Research Point – Part Two, Project 1 Composition (Still life)

Some research into the still life genre.  Look at different artistic interpretation overtime, in terms of subject matter, materials and composition, from the traditional approach in the 16th century onward through the 19th century to the contemporary artists of today. 

What is Still Life?

Still life is the art of drawing or painting inanimate objects such as fruit, flowers and household items which are usually arranged on a table or shelf.  Artists create still life paintings for various reasons: to reflect the status of their owner, be it humble or haughty; for their symbolic meaning which reveals a hidden story or idea; to capture the transient beauty of natural objects like flower or fruit; or as a controlled structure to express the abstract qualities of the visual elements.

Before the 17th century still life was usually limited to the background detail of religious figurative art usually with some symbolic significance.  However, during the Reformation, as the Catholic Church’s patronage of the arts declined, and the patronage of dealers and collectors grew, a greater demand for still life emerged, particularly in Protestant countries like Holland.  These early works were usually displays of rich possessions or lavish ‘banquet pieces’ which reflects the wealth of the patron.  Alternatively there were the ‘Vanitas’ works: objects depicted for their obvious symbolic meaning, warning us of the mortality – the skull, the hour glass, the burning candle, the smoking pipe, the open book etc.

However, as a subject in its own right, still life painting was considered to be a lower form of art. Some painters had achieved great skill in the realistic representation of objects, but it was not elevated to the status of a major art form until the work of Chardin emerged in the 18th century, followed by Cézanne in the 19th century and the abstract style of Cubism in the 20th century.[1]

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699 – 1779)

A French painter of still life and genre.  He was regarded as one of the greatest masters of Still Life in all time.  The painting style of the establishment in his day was Rococo.  His work is representing the naturalistic strain—influenced by 17th-century Dutch painting.  Almost all his pictures are modest in size and simple in subject, depicting objects and scenes from everyday middle-class life, and they create their magic through an extraordinarily subtle mastery of composition and colour, tone and texture.

Ray-fish (1725) Oil on canvas image from

In 1728 he was received into the Académie Royale as a ‘painter skilled in animals and fruits’. It was customary for new members to give an example of their work to the Académie and Chardin presented two pictures—The Rayfish (c.1725) and The Buffet (1728), both now in the Louvre, Paris. The Rayfish is, by Chardin’s standards, an unusually flamboyant work: the gutted fish has a strangely human-like ‘face’ twisted in a macabre grimace, and its raw flesh is depicted with virtuoso skill.

Chardin was quickly forgotten after his death. His reputation revived in the mid-19th century, when his integrity and directness impressed the exponents of Realism. Subsequently, the formal strength and masterly technique of his paintings have appealed enormously to modern taste, and he is now one of the best-loved artists of the 18th century and perhaps the most revered of all exponents of still life. [2]

More paintings can be found at BBC website

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906)

A French Post-Impressionist painter, often called “the father of modern art”, whose work laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th century conception of artistic endeavour to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century. Cezanne can be said to form the bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism.

Overturned Basket of Fruit (c1877) Oil on canvas, Glasgow Museums collection. Image from×544/gl_gm_2382_624x544.jpg

Fruit (1875) oil on canvas. I took the image at the Veletrzni Palace, Prague

Fruit (1875) oil on canvas.
I took the image in Mar 2014 at the Veletrzni Palace, Prague

Cezanne’s work demonstrates a mastery of design, colour, composition and draftsmanship. His often repetitive, sensitive and exploratory brushstrokes are highly characteristic and clearly recognisable. He used planes of colour and small brushstrokes that build up to form complex fields, at once both a direct expression of the sensations of the observing eye and an abstraction from observed nature. The paintings convey Cezanne’s intense study of his subjects, a searching gaze and a dogged struggle to deal with the complexity of human visual perception.

The most significant influence on the work of his early maturity was Camille Pissarro who introduced him to the new impressionist technique for rendering outdoor light.[3]

I must admit I did not much like Cezanne until I saw his original paintings.  The same applies to Van Gogh.

Juan Gris (1887-1927)

Coffee Mill (1924), Graphite on paper image from

Bottles and Knife (1911-1912), oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum (Netherlands – Otterlo) image from

School of Paris painter of still life and occasional figure subjects; one of the leading Cubists. Born in Madrid. Originally called José Gonzalez. Began to paint seriously in 1910 and participated from 1912 in the Cubist movement, his work being noted for its classical purity and lucidity.  Made a number of papiers collés 1913-15, then began to develop a more synthetic style, ‘a flat pictorial architecture’. [4]






Contemporary Still Life

There is no single unified contemporary style for Still Life.  This can be demonstrated from the images below.  They were found on the Red Rag Gallery website.  They are just a few amongst many of contemporary British artists on that website.  There are many others exist all over the world.  I found they cover all subject matters with different media.  Perhaps art world is less restrained these days.


[1] John MacTaggart. (2014). The art of Still Life. Available: Last accessed 21st Oct 2014.

[2] The Public Catalogue Foundation. (()). More about Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin. Available: Last accessed 22 Oct 2014.

[3] (0). Paul Cezanne – The Complete Works. Available: Last accessed 22 Oct 2014.

[4] Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.339 Available: Last accessed 22 Oct 2014.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s