People have been painting objects for thousands of years, and the earliest work was produced in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians would paint food and valuables on tomb walls and in temples as offerings for gods. They weren’t interested in perspective, shading, or making their paintings look realistic; their aim was to clearly show what each object was. Think of Greek and Romans and chances are you’ll think of Pompeii. Their still life artwork was more realistic than that of the Egyptians, with more of an emphasis on shading and colouring.
Northern European Renaissance
Fast-forward to after the fall of Rome and interest in still-life disappeared until the 1500s. Northern Europe developed oil paint, which allowed for far greater detail and realism. Objects also began to take on symbolism and were used to show an artist’s skill, as well as being a sign of wealth. Still life objects were also used in other types of paintings featuring people as symbols of the subject.
A very specific type of still life to come to the fore at this time was ‘vanitas’ painting, where objects would include wilting flowers, skulls and burnt candles. Why were they painting such depressing subject matters? It was to symbolise the fact that wealth and fortune don’t matter – it all means nothing because we die anyway!
Still life became extremely popular in the 19th century, but photo-realistic painting was no longer a priority; after all, photography had now been invented! The focus was now on shapes, colours and how the paint was applied to the canvas. Paul Cezanne was one of the most respected artists of the time; his work laid the foundations for still life as we know it. And let’s not forget another famous example of still life from this time: Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ (which sold in 1987 for a mere $40 million).
Picasso and Braques invented the style of painting known as ‘Cubism’. Inspired by Cezanne, they painted objects from numerous points of view instead of one in order to create something unique and give a clearer representation. It is often hard to decipher what the object in the painting is, so the art form was getting one step closer to abstract painting.
Modern still life painting
By the 1950s, total abstraction dominated the art world. Abstract expressionism had reduced still life to raw depictions of form and colour. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, the trend was reversed when a new form of still life emerged: pop art. Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’, for example, is based on still life. A major contribution to the development of still life painting in the 20th century was made by Russian artists, including Sergei Osipov and Victor Teterin. At the other end of the scale, photorealism was on the rise in the 1970s and reaffirmed illusionistic representation, but at the same time it kept some of pop art’s message of the fusion of image and commercial product. The most famous artists to emerge from this genre were Ralph Goings and Don Eddy.
As our world evolves, new artefacts, products and modern media will offer new avenues for the development of still life. Whether you decide to paint a skull or a sunflower, pick up your paintbrush and embrace still life. Happy painting!
Why not take a look at our Art and Craft supplies to try out still life for yourself at home.