A bowl of fruit, a banquet table festooned with game, a pile of books: though they may seem simple, everyday objects are still worthy of an artist’s brush or photographer’s lens. They can evoke a mood, demonstrate an artist’s skill, and remind you of life’s hidden and temporary beauty. A work of art that depicts collections of objects is called “still life.” Here are the qualities that define a still life, and reveal why artists return to the genre again and again.
What Is a Still Life?
The term “still life” describes a work of art that shows inanimate objects from the natural or man-made world, such as fruit, flowers, dead game, and/or vessels like baskets or bowls. Looked at another way: still lifes depict things that are “still” and don’t move.
Still life is a genre that spans art history. It is found everywhere from ancient Egyptian tombs—decorated with paintings of objects from daily life—to works of modern art where it provided opportunities to experiment with new techniques, forms, and styles. The genre became particularly popular in the Netherlands during the 17th century when urbanization led to a greater emphasis on the home, personal possessions, and commerce.
Why Make a Still Life?
Take a look at the above painting, Still Life with Apples. Paul Cézanne painted these same objects—the green vase, the rum bottle, the ginger pot, and apples—over and over throughout the last thirty years of his life. He used these objects as the basis for experimentations with their shape, color, lighting, and placement.
There are many possible reasons an artist may be inspired to create a still life. Like Cézanne, they may wish to play with perspective and the arrangement of objects in the picture plane (otherwise known as “composition”) or highlight different techniques.
Other times, a still life represents something significant about the artist—like a prolonged period of time spent indoors. Or, it could provide practical benefits, like eliminating the need to hire a model or travel to a landscape.
“Photographer Edward Weston was so poor at one point that he began to make still life photographs using fruits and vegetables rather than going out to find pictures in the landscape. Sometimes he had trouble keeping his children away from his subjects, all of which were subsequently eaten,” said Paul Martineau, associate curator in the Department of Photographs at the Getty Museum.
Life, Death, and the Passage of Time
Though it may appear simple, still life art can also portray complex themes. Some celebrate life and its pleasures by showing off food, wine, and material riches as in the above painting Still Life with Ewer, Vessels, and Pomegranate by Willem Kalf.
“Kalf’s meticulous brushwork captures the details of the reflective, glimmering metals, as well as the more textured, voluptuous surfaces of the edible objects,” said Nicole Block, Getty’s curatorial assistant in paintings.
But look carefully—there are signs of a human presence nearby. The wine glass is only half full and the bread is torn, as though someone has just taken a piece and then vanished.
Still life can also warn of the dangers or temporary nature of these pleasures. Memento mori (“remember you must die” in Latin) and vanitas paintings both tackle themes of death and fragility. Memento mori typically include skulls, extinguished candles, and hourglasses while vanitas also include other symbols of vanity like wine and musical instruments.
“Sometimes you’ll see the flowers or food rotting in a still life, or notice a skull or an hourglass, reminding you that death is the ultimate end for us all,” said Block. “Moralizing religious messages about gluttony or greed could also be built into these tableaus.”
Still lifes may be painted, drawn, photographed, or sculpted. You can create a still life in any medium, and you don’t need a skull or a bowl of fruit for inspiration.
Still life art has featured objects like fishing supplies, a tea set, and a bouquet of flowers—as long as the subjects are inanimate, the work is part of the still life genre. Inspiration for still life can truly come from anywhere; perhaps your bedroom, kitchen table, or desk could be a compelling “canvas.”
Make Your Own Still Life
This past year has been, well, a lot. We want to see the objects that have helped you get this far – whether that’s something around your home or in out in your neighborhood.
Make your own still life of 3 things that represent this past year, or have helped you through it.
Here’s how to join in:
- Pick three objects. Consider size, shape, texture, and contrast between them.
- Arrange them. Will they be stacked, draped, hung, or scattered, and what is the background?
- Capture it. Play with light, shadow, and material before you sketch, paint, or photograph.
Share your still life with us by posting photos of your creations on Instagram and tagging #GettyStillLifeChallenge!