So far these cross-cutting articles looking at themes in still life painting have been fairly mainstream: places at the table and apples, for instance. Many devoted still life artists have had their own favourites too: for William Merritt Chase, it was fresh fish, while Vincent van Gogh is world famous for his sunflowers, of course.
Still life painting has also attracted the more unusual, eclectic collections of objects which can only be described as eccentric. This article gathers together some of my favourites, starting with the most eccentric still life paintings in the whole of Europe, those of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Who else turned his still lifes into portraits? This is perhaps at its most extreme in the allegorical still life of Summer below. He has even worked his signature and the year into the jacket woven from wheatstalks.
Arcimboldo was one of a kind, lacked any followers, and doesn’t appear to have influenced others to follow suit.
While Pieter Boel’s Still Life with a Globe and a Parrot from about 1658 continues the tradition of displaying surfaces with contrasting optical properties, with outstanding three-dimensional effects in the plate and goblet in the foreground, there’s also more to it.
The globe shows the Pacific Ocean and the north-west coast of America, with the ‘Dutch’ East Indies at its left edge. The bas-relief plate shows a scene from mythology, in which male and female deities are riding in a chariot. The god appears to be holding a trident, suggesting that he is Neptune. The two porcelain bowls at the far right appear Chinese, and there are two living creatures – the white parrot (or, perhaps, cocktiel) and a small dog at the bottom left corner. These, coupled with the design on the carpet, appear to provide many days work to bring their associations together in a reading, perhaps centred on Dutch Golden Age trade with those East Indies.
Some of the most eccentric still life paintings express the feeling of vanitas and weariness with the world which came to pervade parts of the Low Countries during what should have been a Golden Age rather than a period to obsess with death.
Carstian Luyckx includes a wide range of symbolic objects in his undated Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life. These include another globe representing the physical world, the gall from a tree, a snuffed-out candle, seashells, and coral. He uses another common device found in vanitas painting: an open book, here showing King Charles I, who was executed in 1649, and his wife Henrietta Maria of France, who was deposed as queen of England by the civil wars, which forced her to flee to France in 1644.
The great master of still lifes Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin is noted for his choice of unusual objects. Late in his career, in 1766, he painted The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them, in which each item has a clear association.
Painting is represented by the brushes and palette on top of a paintbox. Architectural drawings and drawing tools represent architecture. The bronze pitcher at the right refers to the work of the goldsmith. The red portfolio tied with ribbons represents drawing. The plaster model of the figure of Mercury in the centre is a copy of a sculpture by J B Pigalle, a friend of Chardin, who was the first sculptor to win the highest French honour for artists, the Order of Saint Michael, whose cross and ribbon are shown at the left.
Chardin’s much lesser-known successor Anne Vallayer-Coster made some unusual choices of objects in her Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals from 1769.
Like many of his contemporaries, Elihu Vedder developed a fascination for objets d’art from the Far East, which he assembled in this Japanese Still Life in 1879, which looks as if Whistler might have borrowed them for one of his portraits.
Cézanne painted a series of arrangements of skulls, here in his Pyramid of Skulls (1898-1900), for example. These appear to be a development of the vanitas painting, as his thoughts turned towards the end of his life. These skulls are preserved in his studio in a suburb of Aix-en-Provence.
Before Vincent van Gogh took to his signature sunflowers, he too painted an eclectic collection of objects, and is perhaps the first major artist to have featured well-worn boots.
This image of his Pair of Shoes from early 1887 has been digitally reconstructed to reproduce its original colours better. Van Gogh apparently bought boots from flea-markets, selecting them for signs of wear. This pair shows the many hobnails in their sole, and has marked wear at both toe and heel.
Van Gogh also seems to have used still life paintings to indicate his favourite choice of book.
In December of the same year, he painted this Still Life with Plaster Statuette, a Rose and Two Novels, which anticipates Cézanne’s use of a plaster cherub in his still lifes around 1895. The two books are interesting choices: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami (‘Dear Friend’), his second novel published in 1885, and Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s Germinie Lacerteux, published in 1865, which is about a peasant girl who succumbs to nymphomania. Racy reading indeed.
Most recently, the Golden Age vanitas painting has been effectively revived in Jeylina Ever’s topical Vanitas Symbolizing Childhood Disease, Culture, Time Passing and Death from 2009, more than a decade before the present pandemic, and more topical than ever. But I somehow doubt that pioneers of still life painting like Clara Peeters ever envisaged this particular collection of objects.