Still life is an age-old genre of art that has evolved over time. While the earliest still life art has come from ancient Egypt, this style of art grew in popularity in the Netherlands in the 16th century. The term still life actually comes from the Dutch word stilleven. This style of art involves depictions of inanimate objects, taking an artful look at every day items. These items can be man-made or natural objects. Often, you will see items such a fruit, flowers and wine depicted in still life art.
VINCENT AND THEO by Tom Miller,
Painting, Acrylic on Canvas
The Early History of Still Life Art
The earliest forms of still life art have been found in ancient Egyptian art. Art that depicted detailed scenes of daily life has been discovered on the tomb walls at ancient burial sites. Still life art was also present in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, typically depicting everyday items like fruit.
“The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”
In the Middle Ages, the genre was adapted for religious works. Still life art was commonly found decorating manuscripts and in biblical scenes.
Flowers in a Dark Room by Thong Le
Painting, Oil on Canvas
The Renaissance art period followed immediately after the middle ages. This art period saw a revival in interest in the classical approach of ancient Greece and Rome. Still life art was often shown depicting beautiful vases of flora. Paintings of blooming flowers of different types and different vibrant colours sharing a vase were common during this period.
Ticking Clocks Still Life by Grace Diehl
Painting, Oil on MDF Panel
Vanitas Paintings and Memento Mori
Memento Mori – the latin for “Remember that you have to die” was applied to still life as Vanitas paintings grew in popularity. This artful reminder of the inevitability of death and impermanent nature of life started to show up in paintings. Still life paintings with skulls were common, as well as with waning candles to express these ideas. They often also included other symbols such as books or wine. The driving goal behind Vanitas art is to reminder the viewer of their own mortality.
Still Life with Asters by Igor Barkhatkov
Painting, Oil on Canvas
Still life paintings in Modern Art
During the post-impressionist art period, renowned artist Vincent Van Gogh adopted vases of flowers as his painting subject. His still life paintings included sunflowers, lilacs, irises and roses. This series of paintings has been noted to be more colourful than others by the artist and denoted a period of optimism in his work. Cezanne also painted a famous series of still life paintings depicting fruit.
“When I’m outlining the skin of a lovely peach with soft touches of paint, or a sad old apple, I catch a glimpse in the reflections they exchange of . . . the same love of the sun, the same recollection of the dew, a freshness.”
From Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne: A Memoir with Conversations
Contemporary Still Life
Still life art continues to evolve to this day and is still a beloved genre for many artists. Artists continue to depict florals, objects and natural materials in their own unique way, and explore new and modern takes on still life art.