its meaning, origins and the most prominent artists and artistic movements of still-life art.
Still Life art is the depiction of humans, man and women, children and adults, any artwork that represents the human shape could be classified in the life art category.
In opposition, still-life represents just about everything else. Objects, landscapes or food depiction could be classified as still-life art. Still-life has long been mainly focused on every-day objects and food items, but as art evolved so did still-life.
Still-life was once ranked by the French Academy of Arts as the lowest art form of all just because it did not involve human subjects. This type of art often carried a more complex and hidden meaning that life art, as every object that was represented on a painting would have its own signification.
However, the skills required to paint either life or still-life have proven with time to be very similar. The rendering of textures, contrast and shading, the use of natural light and shadow and the compositional drawing skills necessary to either compose a painting of a tabletop with a bowl of fruit are the same you would need to paint a nude model during a life drawing class.
Today still-life art can be done through most media such as drawing, painting, sculpting, photography or video and yourself are taking still-life photos every time you Snapchat a landscape or sunrise over the horizon.
Paul Cézanne used the Mont Saint Victoire as the subject of many of his painting. He declared the mountain “a beautiful motif”.
The earliest still-life artists we know and celebrate today date back to the 16th and seventeenth century when Dutch painters started to bring back still-life art back on the forefront of the art scene.
One of such artists was Frans Snyders, a Flemish painter whose work often focused on drawing and painting flower arrangement, market scenes and still-lifes. In fact, he was one of the first known “animalier” or animal painter who mastered the art of representing animals, alive or dead, with extraordinary precision and realism.
Snyders was so talented that other artists, often more famous than him, but who specialised in life art paintings, would sub-contracts parts of their painting to him. Usually, a piece of large artwork, those parts of painting would depict animal, flowers or inanimate objects. These collaborations with Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens and more explain why Snyders have been credited with so many life paintings.
Later famous still-life artists included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso who were often named as the leader of modern art in Europe. Painting still-life art became popular again in Europe at the end of the 19th century with the rise of Impressionism and Post–impressionism and artists such as Claude Monnet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh.
Later on, still life would be a massive part of the Pop Art movement that was born in the U.K. in the 1950’s. This art movement often used mass-produced items, movies, science fiction and technology in their work. The Campbell Soup Cans paintings by Andy Warhol are probably the most famous Pop-art still-life artwork.
“An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythm, by efforts that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.”
– Henri Matisse, French painter and sculptor
The history of still life can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt where paintings of everyday food and objects painted inside tombs were believed to accompany the dead into the afterlife. The dead would be able to use these objects and eat the food painted or carved inside their sarcophagus.
Still-life art was also popular in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome where this art genre was often used in mosaic and painting in wealthy villas. The bowl of fruits, an item that would become so popular in painting centuries later, was often depicted in this still-life paintings.
The Hours Of Catherine of Cleves, illuminated by a Ducth artist between 1430 and 1440, it features many still-life illustrations.
Later on, during the entire Middle-Age period, still life art would mainly be reserved for religious drawings and paintings. The only guardians of what was the culture at the time were the monks and religious scholars who would copy manuscripts and religious texts.
These illuminated manuscripts often included seashells, coins or fruits on the side of the text, all of which had an allegorical and symbolic meaning.
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.
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 but were used by artists to represent beautiful objects.
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.
However, 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 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.
Forwarding to modern times, the Pop Art movement emerged in the U.K. at the beginning of the 1950’s and was led by the influence of the Independent Group (IG), founded in 1952 in London. This collective of artists included painters, photographers, sculptors who popularised collage as a legitimate art media.
At the time they mainly used popular culture items such as mass-advertisements, comics or science fiction to produce artwork that would be at the forefront of modernism and which would start a debate about mass-culture vs high-culture.
“My struggle has been to return painting to the tangible object, which is like returning the personality to touching and feeling the world around it, to offset the tendency to vagueness and abstraction. To remind people of practical activity, to suggest the sense and not to escape from the senses.”
– Claes Oldenburg, American sculptor
The Sunflowers paintings were part of a series by Dutch born artist Vincent Van Gogh. Some of the painting of this series have been amongst the most expensive artwork ever sold one. The most expensive piece of the series, “Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers” sold at US $39,921,750 during an auction at Christie’s London
Modern still life is hard to define with strict dates. Most scholars would consider Henri Matisse, the famous French painter and sculptor as one of the leaders of the Modernism movement. However, all of his relevant works date from the first half of the 20th century.
As technology evolved so did art. At the end of the 19th century, photography had made substantial technical progress and was gaining in popularity with the masses. A painting was expensive; you had to pose for hours if not days and decent canvass were most likely to be impractical for more modest families. Whereas a photograph only took minutes, was getting cheaper and cheaper and could be kept on you at all times.
When painters such as Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin started the Impressionist movement in Paris in the 1860’s, photography that has become more and more popular and accessible, influenced their work.
They wanted to show that painters were capable of capturing the fleeting moments of ordinary people’s lives and nature in the same realistic fashion than any photographic apparatus. Impressionists painters were the first to leave the safety of their studios and go outside, facing nature to capture its ephemerality in beautiful still-life drawings and paintings.
Even though William Turner, one of the most famous English painter, belonged to the Romantic movement, his works depicting landscapes, which was highly criticised by some and applauded by others, was a great source of inspiration for many artists of the impressionist movement.
In more recent years, Georgia O’Keefe’s work laid the foundation of American Modernism with her New York’s skyscrapers cityscape and New Mexico landscape paintings. Her large-scale paintings representing close up flowers is some of the best examples of modern still-life artwork.
O’Keefe’s legacy on the American art scene is undeniable, and only a few years after moving to New York in 1918, she became the highest paid American woman artist, paving the way for many others.
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
– Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter
This still-life painting by Georgia O’Keeffe represents the University of Virginia’s Rotunda and was painted between 1912 and 1914.
From its dark and blurry infancy at the end of the 17th century to its popularisation in the middle of the 18th century, photography evolved drastically to become an art form accessible to the masses.
At the beginning photographers would use photography to realise portraiture work, falling into the life art category. When the cameras evolved to become more sensitive to light, and when colours where introduce by the Lumiere brothers at the end of the 18th century, it was not long before artists realised that photography has so much more potential than just taking pictures of portrait and family photos.
Philip Henry Delamotte is probably one of the best known early still life photographer and became famous in 1854 for a series of pictures of Crystal Palace in London.
Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, all American and all photographers were the pioneer artists who help to establish photography as an acceptable art form.
During his more than 50-year career, Alfred Stieglitz constantly worked towards promoting photography as an art. From his humble beginnings managing the Photochrome Engraving Company a small photography business in 1891, to managing one of the most prominent photography galleries of New York City in 1929, Stieglitz well deserved the title of “godfather of modern photography“.
His work was a mix of still-life and life art, photographing both landscapes, streets and cities but also taking many portraits, including of his muse and lover, Georgia O’Keefe.
Both Paul Strand and Edward Weston were greatly influenced by the work of Stieglitz who also promoted their work through his 291 art gallery exhibition and his Camera Work magazine.
With the advance of technology and the advent of the Abstract art movement, still-life artwork followed many parallel roads.
In the early 1950’s the proto-Pop Art movement, followed soon after by the Pop Art movement would redefine the meaning of still life art.
Artists such as Andy Warhol, used prints on canvass as a media stuck between painting and photography.
Still Life With Stone and Car : for the 2004 Biennial of Sydney, Arkansas-born Berlin-based artist Jimmie Durham created this installation from a 1999 Ford Festiva hatchback purchased in Homebush, and a two-tonne quartz boulder from a Central Coast quarry – painted with a face.
Some contemporary artist took life-still art one step further in exhibiting massive artwork installations. Such a setup was created by epic feminist artist Judy Chicago in 1979. Titled The Dinner Party, the masterpiece consisted of a triangular table of nearly 15 meters on each side. Each side was laid down with 13 settings and each set included on the table, a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and a chalice along with a golden embroidered napkin.
This massive installation, which took more than six years and a quarter million dollars to complete was made to honour women of importance throughout history. Each seat was dedicated to a different woman, her name embroidered into the tablecloth. Each side of the table corresponded to a different period of history.
Still-life art had long been only represented through two-dimensional artwork, paintings, drawings or photography. Such visually impactful, three-dimensional installation allowed to immerse the viewer into the still-life art piece and bring a much more reflective approach than classical still-life drawing.
Today almost everyone possesses a smartphone and food photography is all over Instagram but what most people do not realise is that every juicy burger they photographed, and all the latte shots they post on social media, it is another picture added to the still life images stock.