There is a BBC Arts documentary, Apples Pears and Paint, which looks at the history of still life painting from Xenia murals to Picasso; it’s quite informative, but left me wanting to explore the subject a bit more deeply. I downloaded a book on the same topic, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson, and read it cover to cover. The documentary film appeared to be largely based on this collection of essays – much of the reference and analysis in it was identical. The book was much more in depth though, and of course it’s so much easier to re-read passages and take notes as you read.
My jottings are below, together with a mind map I made as I went along, to help me better absorb the main points.
One of the headline points that came out of this was that the genre of still life has had different content, approaches, purposes and meanings in its history, and hasn’t been simply a continuum of development. The purpose of still life has ranged from the depiction of the abundance of nature and hospitality – of religious symbolism – conveying purity, simplicity and asceticism – incorporating still life as one element in paintings – demonstrating affluence – decoration and a sign of prestige – moral edification – the celebration of the beauty of ordinary things – describing the way we perceive form and light – commenting on contemporary life.
The course research point has singled out one of the major and rather interesting manifestations of still life, that of the 17th century Dutch still life and flower painters, for special research. While some were exceptional, in general the genre catered to a mass market on an industrial scale, using mass production techniques, much as is done today in China. The market was the newly affluent merchant class of the richest nation on earth – everyone wanted to decorate their home and display their wealth. The style of painting is generally a hyper-realistic and detailed depiction of objects. The imaginary element of some of these paintings is sometimes astonishing. Objects are brought together in a way that would be impossible in real life then – rare and exotic fresh flowers and live insects from the four corners of the globe. Great heaps of produce are arranged in uninhibited displays of outrageous affluence . Objects are pushed over in disarray, reckless consumption, dissolution, disorder and ruin. Objects are used to convey a message of mortality and the transience of life and wealth.
In amongst this commercial outpouring of still life painting there were some extraordinary painters. Rembrandt was the top of the heap, of course! I looked especially at Still Life with Peacocks, 1639.
Zooming in, you can see thick layers of white highlights perfectly describing the texture of the peacock feathers, the lace collar of the girl and other highlights, while the background appears to be composed of smooth glazes. I read about oil painting in layers and alla prima, or direct painting in a course book as well as several web sites (see References below).
As well as using the Flemish and Venetian techniques (building a painting up in several layers of glazing, semi-glazing and scumbling), R also employed the direct technique. He built his paint up into a thick impasto, seemed to revel in its physical qualities, using hands, fingers and painting knives to achieve his effects. In R’s The Slaughtered Ox, 1655 the whole painting appears to have been done alla prima, with possibly just a rough underpainting. The effect is very impressionistic.
Rachel Ruysch’s flower pictures have great decorative appeal; they are highly realistically painted and sharply detailed. Like others of the time, she would have worked up her end result to a photographic finish through a number of layers of transparent paint, or glazes. Using glazes for shadows and darks, and opaque highlights, known as the Flemish Method. A typical painting is A Carnation Morning Glory with Other Flowers, 1695. The bouquet is dramatically lit against the background, with a setting (shelf or tabletop) suggested. Her colours and textures are bold and somewhat exotic looking, and there is a meticulous attention to detail, in the leaves as much as in the flowers. In the foreground is a gorgeously coloured butterfly. The composition is open and diagonal, asymmetrical, lively and freer than the more symmetrical arrangements of the time. The curving stems reach into the air and drop over the edge of the table. There is a kind of energy and spontaneity about her work that I admire.
The symbols used in paintings and their significance was a preoccupation of 17th century Dutch still life artists. The meanings often related to the transience of life, wealth and all earthly things; the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. Perhaps there was a certain degree of guilt prevalent in the Dutch culture of the day which was so materialistic – as there is in our modern Western culture. Some of the usual objects and their meanings include – skulls – death; rotten fruit – decay; watches – the brevity of life; musical instruments, butterflies – the ephemeral nature of life. My favourite is Vanitas Self Portrait with Still Life, 1628 by Pieter Claesz – I’m drawn to his work for its oasis of calm and somberness achieved with a nearly monochrome palette, and natural-looking compositions) among the display of spectacle of others.
The bubble symbolises the brevity of life and the suddenness of life. There is also a key, a feather, a broken walnut, books (all of human knowledge a mere indulgence), an overturned glass – all these objects would have had their specific meanings designed to convey a moralistic message. The reflection of the artist in his studio inside the bubble seems to me to convey a sense of the wonder of the world, an antidote to the pervading gloominess.
The 18c painter of still life who stands out above all others for me is Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. He adopts the conventions of 17c.still life, but adapts them to his own vision and his own cultural background. His vision seems to be worlds apart from that of the 17c. Dutch – while Chardin paints the ordinary, the Dutch painted the extraordinary – the Dutch paintings set out to impress the viewer with spectacular displays of luxury, power and wealth, Chardin celebrates the beauty of simple, disregarded things. His compositions seem natural, just as the objects were found, compared to the calculated staging of the Dutch paintings. The latter are brilliantly focused, hyper-real; Chardin has some points in his compositions almost out of focus compared to others, just as the eye might see it as it travels across the scene from place to place. For this reason, I think, Chardin’s paintings are more relaxing and pleasurable to look at – they are not intensely demanding – the eye is at home among the familiar. The early Chardin still lifes I saw recently in Madrid have all these qualities. In Still Life with Cat and Fish, 1728 and Still Life with Cat and Rayfish, 1725 the tranquility is interrupted by live animals. They are richly coloured (you can see a great range of colours in the fur and scales) and thickly, but delicately painted. Still Life with Pestle and Mortar, Pitcher and Copper Cauldron, 1728 is rather austere; the objects are made of rustic materials, the produce is simple. The colours he used produced subtle but important distinctions between the whites of the cloth, the onion skins and the eggs. ‘If we compare this work with others of the same period in which the cooking implements and the foodstuffs are more abundant, it is possible to appreciate Chardin’s outstanding ability to create compositions filled with charm and life through the use of a limited range of modest elements.’ (www.museothyssen.org)
At the beginning of the 19c. still life fell from favour to the lowest order of painting. But as classicism declined, many great artists – Goya, Courbet, Delacroix – started to include still life in their work. Like Chardin they were creating an atmosphere and a mood than painting sharp focus and realistic detail. Manet’s still lifes are more impressionistic. Monet and Renoir broke with the tradition of the dark ground. Subject matter became secondary to technique and colour harmony. Detailed work was out in favour of a broad brush dabbing approach.. Allegorical content disappeared. Everything, including the use of colour, viewpoint and perspective, was fair game for experimentation. The century culminated with masterpieces like Van Gogh’s sunflowers and irises and Cezanne’s Still Life with Cherub.
The 20c. was all about artistic ferment and revolution as opposed to mere experimentation. Matisse reduced still life objects to bright colours with bold, flat outlines, simplifying perspective and giving as much prominence in his compositions to background multi-coloured pattern. I think playing with colour, focus and perspective, done with intent, adds an enormous interest to viewing a painting. As the viewer you can interpret, fill in, translate what you see – or you can simply revel in the childlike quality of the image compared to the deadly serious Dutch paintings where all is presented to you, with no ambiguity. For a painter it opens up worlds of possibilities and removes the drudgery of painting with brilliant and drilling clarity.
In Cezanne’s still life paintings, subject matter and its arrangement , the function of the scene, seem irrelevant, there to simply providing a compositional structure. Still Life with Apples is about is the interplay between colours, shapes and lines, not the fruit or the table or the setting. Every dab of paint is visible, forms and surfaces boldly outlined. You can see all the preliminary lines too, they aren’t concealed. You can almost imagine Cezanne actually painting the canvas, you can see what he’s done, it’s not blended and smoothed. He dramatizes his subject to present us with great art. The image is remarkable, while the reality was simple and unassuming. Unlike Chardin, Cezanne is primarily concerned with painting and its techniques, not with the physical reality of the objects he is painting.
Cubism followed Cezanne and developed from his approach to representation, in which he reduced three dimensional forms to geometric shapes. The favourite motifs of Picasso and Braque were still lifes with musical instruments, bottles, pitchers, glasses, newspapers, playing cards. They analysed these and rearranged their forms into overlapping monochromatic planes and facets, sometimes combining them with letters (Picasso’s Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911).
Picasso experimented with pasting pieces of paper into his compositions so that objects can be identified by association rather than any representational evocation. A simple case in point is Bottle and Wineglass on a Table, 1912, an elegant Picasso in charcoal, ink, graphite and pasted newspaper, where the objects are outlined and depicted from various angles, showing different views simultaneously. A piece of cut newspaper is pasted into the composition, representing part of an object, and at the same time commenting, by his choice of text, on contemporary concerns.
The new visual language was adopted and developed by many painters. Juan Gris painted colourful cubist still lifes like Violin and Playing Cards, 1913.
Contemporary still life – here are some examples of still life art I’ve come across during my reading and research for this post. The possibilities for still life work in two and three dimensions today are exciting as new approaches are discovered.
Mat Collishaw – Last Meal on Death Row series; show luxurious, sometimes uncontrolled consumption in the face of death
Marc Quinn – Self Portrait skull in blood; I saw this piece at a Marc Quinn exhibition at Cer Gallery, Istanbul ; its a sculpture of a head – I m noting it here because it seems in the tradition of the Vanitas with its references to mortality, and depictions of the skull
Ori Gersht made a series of photographs and videos called Blowups. One a recreation of a Cotán still life in three dimensions, which suddenly and in slow motion explodes. Similarly, No.3, is based on a 19c. still life by Fantin-Latour. He arrests and records the moment of the explosion.
A Time and a Place, Darren Jones, 2011, reminds me of a still life photo I took while travelling, of the inside of my minibar. This is looking at the overlooked and familiar, discovering depth in it.
The three dimensional work of Cathy Wilkes, assemblages of carefully arranged objects, with mannequins or paper mâché figures looking at them. The figures encourage the viewer to stop and take a proper look, to discover the secret of the objects assembled there- as people queueing somehow encourage us to join the queue.
Research and reading – a mind map and some notes
The Roman Empire – Xenia
Medieval – no still life
The Apple – Adam and Eve
The Lily – The Annunciation
Oil paint was developed in 15c and artists could incorporate the element of still life in paintings.
Velasquez – raising Lazarus from the dead? Fish, eggs
1596 Caravaggio basket of fruit – no religious reference. But still life viewed as base. Later he included still life in his religious paintings.
Then in 17c Dutch still life started to emerge. Jan Breughel bouquet 1606
Influenced by Italian still life.
Holland was setting for golden age of still life.
Holland had freed itself from Catholicism and monarchy. The new merchant class wanted non religious painting. Richest nation on earth.
Chinese porcelain exotic flowers and fruit. Object was to decorate the home. Everyone was buying paintings.
Mass market – art was an industry – mass production techniques.
The floral paintings were not realistic. As much rare and exotic species as poss in one painting, regardless of season, origin etc
The base of flowers is a bouquet from the globe.
Tulip mania. Rare and exotic. Too precious to cut them. Outrageous affluence displayed.
Banquet pieces uninhibited displays of max wealth Celebration of luxury
Things are pushed over. Reckless consumption and destruction. Guilt. (Calvinism)
The answer was to include a symbol with a message of mortality, transience of life. Vanitas painting. Eg skull. Military pieces eg helmet – futility of war. All will fade and pass. Fortunes can be made and lost.
Spain – Cotán (look up thistle and carrot). Bodegans. Realist – austere simple cf Dutch. He was a monk. Suspensions of string otherworldly
18c. For the Academy the human figure was the most important element. Still life was bottom. Then landscape – portrait – myth, history, biblical.
Chardin was the first to be taken seriously. He showed still life could be important. His period was dominated by the rococo style.
The Buffet and The Skate submitted to Academy. Truth and calm. 1728. Accepted.
He showed it was great to paint something simple. He painted silence (Rosenberg). Makes you aware of the beauty of ordinary things around you. He became rich.
He makes all blurry except one or two areas- he replied how the human eye sees.
Vallayer Coster. Women were allowed to paint still life, not human life. She was patronised by Marie Antoinette, and her career ended with the revolution.
19c. Cezanne changed everything. His style revolutionary. Radical, rushed, imprecise. Antithesis of realism. What we see is not fixed.
Simple objects. Form light and reflection the main thing. Simply recorded what he saw, stroke by stroke. Picasso Matisse called him the father of 20c art.
Now still life needn’t be realistic.
Photography was invented and still life was a good subject as it didn’t move!
Now photos exist painters can see the power and limitations of an image. Now still life painting was expressive and far from realistic. Van G irises sunflowers.
What can painting do that photograp can’t? Cubism is all still life. Object can be painted from every angle. Picasso Braque. The objects can no longer be identified. Painting becomes philosophy.
20c. Stuff is machine made. Still life became the province of advertising.
Big Bang Ori Gersht. Painting photography and film combined. He blew up the Cotán pomegranate on film with a bullet. Depicts an event on film.
21c. Mat Collishaw. The Venal Muse. Still life recreating prisoners last meal on death row in style of 17c Dutch still life vanitas painting. Reflecting on vanity.
Arrest a particular moment and record it. Look at the overlooked the familiar and discover depth in it. Look closely at something you recently bought. Stop and take a proper look.
Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson, Pub. Reaktion Books Limited 1990
BBC Arts Documentary, 2014: Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Painting
http://www.rembrandtdatabase.org/Rembrandt/painting/3066/still-life-with-peacocks Accessed 04/07/2015
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm Accessed 04/07/2015
The Artists Handbook by Ray Smith, pub Dorling Kindersley, 1987
World Art, Dr Mike O’Mahony, pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006