Just over four centuries ago, a new genre in painting was born: still life. Almost immediately ranked the least significant of the genres, even below landscapes, it has since proved one of the most popular, with few painters completing their career without painting at least one still life. This series looks at still life paintings through the history of art, and ponders how we should read them. Do they give glimpses deep into a painter’s art or even their soul, or are they just elaborate doodles in paint?
Roman painters in classical times did produce a few works which are recognisably still lifes in the modern sense. This example is thought to have been painted between 63-79 CE, and was unearthed from the remains of Pompeii. Its image of fruit in a glass vase is thought to refer to a rite associated with death.
It was probably Hans Memling (c 1340-1494) who painted one of the first still lifes, on the back of a panel bearing a portrait of a young man praying, in about 1485. It has been proposed that this was part of a diptych or triptych, and could have formed its back cover when folded.
His choice of jug and flowers confirms its religious nature: Christ’s monogram is prominent on the body of the jug, and each of the the flowers has specific references. Lilies refer to the purity of the Virgin Mary, the irises to her roles as Queen of Heaven and in the Passion, and the small aquilegia flowers have associations with the Holy Spirit. The eastern pattern on the rug is so distinctive of the artist that these became referred to as Memling rugs.
Despite Memling’s clear precedent, you may see this work by Jacopo de’ Barbari attributed as the first still life. Still-Life with Partridge and Iron Gloves was painted in 1504, and certainly breaks away from the idea that this genre is just about flowers and fruit.
The armoured gauntlets were distinctive of those operating crossbows at the time, and are joined by a crossbow bolt. Whether these had been used to kill the partridge is less clear, but the theme is manifestly about hunting. The artist employs the idiosyncratic device of placing his signature on a piece of paper which appears to be attached to the painting, a neat trompe l’oeil. Sadly, hardly any of de’ Barbari’s other paintings have survived, so it’s not known whether he painted other still lifes.
Conventional histories of still life painting omit its greatest exponent in the sixteenth century: the unique Giuseppe Arcimboldo who turned his still lifes into portraits. This is perhaps most apparent in The Librarian above, and at its most extreme in the allegorical still life of Summer below.
Arcimboldo was one of a kind, lacked any followers, and doesn’t appear to have influenced others to follow suit.
My next example is attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Figino (1553–1608), and is this Metal Plate with Peaches and Vine Leaves (1591-94). By later standards, this is quite conventional, with a popular fruit and decoration. Quite why Figino painted it isn’t clear.
The first real milestone still life is Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit from just before the turn of the century, which is not only the first of the genre painted by a major master, but has been the subject of much debate.
What at first appears to be a trompe l’oeil basket of summer fruit, including peach, apple, pear, figs, quince and grapes, isn’t fit for consumption. Almost all of them, with the exception of the quince, are victims of parasites or disease. Suggestions as to how this should be read include fading beauty, natural decay, and as a metaphor of the Catholic Church of the time.
A later still life is also attributed to Caravaggio.
At about the same time, the first artists who painted several still lifes were starting to develop the new genre.
Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627) was among these, as shown by his Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber from about 1600. These are set in another trompe l’oeil of a small alcove, with the quince and cabbage strung up to enjoy stark contrast against the black background.
These are a form of bodegón, a genre unique to Spanish painting, with references to food and its casual consumption. By the time that Diego Velázquez painted them later in the seventeenth century, they had become more elaborate and usually figurative in content.
In Italy, the first artist to have painted several still lifes appears to have been Fede Galizia (1578–1630), a Milanese woman. Her Crystal Fruit Stand with Peaches, Quinces, and Jasmine Flowers probably dates from 1607 and shows off her expertise in painting glass, as well as capturing the different surface textures of the fruit.
Galizia’s slightly later Maiolica Basket of Fruit dates from the 1610s, and is another exercise in realism.
It’s surely more than coincidence that one of the first major exponents of the genre was another badly under-rated woman painter, this time from Antwerp: Clara Peeters (fl 1607-1621).
Venetian Glass, Roemer and a Candlestick (1607) is one of Peeters’ earliest known works, which shows an extraordinary skill in rendering the varied surfaces and their optical properties. It is also one of the first still lifes in which the artist has included their own image reflected in the motif, here the base of the candlestick holder.
As in many still lifes, its contents have interesting symbolic meaning. The confectionery shown is sweet and ephemeral, the ring a sign of earthly riches and temporal relationships, the fly an indicator of earthly decay, and the burning candle combines remembrance with the strict limits on lifespan in this world. This is not just a still life, but an expression of vanitas, the futility and limits of our earthly existence. I will return to Peeters’ work and vanitas in the next article in this series.
By this time, still life paintings were enjoying growing popularity in the buoyant market of the Dutch Golden Age. Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573–1621) painted this Flower Still Life in oil on copper in 1614, during the early years.
At first its eclectic mixture of different flowers and flying insects appears haphazard. These merit a deeper reading, though: the flowers include carnation, rose, tulip, forget-me-nots, lilies of the valley, cyclamen, violet and hyacinth. These could never, at that time, have bloomed at the same time. The butterflies, bee and dragonfly are as ephemeral as the flowers around them. This too has more than a touch of vanitas.
By 1620, still life paintings were much in demand in northern Europe, and had ceased being occasional curiosities. Bosschaert’s career and family business was founded on the still life, which had come of age at last.