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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Painting of a table laden with food and drink and elaborate crockery including a lobster, a shell, fruit and goblets. All are painted with a technique that makes the whole thing seem as if the paint is dripping away.

10 Things you need to know about still life

[ Introduction )

Curious about still life but not sure where to start? With our exhibition, the Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain, coming up in May 2024, we thought we would give you a head start. From the origins of still life and how artists have been influenced by the genre, to the importance of symbolism which asks some of life’s bigger questions, learn the basics with 10 things you need to know about still life.

 

1. What is Still Life?

Still life is art that represents inanimate objects like fruit, cut flowers, utensils, and other everyday items. These objects can be natural or manmade. The composition can be simple with just one or two objects featured or more complex, with a variety of different items. At its simplest, still lifes (yes you read that correctly – ‘lifes’ not ‘lives’) represent things that do not move – things that are still.

 

Painting of two peaches with cob nuts lying on a green surface on a dark background

William Smith, Still Life of Peaches, Plums and Cobnuts, 1762, Oil on canvas, Bequest of Mrs Pat Roth (2016), Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK.

 

2. History in a Bowl of Fruit

Still life dates back centuries, with origins in ancient Egyptian and Roman art, but it was in the Netherlands during the 1600s that it really took off. We even get the term ‘still life’ from the Dutch word ‘stilleven’. At the time, the Netherlands was one of the most influential powers militarily, in trade, science and, (most importantly for us) art. Artists like Pieter Claesz, William Claesz Heda and Jan Lievens painted domestic objects – goblets, fruit, books – that reflected the concerns of an increasingly wealthy and urban society. These works allowed rich merchants to show off their success and sophistication without the obviously expensive displays of wealth frowned upon by strict Dutch Protestant society.

 

3. Symbolism and Hidden Meanings

Still life tells a story without uttering a word. Each carefully selected object becomes a silent storyteller, weaving a tale that captivates the observer. Whether it’s a battered pocket watch, weathered books, or a lone piece of decaying fruit, these items tell a tale of time, knowledge, or plenty. A wilting flower might symbolise the transient nature of life, while a skull signifies mortality. The artistry is not only in the brushstrokes but in the artist’s ability to tell a compelling story within the frame.

 

A still life painting of assorted objects including a conch shell in centre, a spool of red ribbon, a blue ribbon a clock in a square frame and some binoculars all on a red table with a steam ship in the back left corner

Edward Alexander Wadsworth, Bright Intervals (1928), Tempera on canvas laid on panel, Museum & Art Swindon.

 

4. Cultural Context

Still lifes are like time capsules. They capture not only the physical objects within the frame but also the essence of the time in which it was created. Through the detailed portrayal of everyday items, artists provide viewers with a unique window into the social, economic, and cultural context of the time they are living. Whether it’s the opulence of a Baroque still life, laden with symbols of wealth and abundance, or each arrangement of objects speaks to the values, aspirations, and aesthetics of its time. By examining still life works closely, audiences can unravel layers of meaning, gaining insights into the diverse tapestry of human experience across history.

 

5. Influential Artists

We have Northern Renaissance artists (15th century), such as Jan van Eyck, to thank for popularising early still life works. Eyck’s religious scenes included masterful hyper realistic representations of objects, such as sculptures, using light and shadow to depict objects that seemed to leap from the canvas. Later Dutch Golden Age artists, such as Pieter Claesz and Rachel Ruysch, developed this further creating paintings of everyday objects rich with symbolism. Fast forward to the modern period (19th century) and we have Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh painting his famous series of sunflowers and Paul Cezanne painting vanitas (paintings using symbols of death as reminders of mortality) scenes in his own colourful style. Cubists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque also tackled the still life genre, creating a completely new take with abstract, geometric compositions of objects.

 

Painting of a rounded silver casket sat on tap of a flat book, sat on top of a pair of white gloves all sat on top of a red case with a gold latch. Background is black.

William Nicholson, The Silver Casket and Red Leather Box, 1920, Oil on panel, Private Collection, courtesy of Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert.

 

6. Lighting Alchemy

An important element of still life art is the mastery of lighting. Artists play with shadows and highlights to create a sense of drama and depth. The way light and shadow is used breathes life into inanimate objects, transforming them into poetic compositions. This clever manipulation of light transforms still life from a simple arrangement to an engaging visual experience.

 

7. Appreciating the Details

Delving into a still life artwork is like embarking on a visual treasure hunt. As you look closely at the work, the artist’s dedication and precision unfold. Meticulously captured textures, whether the velvety softness of a flower petal or the rough grain of a wooden surface, invite you to immerse yourself in an image you can almost touch. Shadows dance across the composition, playing an important role in highlighting forms and creating a realistic scene through the interplay of light and dark. Reflective surfaces, like gleaming glass or polished metal as in the painting above, become canvases within the canvas. Using the subtleties of reflection, the artist can show a person or object ‘out of shot’. In this meticulous craftsmanship, still life paintings become not just static images but immersive experiences, where every brushstroke is a testament to the artist’s skill and mastery.

 

Abstract still life painting of a table laid with dishes and cups in blues, oranges and reds

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Still Life, 1957, collection and © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

Anwar Jalal Shemza, Still Life, 1957, collection and © Estate of Anwar Jalal Shemza

 

8. Personal Interpretations

Still life, extends an invitation for personal introspection and connection. Within the artist’s deliberate arrangements of objects, viewers can find a canvas for their own interpretations, emotions, and reflections. This unique characteristic allows each observer to engage with the artwork on a personal level. The chosen objects, their placement, and the interplay of light spark individual stories. Still life artworks are more than just visual representations. They are a dialogue between the artist’s intent and the viewer’s own experiences, that can create an intimate connection with the artwork.

 

9. Impact of Technology

Still life art has always mirrored the technological pulse of its time. Artists have moved away from traditional techniques, like oil painting, to sculpture, photography and digital techniques. High-resolution cameras and advanced lighting techniques in photography have played a crucial role, with artists such as Lee Miller and Claude Cahun creating innovative compositions. Artists now embrace digital painting software. It allows them to break free from conventional constraints to explore vibrant colours, intricate textures, and inventive compositions. These technological shifts showcase artists’ longstanding tradition of adapting to and embracing the newest technologies available.

 

Painting of a table laden with food and drink and elaborate crockery including a lobster, a shell, fruit and goblets. All are painted with a technique that makes the whole thing seem as if the paint is dripping away.

Gordon Cheung, Still Life with Golden Goblet (after Pieter de Ring 1640-1660), 2017, Archival inkjet on 380gsm Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, Courtesy artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Gordon Cheung

 

10. Modern Takes on Still Life

While rooted in tradition, still life has evolved to embrace contemporary themes and perspectives. Today, these themes include biodiversity loss, the legacy of colonialism, and climate change. The fusion of traditional techniques with a contemporary vision breathes vitality into still life, proving its continued relevance in the ever-changing landscape of art.

Understanding still life in art doesn’t require expertise – it’s about appreciating the stories, meanings, and beauty embedded in everyday objects. Whether it’s a centuries-old masterpiece or a contemporary rendition, exploring still life art offers an enriching journey into the world of art.

Join us from 11 May 2024 for our exhibition The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain to discover more about this fascinating genre of art.

Feed your curiosity and stay ahead in the art scene.