It's Stilleven, Nature Morte, Dead Nature, or Still Life

4 Jun 2012

The art of still life painting is a time-honored one that has been around since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. Still life paintings were often used to adorn the interiors of Egyptian tombs with the belief that these depictions of food and other objects would actually become real and available for use by the deceased in the afterlife. The ancient Romans adorned their homes with paintings and mosaics of food and flowers, which functioned as signs of hospitality and as celebrations of the seasons and of life. Down through the long course of history, still life painting has frequently been used to convey allegorical or metaphorical messages, often as part of a religious iconography. Among the first still life artists to divest their paintings of religious meaning were Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer, who made delightful studies of flora and fauna as part of their interest in exploring the natural world.

Lilacs in a Window by Mary Cassatt, 1880-1883, oil on canvas.
Lilacs in a Window by Mary Cassatt, 1880-1883, oil on canvas.

The English term, "still life," is derived from the Dutch equivalent "stilleven." Romance languages used the term, "dead nature" as in the French "nature morte." As the popularity of still life painting spread throughout Europe, stylistic differences developed between northern European art and that created in the south. The Flemish and Dutch tended to paint in a hyper-realistic style, while southern artists favored the softer naturalism of Caravaggio. Over time, many genres and sub-genres of still life art evolved, gained popularity and faded away to be replaced with the new preoccupations within the genre. The French artists of the 1700s, most notably Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin, were adept at borrowing from both the northern and southern traditions to make an entirely new type of still life artwork, which would eventually influence future generations of painters. Manet, Matisse, Cezanne, Braque, Soutine, Morandi and recently, Lucian Freud, all acknowledged their indebtedness to Chardin in their work.

With the dawning of Impressionist still life, allegorical and mythological content was completely dropped, as was meticulously detailed brush work. Impressionists instead focused on experimentation in broad, dabbing brush strokes, tonal values, and color placement. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were inspired by nature's color schemes but reinterpreted nature with their own color harmonies, which sometimes proved startlingly unnaturalistic. As Gauguin stated, "Colors have their own meanings."

Today, there is renewed interest in beautifully executed representational still lifes, the best of which, we think, borrow from the masters of the past while adding a contemporary sensibility to the work.

Our Members' article, The Ultimate Still Life Table shows how to construct an inexpensive, professional still life table. The table is the first step in creating a unique microcosm from objects that have interest and meaning for you. It also illustrates how to use both natural and artificial light sources to create dramatic and exciting compositions with low-cost fixtures, templates and color filters. Whether your goal is to create small daily paintings or larger studio masterpieces, building a permanent set-up like this opens the door to a world of creative expression in anyone's studio space, large or small.

For more interesting in-depth articles, demonstrations and valuable information, please join us on The Artist's Road.

--John & Ann


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