Part 2 (Intimacy) – Research point

Still life genre, 16th century to today 

Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels, c.1615 (oil on panel), Clara Peeters / Wikipedia
A Vase of Flowers, 1716 (oil on wood), Margareta Haverman / MET
Still Life with Game Fowl,Vegetables and Fruits, 1602 (oil on canvas), Juan Sánchez Cotán / Wikipedia
  • many elements in composition, mostly natural
  • vegetables, flowers, food, fruits, animals
  • scientific/botanical illustrations
  • realism, detailed, vivid colors
  • sharp contrast light and shadow

Still life as a genre began in the 17th century predominantly in the Netherlands, though German, French, Italian and Spanish still life can also be found from this period. In the 15th and 16th century, still life objects were implemented mostly as religious symbols in manuscripts, panel paintings and the like. The urbanisation of Dutch and Flemish society started to change this, bringing about the use of still life as a representation of wealth and possessions, everyday life and tradition, trade and commerce. Throughout the century, the paintings became increasingly decorative.

Still Life with a Curtain, c.1898 (oil on canvas), Paul Cézanne / Wikimedia
Still Life with duck, 1910, James Ensor / jean louis mazieres – Flickr
Still Life With A Red Rug, 1906 (oil on canvas), Henri Matisse / WikiArt
Glass and Lemons, 1927 (oil on panel), Georges Braque / Irina – Flickr
  • less ‘perfection’, less realistic colors, more abstraction
  • visible brush strokes
  • less focus on contrast between light and shadow
  • interpretation of form, looser structure
  • gesture, spontaneity
  • often, ignores perspective

The difference between the 16th-17th century and the 19th-20th centuries is very visible. As the’ ‘styles’ or ‘voices’ of each artist began emerging in the latter centuries, the paintings start to look less unified as a single art movement (such as the Dutch Golden Age) and it becomes easier to notice the difference between one artist and another, to identify the artist behind a given painting. The idea behind still life painting, however, remains similar, with the use of fruits, everyday objects, animals, and flowers. But the symbolism of certain objects has probably changed or lost/gained importance.

Vase and Bamboo, oil on canvas, Qiang Huang
Screen Shot 2017-08-03 at 9.45.56 AM
Luminescence 9, Erin Gregory


Sophie Leng
Sketchbook by Sarah Sedwick / Pinterest

One important thing I notice from contemporary still life painting is that they’re influenced by photography. I remember from a past anatomy teacher that he could tell which students had drawn from life and which had drawn from a photograph; the telltales signs were the lighting (if we added the highlights from a camera’s flash), the gesture (stiffness, lack of movement), and some difficulties with the volume of the figures (from observing a two-dimensional image rather than the real three-dimensional model). Some artists are able to achieve hyperrealistic artworks but it can be a bit apparent that the work has been done from an image and not from life.

On the positive side, experimentation and explorations of materials, objects and composition have grown along the centuries. I’ve seen some really incredible examples of still life photography (see Sophie Leng above), with an amazing use of composition and color. In general, the examples of contemporary still life I browsed in Pinterest seem to follow less dramatic light and shadow than before, use brighter colors, simple (often minimalist) compositions, and objects tend to look more two-dimensional/flatter.

As the still life genre evolved, I can see (this evolution is even visible in the pictures I have chosen) that the need to depict things starkly and as close to reality as possible, diminishes. It’s curious because I’m currently studying photography in my Creative Arts Today course and I can’t help but relate the origin and increasing popularity of photography to the decreasing need, by traditional artists, to copy reality.


Liedtke, Walter. (2003) Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600–1800. In: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. At: (Accessed on 2 August 2017)




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