History of the Still Life Painting

Still Life, fruit and other food, Peter Binoit (1590-1632 ca), painting on panel
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

A still life (from the Dutch, stilleven) is a painting featuring an arrangement of inanimate, everyday objects, whether natural objects (flowers, food, wine, dead fish, and game, etc.) or manufactured items (books, bottles, crockery, etc.). The Tate Museum Glossary puts it very succinctly, defining the subject of a still life as "anything that does not move or is dead." In French, the still life is called "nature morte," (literally "dead nature").

Why Paint a Still Life?

A still life can be realistic or abstract, depending on the particular time and culture when it was created, and the particular style of the artist. Many artists like to paint still lifes because the artist has total control over the subject of the painting, the light, and the context, and can use the still life symbolically or allegorically to express an idea, or formally to study composition and the elements and principles of art. 

Brief History

Although paintings of objects have been in existence since ancient Egypt and Greece, still life painting as a unique art form originated in post-Renaissance Western art. In ancient Egypt, people painted objects and food in tombs and temples as offerings to the gods and for the afterlife. These paintings were flat, graphic representations of the object, typical of Egyptian painting. The ancient Greeks also incorporated still life paintings in their vases, wall paintings, and mosaics, such as those discovered at Pompeii. These paintings were more realistic with highlights and shadows, although not accurate in terms of perspective.

Still life painting became an art form of its own in the 16th century, although it was ranked as the least important painting genre by the French Academy (Academie des Beaux Arts). A panel painting by the Venetian painter, Jacopo de' Barbari (1440-1516) in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich is considered by many to be the first true still life. The painting, done in 1504, consists of a dead partridge and a pair of iron gloves, or gauntlets. 

According to the documentary, Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Drawing (Painting) (originally broadcast BBC Four, 8:30 pm Sun, 5 Jan. 2014), Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit, painted in 1597, is recognized as the first major work of the Western still life genre.

The height of still life painting came in 17th century Holland. Still life painting flourished there when artists such as Jan Brueghel, Pieter Clausz, and others painted opulent, highly detailed, textural, and realistic bouquets of flowers, and tables laden with lavish bowls of fruit and game. These paintings celebrated the seasons and showed the scientific interest of the time in the natural world. They were also a status symbol and highly sought after, with artists selling their works through auctions.

Traditionally, some of the objects in a still life were likely to have been selected for their religious or symbolic meaning, but this symbolism eludes most modern-day visitors. Cut flowers or a piece of decaying fruit, for instance, symbolized mortality. Paintings with these might also have skulls, hourglasses, clocks, and candles, warning the viewer that life is brief. These paintings are known as memento mori, a Latin phrase that means "remember you must die."

The memento mori paintings are closely related to the vanitas still life, which also includes symbols in the painting that remind the viewer of earthly pleasures and material goods - such as musical instruments, wine, and books - that have little value compared to the glory of the afterlife. The term vanitas originally comes from a statement at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, which speaks of the futility of human activity: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (King James Bible)

But a still life painting doesn't have to have symbolism. Post-Impressionist French painter Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) is perhaps the most famous painter of apples simply for the colors, shapes, and perspective possibilities. Cezanne's painting, Still Life with Apples (1895-98) is not painted realistically as though seen from one viewpoint but rather, seems to be an amalgamation of several different viewpoints. Cezanne's paintings and explorations into perception and ways of seeing were the precursors to Cubism and abstraction. 

Updated by Lisa Marder.