For an artist, its biggest achievement would be capturing the essence of stillness in the frame.
Keeping its simplicity aside, the experience of painting a still life is sacred. It’s mainly because of its endless depths and ability to draw viewers’ attention.
Each and every detail, whether it’s a drop of water or a ray of light, can be captured so wonderfully.
Despite being labeled “dull and colorless art,” it still captured millions’ attention and contributed to the history of art.
Today, in this post, you’ll learn what still life paintings are, and their remarkable contribution to art.
Several may find this genre boring, but trust me, after I tell you the story behind these paintings of still life, you will be blown away!
What is Still Life?
First things first, I have heard many people ask me, “What even is still life?”
It’s just a simple painting of a couple of things kept on a table or depicting a scene, right?
It is more than just a painting; it is an expression, a freedom of choice for the artist, to depict the vastness of minimalism and show the depth in the arrangement of the objects.
The nature of “still life” itself means something without life or movement, just an inanimate object.
Nature morte, which translates to “dead nature” in Italian, is the French term for a still life.
The Birth of Still Life: Ancient Paintings
The genre of still life was first discovered in the Egyptian Pyramids.
They believed that by painting food, herds of cattle, and wealth, would transfer to their owner in the afterlife.
Not only Egyptians, but also ancient Greek vase paintings, are among the oldest reminders, making them still life painting genres.
But then it was lost until, in the 16th century, “realism” started to gain more and more popularity.
Every nation influenced by art focused on and produced regular objects and tasks in their works.
Food, flowers, and everyday tasks became the home of still life.
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Renaissance Paintings of Still Life
The Renaissance era was when art had taken over the world and many famous painters had become household names.
Despite focusing on realism, still-life paintings made their way to the limelight.
Because of this, people from all over the world started to commission paintings of still life to increase the beauty of their homes.
Amidst these, the following five famous paintings are what I thought to be some of the very best:
1. Flowers In A Jug by Hans Memling
This famous still-life painting was created around 1485.
It features a bouquet of flowers containing flowers like lilies, columbines, and iris.
The vase that is the main highlight is said to display Christ’s monogram, and the flowers represent the Virgin Mary.
And the rug on which it sits is an oriental rug, which was called the Memling rug because of the frequency with which it appears in his paintings.
An interesting fact about this painting is that it is the backside of another painting called “Portrait of a Young Man at Prayer.”
Which is said to be part of a diptych created by Memling.
Currently, it resides in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Spain.
2. Great Piece Of Turf by Albrecht Durer
Durer created this watercolor still life painting in 1503 while living in Nuremberg.
It depicts a wildly outgrown part of the turf, which features plants like dandelions and greater plantains.
The roots of these plants have been uprooted for spectators to see; this was consistent with almost all of Albrecht’s work.
With the different hues of the color green, the artist beautifully captured the depth in the painting.
While creating this artwork, Durer was only 24 years old, but due to this painting, he started to gain a lot of popularity.
Today, this painting is located at the Albertina in Vienna.
3. Fruit Basket by Michaelangelo
One of Michaelangelo’s most iconic still life paintings, Fruit Basket, shows a wicker basket perched on the edge of a ledge.
The fruits in the basket are insect-ridden and in less-than-perfect condition.
It revolves around the fading beauty of nature, as was the theme of that age.
In the painting, the basket seems to be tethered to the edge, almost falling to the ground.
This is the famous artist’s only surviving still-life work to be found.
Today, this painting hangs at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
4. Butchers Shop by Annibale Carracci
In the year 1580, Annibale was commissioned by a butcher guild to paint this painting as a sign.
According to popular belief, the artist used his own family as models for the famous still life painting.
Carracci was influenced by Vicenzo Campi and Bartolomeo Passarotti to depict scenes of everyday life.
Several changes had been made to the painting, which were discovered when it was subjected to an x-ray.
The hand of the woman is not proportional to her because it was made for the butcher sitting next to her.
Today, it’s housed by the Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford.
5. Kitchen Scene, Jesus In The House Of Martha And Mary by Diego Velasquez
This famous oil still life painting was painted during the Seville period.
This was made when the artist completed his apprenticeship with Pacheco.
At the time, he was experimenting with a new style of painting called “bodegones,” a genre that would depict scenes set in taverns or kitchens.
The painting depicts a scene from the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus comes to visit Martha and her sister Mary.
The lady in the foreground is Martha, and the one sitting by Jesus is depicted as Mary.
It is now part of the collection of the National Gallery, London.
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Dutch Paintings of Still Life
The Netherlands, one of the biggest centers of art movements that occurred across centuries, had its own stint of famous painters who later mastered the still life genre.
After their independence from Spain, they went through a “Golden Age of Art,” which led to multiple artistic introductions to the world.
One such genre was still life, and it gained a lot of popularity, especially flower paintings.
The reason it was favored so much was that it depicted everyday scenes and had symbolic meanings behind every aspect of the painting.
It later led to a movement that came to be known as “Dutch Realism.”
1. Wine Glass and a Bowl of Fruit by Willem Kalf
One of the most beautiful paintings of still life, Wine Glass and Bowl, features a beautiful porcelain bowl and a thick Turkish carpet in the foreground.
Other pieces like silver platters, oranges, and peaches symbolize the richness and great global wealth of the Dutch Empire.
The artist used a variety of highlights and reflections, such as paint dabs, lines, and dots.
This created a sparkling and twinkling effect to differentiate between the background and the foreground.
Along with the detailed bowl, the background is also lit by the tall wine glass filled with wine almost halfway.
It symbolizes the great global reach of the empire by showing the foreign wine in a Dutch drinking vessel.
It is currently displayed for public viewing at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
2. Still Life with Musical Instruments by Pieter Clasesz
This classic masterpiece by Pieter Clasesz belonged to a great monochromatic painting movement that was developed in the 1620s.
It is especially famous for the great amount of detail that was captured by the artist.
The main subject of the painting is the violin, which is kept at a slight angle.
It is accompanied by various delicacies that symbolize the vastness of the Dutch empire.
One more great detail that Pieter beautifully captured is the reflection of the wine glass in the mirror.
It symbolizes the great pride that the Dutch held among themselves.
It is now one of the most famous paintings in the Louvre in Paris.
3. Le Dessert de Gaufrettes by Lubin Baugin
Le Dessert de Gaufrettes in English literally means “Wafer Dessert.”
It is divided into four planes, which cut the painting into four parts.
But as it is accompanied by a black background, it brings the focus of the viewer right onto the subjects of the painting, “Wafers, Wine Glass, and The Bottle.”
The reason for the subjects was that the artist wanted to display the lavish lifestyle of the rich people at that time.
And the black background depicts the struggles of the poor and the foundation of the rich lifestyle.
It is currently on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
4. Vanitas Still Life by Maria Van OosterWijk
Vanitas is a genre of still life in which the artist portrays the transience of life and its path to death.
In this portrayal of the genre by Maria, she has acknowledged the attitude of people toward death.
The battered book in the background represents the equilibrium of life, and the butterfly perched atop the book illustrates how fleeting it is.
The skull in the background depicts two different stories: the mortality and the temporary presence that a person has in this world.
Overall, the famous female painter wants to convey the idea that life is finite and that one’s deeds matter for a place in heaven.
Today it resides at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna as a part of their private collection.
5. Diana Returning From Hunt by Peter Paul Reuben
It’s one of the most famous paintings of still life; this oil on canvas depicts the scene of the goddess Diana returning from a hunt.
The goddess was of great importance to Peter as he could mix her with his favorite subject, the hunt.
Upon its release, the painting gained a lot of popularity within the exclusive preserve class.
This was because of the way the artist expertly divided the canvas into two parts with Diana’s spear.
As the dead games, fruits, and intoxicating wine represent the pleasures of conquerors, the half-naked figures suggest unambiguous sexual overtures by the satyrs.
Although the painting is credited to Peter Paul Ruben, the flowers, fruits, and animals were painted by Frans Snyders.
It now resides at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany.
Modern Paintings of Still Life
With the modern era came various movements that forced art away from its centuries-long norm of realism.
Still life, being at the center of the realist movement, began to sway away from the common eye of viewers.
There is a major difference between the modern and traditional paintings of still life in that the modern ones were painted with more expressive brushstrokes.
They also had elements of other notable art movements sprinkled throughout them.
This was especially noticeable when iconic Cubist artists like Georges Baraque and Pablo Picasso took on the genre.
In the contemporary arts, still life is more prevalent, especially in photography, videos, and computers, which serve as a means to depict everyday scenes.
1. Dishes and Fruit by Henri Matisse
Henry’s most notable characteristic is seen in this still-life painting: the colors.
In this era of still life paintings, his magnificent use of colors was so popular that it started to become an inspiration for all the young artists at that time.
Upon viewing it for the first time, the viewer is faced with a complex situation and is amazed by the number of colors they are faced with.
With the warm yellow color absorbing the heat of the sun and the cooler lilac-violet color on the interior of the painting, the viewer is entrapped for hours. Today, it is housed at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
2. Violin And Candlestick by Georges Baraque
One of the most iconic cubist paintings, Violin and Candlestick, is from the time of Baraque’s life when he was confused about the artworks he wanted to do.
That is the reason why the painting is composed of darker hues and bland tones.
He also used straight lines and flat objects, which give the painting a 2d feel.
Aside from the difficulty of seeing the objects, it conveys a message to the viewer and the art world to move away from reality.
This painting also marked the start of the artist’s endeavor in Cubism.
It is now exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as one of the most famous abstract paintings ever created.
3. Compotier Avec Fruits, Violon Et Verre by Pablo Picasso
Among Pablo Picasso’s most celebrated artworks, this abstract still life is a masterpiece of modern art.
The entire painting is a composition of a tabletop scene composed of newspaper clippings, other pieces of paper, and colors sprinkled on top.
In order to make the paper cuts stand out clearly and to keep the focus on the painting, the background of the piece is kept white.
The collage still life painting was made to encourage other artists to deviate from the societal norms of realism and to advocate for the freedom of artistic expression.
The famous abstract painting now lies at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
4. Flowers by Odilon Redon
This famous flower painting of still life was painted by Odilon Redon, one of the renowned Artists of Post Impressionism
The artist painted it for his close friend, who was a curator of a botanical garden in Bordeaux.
The artist wanted to demonstrate a naturalistic sense of wonder with this painting and invoke a sense of inventive imagination in the viewer.
The vase, which occupies the center of the painting, was gifted to him by a famous ceramicist, Marie Botkin.
It features various flowers like tulips, dandelions, and lilies to signify unity among people. It is now part of a private collection.
5. Still Life with a Beer Mug by Fernand Leger
One of the most iconic paintings by the French artist depicts a Bavarian beer mug sitting on a square wooden table.
When asked about the painting, the famous artist said that it depicted a common workman’s table in France.
The table is juxtaposed against a geometric kitchen background, which appears to be flat and baseless in front of black and white flooring and a gridded kitchen wall.
Leger made several different versions of the same painting. There is also evidence that he reworked the original painting after he submitted it to a gallery in Paris.
Today it can be found at Von der Heydt Museum, Wuppertal
Suggested read: Famous paintings by Claude Monet
Is Still Life Painting Dead?
Because of the artist’s movement away from realism, the popularity of still life started to decrease.
Artists started to express their own feelings and messages through their art.
As a result, they began to distance themselves from Still Life.
Even today, still life isn’t dead; it’s just a dormant art form that has gone out of touch.
Despite the fact that still life is a technique used by some artists, it does not receive enough attention.
But it sure looks good, doesn’t it?
Just think about how much these paintings would enhance the décor in your rooms.
Now that you want one, we have you covered!
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