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Still life in the history of art? It is quite easy to ignore still life paintings when walking through the halls of a museum or art gallery. Compared to a Turner storm or a Bacon portrait or a contemporary art installation, for some of us it makes no sense to stop in front of a series of Morandi bottles. In fact, many still life paintings seem either not realistic enough or on the contrary almost too real and a bit boring so it’s better to look at a photograph! But there’s a lot more to that, of course. My name is Clelia and today we rediscover the importance of the theme of still life in the history of art. 

Still life in the history of art – The importance

Let’s dispel the myth immediately and understand together why still lifes have always been a recurring theme and why they are so interesting even for many contemporary artists today. The things we own – the clothes we wear, the objects on our desks or furniture – tell our story. They tell who we are, what we like and sometimes even where we come from. Therefore, the artists who create still lifes create worlds that are also a portrait of a company or an individual. And they do this by inserting clues into their compositions about their life and that of all of us. 

Still life in art – The subjects

In the history of art, however, sometimes these imaginary worlds told through still life have been created thanks to illusions. I’ll explain! The most common subjects in still lifes have always been flowers and fruit. Many works from 500-600 onwards show us, for example, the same fruit in different phases of its life or show us different flowers of different seasons within the same work.

Flowers and fruit in art in still lifes

This happens for two kinds of reasons. On the one hand, there are artists, in fact, who are known to sometimes take a whole year to create a still life that is quite rich in all the elements they wanted. And they also took them from different seasons, to create a real impossible collection. On the other hand, it is known that in full 600 this theme is so widespread that due to the demand on the market for still lifes, many artists accelerate the production using sketches and drawings from the repertoire and then inserting elements from different times of the year. 

Still life in art – Modern art

But whether they are still lifes made in the middle of the seventeenth century or three days ago, even if at times they may seem boring in some ways, in reality they are telling us a lot, just look closely. In full modern art, each object within a still life had its own specific meaning. Grapes are a sign of fertility or, as a source of wine, a symbol of the blood of Christ. Peaches indicate fertility, while lemons indicate fidelity. According to a Christian tradition, figs and apples suggest one temptation and the other modesty. That said, however, sometimes a walnut is really a walnut, and there is no symbolism other than the painter’s desire to show his skills in representing it.

The theme of death in the still life of art

There is also a particular type of still life, called Vanitas, very common between 500 and 600 and which tells us about one of the greatest fears of man: death. The subjects of these still lifes are in fact often fragile objects, such as glass for example. I’ll tell you about a work in particular that contains many: the Vanitas by Maria van Oosterwijck a Dutch artist. His purpose is precisely to tell the fragility of life so he inserts a skull, an hourglass, some withered flowers and a butterfly which is a symbol of both the brevity of life. If you are curious, however, there are also other typical elements in the vanitas and they are a candle, or a decomposed fruit even with insects and finally sometimes a stringed musical instrument that reminds us how fast our life passes. 

Still lifes in art – Caravaggio’s Basket

One of the most famous still lifes in the history of art and which has typical elements of Vanitas is certainly Caravaggio’s Fruit Basket. In this fruit basket he puts together apples, grapes, figs, a quince and peaches. All summer fruit in a wicker basket. According to some art historians, it is an image full of hidden meanings but the most interesting thing in my opinion is that almost every element of the basket has a deformation or a form of decomposition. So at first glance it looks almost perfect but if you look closely you can see dry leaves or holes on the apple. However, Caravaggio and some of his contemporaries are often credited with having brought this kind of painting back into fashion. 

Still life in the history of art – The origins

In reality, the origins of still life are much older. In a certain sense, in fact, it is among the most ancient forms of painting. The earliest known still life painting is created by the Egyptians in the 15th century BC These are funerary paintings of food in the tomb of Menna with many detailed daily life scenes including crops, fish and meat which in theory would have served the deceased as a supply in the beyond.

At a later time, Greeks and Romans also decorated their homes with fairly realistic paintings of fruit and wine. For example, the Still Life with a glass bowl of fruit and vases, a 1st century wall painting found thanks to the excavations of Pompeii. 

Still life in the history of art – from Christianity to the 18th century

With the rise of Christianity, Western artists move away from still life. The role of the artist in fact in this period is to create scenes from the Bible. If there is any fruit it is the apple of Eve or the pomegranate as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. Among other things, still life in the middle of the Renaissance is considered to be at the lowest rung in the hierarchy of themes in painting. However, something changes with Protestantism. 

Painters in Protestant countries, particularly the Dutch, are beginning to represent many more profane than sacred themes. And the primacy over still life definitely goes to them. Although there are a couple of exceptions in my opinion wonderful and they are the works of Zurbaran in Spain in the middle of the 17th century, the golden century of Spanish art. Instead, in the 1700s the works of the artist Chardin in France. 

Still life in the history of art – ‘800 until today

In any case, to be honest, however much it can spread, still life remains a less interesting genre for many artists, certainly throughout the 19th century. Until Cezanne arrives and revolutionizes it. In fact, his works play on perspective and vision from different points of view. What then will please Braque and Picasso very much. And sometimes Cezanne also inserts elements of the Vanitas such as the skull. 

Van Gogh and still life

Another great artist thanks to whom this theme is revolutionized is Van Gogh. If I tell you still life you will obviously immediately think of his vase of sunflowers, made up of flowers in different phases of their life. Instead the revolution takes place elsewhere, in two works that I have already told you about on the channel in a dedicated video. The chairs of Van Gogh and Gauguin. In both cases, in fact, Van Gogh tells us through objects not only the personal characteristics of the two painters, but also their way of seeing life and art. 

Still life in contemporary art

And precisely because of this ability to tell us about life and our society, still life today is a fairly common theme in super contemporary art. Some examples are the colorful works of Anna Valdez rich in all the elements that we could find in our homes: books, plant pots, carpets.

Or the pseudo photomontages by Daniel Gordon, who reconstructs compositions found online at home, photographs them and recreates them digitally by superimposing digital and photography and creating a mix of the two. Then returning to the theme of vanitas and almost the macabre there are the works of Arden Surdam. Or fantastic ceramic reconstructions of Asian foods and bottles by artist Stephanie H. Shih.

Or in the form of a fabric sculpture the works of the Brazilian artist Maria Nepomuceno, who seems to represent forms of nature but in reality recreates forms of her own body. And finally on the contrary, very delicate but strong in terms of theme because they take up the concept of human frailty are the works of the English artist Isaac Julien. 

Still life in the history of art – Conclusions

These are all examples of how in history and even today still life painting encourages us to examine in depth our fears, our frailties and the objects that surround us and are part of our daily life. . And in my opinion these are much less boring themes when we go through the museums and galleries of so many other genres of art history. 

And if you liked this post, take a look at my YouTube channel to not miss the next videos related to art, travel and the market. Also I recommend you take a look at my post on Van Gogh’s chair and the one on 9 reasons to study art history

Thanks and see you next time! 

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