Known also by the fancier French name, “nature morte”, still life painting was described as ‘the touchstone of painting’ by Manet. Alongside the Landscape and the Figure, Still Life represents one of the trinity of practices and subjects in art, and for good reason. Compared to its brethren, still life provides the artist with several unique ‘pro’s’, not the least of which is that the subject(s) don’t move, or change, at least not rapidly. This allows for a long slow investigation of light and shadow, form and contour, arranging and rearranging until just the right setting is achieved. Still Life can also become as artificial, or as natural, as one likes, opening the practice to a world of interpretations and symbolic narratives. We are after all a species unique in our collecting of objects, so if we are going to lionize our landscapes, and express/expose our shared bodies for their beauty and frailty, then why not all of the inanimate things we surround ourselves with as well?
The earliest still life painting dates back to ancient Egypt appearing in tombs (of course) and probably acted in much the same way as other imagery in Egyptian funerary work, that is to say, it depicted the life of the occupant, but also suggested what awaited in the world beyond. Egyptians believed that what was in the tomb would also be with the deceased in the afterlife, and the depictions of wealth and power were there to make the case to the Gods that this personage was worthy of favor. Ancient Rome and Greece also practiced still life painting, but brought the imagery of jars of wine and figs, pomegranates and glassware, into their interior frescoes, enjoying them while still alive and well to do so. Again, wealth and status were presented, as the commissioning and owning of something as otherwise frivolous as art has always been a hallmark of social standing; no less when the subject is food which cannot be eaten and beautiful objects one possesses or wishes to. Monks in the Dark Ages, who preserved so much of art practice in an age of death and disease and war, used the painting of objects to decorate the margins of their books and aligned the objects with Biblical passages and moral symbolism. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, created in the 15th century, is one such example that features shells, coins, fruit and flowers throughout, densely arranged around the edges.
The term ‘still life’ comes from the Dutch “stilleven” in the 16th century when the painting practice gained wide popularity in the Northern European region during what is known as the Flanders, or Flemish, Renaissance.Brisk trade, especially in textiles, had brought significant wealth into the region, for multiple classes of society, and so, as is generally the practice, art was employed to demonstrate one’s wealth and status. In the case of still life painting, flowers were among the first favored items and the florals of the day were unnaturally lush and exotic, vases overflowing with tulips roses and other blossoms sourced from locales far and near. Selected flowers were all in their perfect bloom in spite of seasonal differences and the artists were obsessed with perfecting verisimilitude in textures and light. Other examples, incorporating objects like maps and sailing implements, carpets and metal work, as well as food stuffs, allowed one to represent a variety of fineries personal to the patron, while also using the object to stand in for moral lessons as well. This was after all the regional birthplace of Protestantism and vanity and excess were not encouraged. These latter works were called ‘vanitas’ or ‘memento mori’ and often incorporated skulls amongst the flowers and fruits, with the intention being to illustrate to the viewer that ultimately, we will all pass away, and these mortal affectations will no longer matter. A peeled lemon, or floating soap bubble indicated the bitterness, and temporary illusions of earthly life, drawing the viewer back to the essential focus of faith.
Modern still life art has no need to be didactic or pompous or even grand. Picasso sliced guitars and bottles and tables into Cubist planes, Dali melted pocket watches and let them be consumed by ants in Surreal landscapes, and Janet Fish seeks out glass, translucent plastic and flowers to paint tactile, luminous studies of natural light flowing through curtained windows in masterful color.
Some critics suggest that still life is banal and bourgeois, but I would assert that it is actually the most versatile of subjects and practices. Like landscape the image can be a vast horizontal plane dotted with vertical objects, bathed in light and shadow, and like the figure, can focus on the lush curves and angles of natural objects like fruits and flowers, juxtaposed against geometric boundaries. Still life can be anything the artist wants it to be in the end, land and sea or lovers in embrace, without depicting either, and in that manner, still life is limitless.
Our own member artists Alice Searcy and Wanda Cox have been exploring objects recently as well. Searcy has surprised us with a looser brushstroke that departs from her plein air themes to intimate arrangements of fruits and pottery on a table. Asymmetrically balanced, the fresh, chunky brush strokes suggest Cezanne’s oranges, and the color is warm and inviting. Cox continues to investigate texture in her favored subject, cotton plants. In a recent, commanding work, horizontal and deceptively simple, a bundle of the spiky stems rest on a blue ground, their delicate white tufts glittering like stars against the dark branches and the shadows below. In both artist’s hands the objects become far, far more than the sum of their parts; symbolism and morality is left up to you of course!
Come by the Gallery soon for a personal viewing and remember, with the holidays approaching, what better gift than a unique piece of art, especially one with such noble history?