This essay will examine the evolution of still life and the themes

This essay will examine the evolution of still life and the themes within the genre in relation to the historical and sociological context, with emphasis on Dutch still life, Cubism and Pop Art. It will further discuss the relevance of these themes and the importance of still life within the 21st century. The origins of objects within paintings can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, who decorated their walls with paintings of food, flowers and other worldly goods.

Although it is acknowledged that the artists of such paintings could earn a reasonable amount, the choice of subject matter was deemed lowly by a variety of influential scholars like Pliny the Elder (QUOTE). Understanding of the themes around their creation remains relatively unknown, however Petry (2013, p.6) argues that in ancient Egypt tombs were adorned with 'heaps of fruit and other foodstuffs illustrated the bounty that would greet the dead in the afterlife'. The collapse of the Roman Empire in 5th century BC, resulted in arts progress being halted and arguably regressing as Sterling (1981, p.

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32) argues that 'from the fifth century on, Early Christian art and then Byzantine art confined still life to a strictly symbolic and decorative role'.

The rise in Christianity led to a revitalisation of art, where pictures existed to tell the stories of the bible, however any objects within these paintings had a religious aspect e.g. apples are reminiscent to the story of Adam and Eve in the bible. Langmuir (2010) goes as far as to argue that the rise in Christianity almost destroyed the still life genre, with motifs only existing heaped in symbolic meaning.

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A prime example of this is The Annunciation, by Duccio (image 1), although the vase of flowers is more in line with a future still life its main purpose is as a religious motif symbolising· (SOURCE) this was the case in many early paintings where the objects were in addition to the human form, therefore aiming to aid in the narrative rather than provide one of their own. As a result, Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit (1599) (image 2) is generally accredited to being the first western still life, however there is an element of controversy to this.

Despite the importance that is attributed to this painting there is no evidence to suggest that Caravaggio painted other still life's, however he did continue to paint portraits; and as a result this can lead us to consider that still life was still dealing with the same constraints as seen during the Greek age, where the representation of objects and what would now be known as still life, would be viewed as a lower genre, worthy of little attention.

Still Life in the 17th - 19th Century

At first it could be seen that Langmuir (2010, p.29) is correct in arguing that still life in the 1600's, 'seemed to require little imagination and catered mainly to rich peoples love of luxury', however this would also support the lowly status afforded to still life during this time period. While still life appeared to flourish during the 17th century in the Netherlands, and gained popularity in Spain and Italy, the French academy failed to admire its beauty. Feblibien des Avaux (1669, p. 35) establishes the hierarchy of the genres to which he places still life at the bottom of stating that 'thus the artist who does perfect landscapes is superior to another who paints only fruit, flowers or shells. The artist who paints living animals deserves more respect than those who represent only still, lifeless subjects'. As a result, mythological paintings and portraits were accredited to being higher genres, followed by landscapes and finally still life. Irrespective to these views, still life has continued to exist.

Although as previously stated Caravaggio is generally accredited to being the first western still life, more definite moves towards still life were depicted in the Flemish mannerist works. Potentially aided by the development of oil paints, which enabled a greater level of detail than the previously used mediums of tempera and fresco, and thus led to the ability to paint the detail required in still life resulting in objects becoming more prevalent and more interesting to depict realistically (SOURCE). Additionally Flemish mannerist painters began to move away from paintings depicting entirely religious scenes and instead the reference to Christianity began to be placed in the background while 'still-life elements flowed over the foreground in great abundance' (Kahr, 1993, p.190), although not deemed as independent still life · (image 4) shows a move towards the interest of not only painting objects, but also presenting them in a position where they were worthy of attention - at the front. Slive (1995, p.277) argues that these objects signified the 'distinction between the material and spiritual world', further suggesting that painting and artists was beginning to take more of an interest in the objects surrounding themselves, making time for them and appreciating their capabilities.

However, it was the Netherlands in the 17th century which became the turning point for the still life genre, in addition to the points above the rise of still life can also be largely accredited to the richness that the Dutch fell fortune to. Their successfulness as sea merchants and traders during this time led to an influx of luxurious goods and economic fortune flooding the market, resulting in a normality and ease of owning paintings. Hauser (1999, p.204) argues that 'prices on the art market in Holland were, generally speaking, very low; one could buy a painting for a mere two or three guilders' he further insinuates that the cheapness of paintings and the ease at which they could be traded contributed to both paintings success and their purpose, arguing that 'they bought pictures, above all, because there was nothing else to buy (Hauser, 1999, p.200). However, it is important to note that while the genre of still life was used to present riches - similar to the assumed theme within Greece and Egypt, there was an underlying theme of anxiety presented within these paintings, especially within the Vanitas - a popular sub-genre of still life.

Vanitas still life appeared in Dutch still life around 1620, with multiple explanations. The word Vanitas transpires from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the bible, in which its opening lines are 'vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of all vanities, all is vanity' (Tate, 2018). Vanitas essentially aimed to keep the Dutch grounded by the ever-rising consumerism and materialism sweeping through Holland, while emphasising the mortality of humans and the idea of transience. Kahr (1993, p.196) puts forward the idea that their development coincides with the end of the twelve years truce in Holland, and the continuous plagues which resulted in 'the fears of death', and therefore heightening the morals of the mortality of human life and worthlessness of luxury and objects. Not entirely dissimilarly, Hauser (1999) focuses on the economics, arguing that the fortune that hit Holland in the 17th century was ultimately as a result of 'good luck and sheer accident', and as a result the Dutch would be reminded that this may not last forever and therefore to appreciate it. Either way it is acknowledged that the vanitas continued along the previous Christian tradition of using objects as motifs.

Furthermore (Kahr, 1993, p.203) appears to argue that although the Dutch enjoyed the luxuries that they were fortune to, their constant references to 'transience, decay and death' suggest that they continually used art to remind themselves that they 'do not really love all these luxuries on earthly life,' and that yes 'we still know what is truly important, and that is the life eternal. Signs of death and decay are captured within the flower paintings which also became popular during this period. The symbolism of the flowers used emphasised the brink of life and death, furthermore they were captured in a moment which wouldn't be repeated. In some cases, the flowers were shown to be rotting (Image) which further highlights the moment between life and death. As Kahr (1993, p.191) argues 'the short life of the flower is a reminder of the transience of all earthly things'.

This continuation of the reminder of the luxuries is further seen in the pronk still life's (image , breakfast still life's (image) and banquet pieces (image), the objects and food items are placed within arm's reach, and in some cases scattered almost haphazardly across the table, while remaining at eye level, however in reach they appear they are equally out of reach, further heightening this sense of anxiousness, an element of greed and overwhelming abundance. As Bryson (1995, p.13) argues 'The culture of the table displays a rapid, volatile receptivity to its surrounding culture in the mode of inflecting its fundamental forms'. Within this there was the suggestion of human interaction within the composition I the way of the half-peeled lemons, the knife slicing the bread. Even the food used was presented in a way to exaggerate the moral message of worldly goods, for example lemons, as Lowenthal (1996, p.35) explains , 'the best ones were imported, spoiled quickly, and thus were fleeting luxuries', by presenting them half peeled the lemons are already at the cusp of spoiling - the painting has frozen this moment in time, much like as explained with the flowers.

During this period artists would specialise in certain elements - for example Willeim Kalf, spent much time perfecting lemons. This technical element is most noticeable within the still life paintings, aided by the oil paints as previously discussed, but artists took great time to get the correct shade of colours and the correct texture to make the objects depicted more relatable. This Bryson (1990, p.134) argues is irrelevant to 'whether the object to be depicted is worth a few pennies or thousands of guilders', it could be suggested as artists they almost aimed to prove that all objects were worthy of the same attention. However, as Petry (2013, p.12) argues that 'it was generally believed that the more realistic the rendering, the greater the skill of the artist', insinuating that the object painted was of no interest to the artist they were purely interested in the final aesthetic.

While it is generally considered that a vanitas painting bears particular motifs to thus categorise it as one (usually a skull, or hourglass) it could be argued that all paintings crossed across the multiple subgenres of still life to become a Vanitas still life. Langmuir (2010, p. 93) refers to 'E.H. Gombrichs reminder that any still life is a vanitas, because when we reach out to pluck the luscious fruit all we touch is cold paint.' This is further supported by Hauser's earlier comment, explaining that the appeal of paintings was their ability to be easily bought and sold, therefore it should be considered that painting itself was contributing to the markets, wealth and abundance it was aiming to warn against. As Doty (2001, p.36) propositions 'when both are made of paint, is a cabbage any less precious than a golden cup?'. This argument is highlighted further in the works of Adriaen Coorte (image 6) and Juan Sanchez Cotan (image 7) who took great time and effort to isolate single everyday food objects and elevate them to a state of luxury.

Still life and Modernism

The works of the Impressionist artists in the 19th century, destroyed the rules of the French academy and as a result paved the way for modern art, this time it could be argued that still life continued to exist but made no substantial contribution to the genre. The post-impressionist artists Cezanne and Van Gogh were the main artists with an interest in still life. While Van Gogh's influence led towards to the creation of the Expressionism and Abstract Expressionism, he himself drew on the traditions of still life and the motifs of flowers. Cezanne on the other hand paved the way for Cubism. His continuous focus on apples enabled him to explore the technicalities of painting, the stillness of still life enabled him to manipulate compositions and control factors such as lighting. Cezanne argues that 'everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her eternity (Gualdoni, 2009, p.25) this paves the way for his approach on still life, the idea that he is capturing that fleeting moment - similar to the Dutch artists.

Cubism was, as a whole largely interested in still life, like Cezanne, Baroque was known for his passion in still life, he argued that '' further exploring the technical elements to composition and realism as seen during the renaissance and Dutch art. Picasso and Braque aimed to replicate the 3D on a 2D surface - while it could be argued that they moved away from the realism which had been so highly rated by the Dutch Still life artists, it could also be considered that they aimed to replicate the entirety of an object rather than the one visible side and thus offered a more realistic representation of a 3-dimensional object. Although cubism didn't offer a theme for still life, they drew on the earlier traditions of still life regarding the 'strictest isolation of the object' (Sterling, 1981, p.150). It is this element of space and isolation which Bryson (1990, p.81) believes made still life the 'central in the development of modernism'.

However like the Dutch had, had opposition in regards to the French hierarchy of still life; Still life during the 20th century suffered at the hands of the American Art critic Greenberg; his emphasise on 'art remaining peculiar to its self' led to an interest in a flatness, and moving away from representational art towards the abstract, he also aimed to move art away from the mundane everyday art and popular culture, instead focusing on the avant-garde. However, the avant-garde artists found that still life was a vital genre to test new ideas on due to its openness and lack of constraints. Rowell (1997, p. 1) argues that due to the lack of interest in the genre of still life it became the ideal target for the avant-garde artist· 'it became the perfect vehicle for the twentieth-century avant-garde artists to transform into a vital means of contemporary expression'. Greenberg (1939, p.547) argued that as long as there was a general agreement as to what were the worthiest subjects for art, the artist was relieved of the necessity to be original and inventive in his 'matter' and could devote all his energy too formal projects, while this had been seen in the technical advancements made by the Dutch artists, it has also been established that the works were not purely decorative and carried relevant messages, thus becoming original.

Another modern movement drawing inspiration from the lack of definitions is still life was Pop art; while pop art rose in reaction to the high art of abstract expression it was ultimately a reaction to the consumerism and materialistic culture sweeping though America in the mid 1950's. Manchanda (2014, p.12) argues that pop artists were reacting 'to a buoyant consumer society that had grown by leaps and bounds after world war II', a somewhat similar reaction as to the Dutch in the 17th century. Pop art used still life and the everyday objects at the forefront of the movement in order to elevate them into a form of fine art, rather than kitsch as Greenberg argued pop art was. One example of this is Jasper Johns beer cans (image 197). The emphasis of flowers, food and objects drew from the tradition of Dutch still life, interlinking with the genre of still life to ground us and remind us of the transience of life; Freeman (1962, p112) draws the link to Tom Wesselmann arguing that 'Wesselmann's hotdog and stack of pancakes are both presented in their cooked, served, ready-to-be-eaten form; this is an ideal state. It is also a state that lasts, in reality, only a fleeting moment'. The links between the short life of the flowers and the fictional arrangements seen in the Dutch works and the presenting of ideal food in pop art both present links to transience, consumerism and materiality.

While still life evolved during the 20th century to encompass a variety of different meanings, it still offered a valuable source of communication and as Wilmerding (2013, p.11) argues it 'still life has long been treated as a minor preoccupation for artists, yet has turned out to be the occasion for some of Pop's most innovative and witty expressions'. Furthermore, the meanings that it held during the 20th century had been shaped by the social and economic advancements of the time, emphasising its flexibility and ability to adjust the cultural demands placed upon it.

Themes within Still life

It has become clear that since the 17th century still life has taken on a variety of themes and moral issues, while it has been regarded as a lowly genre requiring little skill in comparison to the portraiture artist, it has become apparent that still life has been an essential tool for modern art. Still life has been used to highlight the everyday, while offering the reminder of transience of life. The reaction to consumerism, materialism, and abundance was first seen by the Dutch and then further highlighted within pop art in the 20th century. As a result still life has presented the idea that the everyday could be beautiful and worthy. Bryson (1995, p.12) argues that 'the things that occupy still life's attention belong to a long cultural span that goes back beyond modern Europe to antiquity and pre-antiquity' thus supporting the idea that still life was relevant in the late 20th century when he wrote his book,

Updated: May 19, 2021
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This essay will examine the evolution of still life and the themes. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved from

This essay will examine the evolution of still life and the themes essay
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