Tag Archives: Vanitas

Research Point- Still Life Genre

I looked at Oxford art online and Bridgeman Education Library and various other links specific to particular artists to explore the development of the Still Life Genre.

Still Life (or Nature Morte) emerged as an independent art form towards the end of the 16th century in Spain, Italy, Flanders.  It allowed the status of the work to reflect the vision and skill of its creator rather than its subject matter. It was an opportunity to display skill, realistic light effects, colours and textures.  A Still Life was  traditionally meant to be read for its allegorical message- especially in the vanities theme of the frailty of human life.



‘Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life’ by Harmen Steenwyck 1640 is a classic example of a Dutch ‘Vanitas’ painting. It is essentially a religious works in the guise of a still life. ‘Vanitas’ paintings caution the viewer to be careful about placing too much importance in the wealth and pleasures of this life, as they could become an obstacle on the path to salvation. The title ‘Vanitas’ comes from a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes 1:2, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’  from http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/still_life/harmen_steenwyck.htm

By the 18th century a lot of the religious/ allegorical meanings of the still life were dropped.  Typical of this era were kitchen table paintings featuring everyday foods and paintings to reflect the extravagance of life.

In the 19th century, the academic approach to still life was dropped and artists discovered a freedom to experiment.  The Impressionists explored colour and Cezanne gave still life a structure from which cubism is partially derived.  Cezanne is thought to be the most significant 19th century still life painter.  He was fascinated by optics and tried to reduce naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials—the cone, the cube, the sphere. He used layers of color on these shapes to build up surfaces, outlining the forms for emphasis..  Other artists from this period include Van Gogh who expressed a weight of meaning in his still life paintings. Also Goya, Renoir, and Monet were key still life artists of this period.


Paul Cezanne- Still life with apples   https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/paul-cezanne-still-life-with-apples-1895-98

In the 20th century art became essentially about the creation of new orderings of shape and appearance and still life was reinvented in a myriad of ways.  Henri Matisse for example pushed the boundaries of colour.  A lot of pop art is based on still life and the iconography of images. e.g. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans (1962)   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_Soup_Cans

Henri Matisse - Still life with Geraniums (1910)
Henri Matisse – Still life with Geraniums (1910)


In Patrick Caulfield’s work, including vases of flowers,  (1962) the elements of the still life are honed back to the bare minimum- flat outlines of objects against angular geometric shapes and unmodulated areas of colour.

Vases of Flowers 1962 Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005 Purchased with assistance from the Tate Gallery Publications Department and the Trustees of the Tate Gallery Trust Fund 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02031
Vases of Flowers 1962 Patrick Caulfield 1936-2005 Purchased with assistance from the Tate Gallery Publications Department and the Trustees of the Tate Gallery Trust Fund 1976 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02031

Cubists such as Braque and Picasso used colour, line, and outline to shatter the boundaries around objects- representing objects from several view points at the same time.

In Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher  1945, the symbolism of the vanities is re-invoked, reminding the viewer of the transience of human existence

Contemporary artists, for example Peter Jones and Cindy Wright, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2013/oct/19/10-best-contemporary-still-lifes  are presenting a fresh new outlook on elements of the still life.  Many artists are exploring new media- such as photography and the digital age.  There is a freedom to explore the morbid, macabre and horrific, as well as the mundane and beautiful, and to focus on elements of the image rather than the whole.

Conversely, painters such as Tim Gustard almost swing back to the original Dutch 17th Century tradition with paintings of utmost photo-realism and more traditional compositions .   tim-gustard-the-kitchen-tablehttp://www.totteridgegallery.com/artist/tim-gustard/the-kitchen-table.html