Despite concentrating on landscape painting, the French Impressionists and several Post-Impressionists continued to paint still lifes, some quite prolifically. But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, and modernism grew imminent, what became of the genre?
Although traditional styles gradually fell away and were forgotten, some artists still created still lifes which would have been at home in the Dutch Golden Age. William Harnett’s Last Summer Rose from 1886 is a thoroughly conventional still life apart from its eccentric title, which refers to the flute music hanging over the edge of the table. Why is the candlestick skewiff, and whose cigarette smoke is at the left edge?
Harnett’s Mr. Hulings’ Rack Picture (1888) refers to another older theme, and the once-popular trompe l’oeil.
Much like the avant garde American artist Charles Demuth, Odilon Redon painted a succession of conventional floral still lifes, such as his Vase of Flowers (c 1900-10). In Demuth’s case, these were his convalescent therapy when he was suffering the consequences of his diabetes. I don’t know why Redon painted his, although they may have functioned as studies of flowers which he then incorporated into his other paintings, often with exuberance.
In 1913 another radical, Paul Sérusier, painted colour-themed Synchronies. His Synchrony in Green (1913) is a still life with that colour as its theme, contrast being provided by three lemons.
Toward the end of the 1910s, Olga Boznańska painted a series of quite radical still lifes featuring Japanese objects, such as this Still Life with White Flowers and a Japanese Doll (1919).
The laid-up meal table was another long-established theme which became popular again in still life painting in the early twentieth century. This is Nikolai Astrup’s peek into his domestic life, Interior Still Life: Living Room at Sandalstrand from about 1921. There’s a tapestry hanging in the corner, an unidentified painting on the wall, potted plants, a bowl of fruit, and an articulated wooden figure leaning against a pitcher of milk.
The master of these domestic still lifes in the first third of the twentieth century was Pierre Bonnard, of course.
Bonnard’s Grapes (1928) is one of two almost identical versions of this rather gentle still life. In both he opted for a red background for colour contrast.
In about 1930, Bonnard painted a pair of still lifes set against landscapes which support their colour theme. In Fruit, Harmony in the Dark, the deep red of the apples matches that of the balcony and landscape beyond.
Its pendant, Fruit, Harmony in the Light (c 1930), apparently painted in gouache and watercolour, sets the yellows and reds of its fruit against an indoor background of similar colours.
More of Bonnard’s paintings from these years were made in watercolour and gouache, like this Still Life with a Saucepan from 1930-32. The table top is now filled with signs of the preparation rather than consumption of food.
Some of Bonnard’s watercolours reveal his continuing emphasis on form. In Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth (1930-35), he shuns Nabi flatness by projecting the checkered pattern according to perspective again, rather than laying it flat as if decoration.
Bonnard’s style and facture may be a world away from those of the past, but still life painting was still very much alive in the 1930s, as I’ll show in the next article in this series.