Monthly Archives: July 2016

Part 2: Project 1: Composition: The Still Life Genre (Part 3: The Cubists – Picasso and Braque)

Cubism, the child of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque – with a little DNA from Paul Cezanne – burst into the art world in 1907/1908. The ‘birth’ iitself is often attributed to Picasso’s celebrated painting Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907.

Cubists abandoned the representation of real space from a fixed viewpoint (how we see and recognise the world in our mind’s eye when looking at an object) that had been the norm since the Renaissance. This used linear perspective and colour perspective to ape reality. In modern day parlance traditional paintings represented photoshopped photographs – enhanced reality (they always added emotion, psychology and often ideology) but passed themselves off as ‘natural’. Even though they were never real or natural and composed with great skill and artifice.

The Cubists said that when we look at an object we construct it’s true form by viewing it from many angles, we move our head and body, swivel our eyes, look underneath it… and that the ‘reality’ of the object is built from these many viewpoints. So in their paintings they reproduce this ‘reality’. The difference being that in real life these viewpoints are processed sequentially (and each one is complete when it is viewed) whereas in Cubism they are all seen at the same time by painting multiple viewpoints on a single picture plane.

In life we combine the view from our two eyes (to make a 3D image in our head) which changes as we move. In cubism all the different viewpoints are combined in one moment on the flat canvas destroying the single viewpoint; fragmenting and shattering the objects so they lose their form and the painting becomes abstract.

This foregrounds the artists rather than the objects.

We are not looking at a sumptuos bunch of flowers but a flat abstract composition – we are looking at the artist not the objects.

Pablo Picasso also noted that African tribal masks  are highly stylised, and mix picture plains in one image, but are still recognisably human. That a head is a matter of two eyes, a mouth and a nose… and it doesn’t matter how they are distributed you will still ‘see’ a head.

This is disingenuous as the facial features of an African mask are roughly contained in a recognisable head shape and in the right place… just on another plane (similar to nieve or  ancient Egyptian art) in Cubism the (multiple) picture planes are out of place and the objects have lost any recogniseable shape.

Generally, Cubism is said to span six years and is split into Analytical and Synthetic cubism.

(1) Analytical cubism from 1908-1912.

These are a complex interweaving of picture planes in a limited range of mid blacks, greys and ochres. This fragments the objects so the viewer has to work hard to ‘decode’ them.

Bottle and Clarinet; Bouteille et Clarinette, 1910-1911 (oil on canvas)

CH826300 Bottle and Clarinet; Bouteille et Clarinette, 1910-1911 (oil on canvas) by Braque, Georges (1882-1963); 65x50c cm; Private Collection; ( Bottle and Clarinet; Bouteille et Clarinette. Georges Braque (1882-1963). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1910-11. 65 x 50cm.); Photo © Christie’s Images; French, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist’s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

On first viewing this still life by Braque looks like an abstract… a mathematical and artistic excercise on a flat surface balancing tonally similar colours and multiple shapes into an aesthetic whole. Slowly the objects become clearer but this is not about the bottle and the flute it is a mediatation about the nature of art, the role of the viewer and the artists place in representing the world.

In fact, the obects are almost a dissonance in the aesthetic harmony as they intoroduce a distracting noise by refering back to the still life.

So, even though it is classified as a still life because it ‘depicts’ an arrangement of objects I would say this is a cubist painting and not a still life, as it is not about the arrangement of objects but an artistic theory of seeing.


Picasso: 1911 Still Life with a Bottle of Rum

Here Picasso has an even more muted tonal range than Braque and the viewer struggles to see the bottle of rum at all. Another difference are the painted letters which foreshadow the later cubist collages using real objects like newsprint.

This works as a beautifull harmoneous whole, with the eye constantly moving and yet strangely relaxed.

The visual raw material may have been a still life but this ‘works’ as an abstract not as a still life.

It has nothing to do with the arrangement or essence of the objects and everything to do with an individual artist and his artistic theory of seeing.

(2) Synthetic cubism from 1912-1914.

This uses simpler shapes and brighter colours making the objects more recogniseable so we can see real shapes and enjoy the colour balance. They also introduced real materials into the painting such as newspaper print.

Still Life with a Pipe, 1914 (oil on canvas)

XIR210306 Still Life with a Pipe, 1914 (oil on canvas) by Braque, Georges (1882-1963); 38×46 cm; Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France; ( Nature Morte a la Pipe;); Giraudon; French, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist’s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.

Firstly, it’s interesting to note Braque’s used a tondo format rather than the conventional rectangle… yet set the tondo is set in a rectange… which begs the question of whether the neutral light brown is part of the painting or not. Whatever, it indicates an openess and experimentation to art.

There’s a much bigger colour and tonal range.

And the jug and pipe are immediately recognisable.

On one level this makes it into a still life… a contemplation or observation of arranged objects but on the other hand if you removed these elements (try putting your finger over them) the painting becomes totally abstract.

So it is a hybrid… on looking at later Braque still lifes the cubist element diminished and the colours and still life became dominant (see below).

Maybe Cubism was an experiemnt with seeing that ran it’s course and lost it’s market? Or maybe it was only, ever, for the artists themselves?

Still Life with Fork; Nature morte a la Fourchette, 1929 (oil on canvas)

CH653591 Still Life with Fork; Nature morte a la Fourchette, 1929 (oil on canvas) by Braque, Georges (1882-1963); 38×56 cm; Private Collection; ( Still Life with Fork; Nature morte a la Fourchette. Georges Braque (1881-1963). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1929. 38 x 56cm.); Photo © Christie’s Images; French, in copyright PLEASE NOTE: This image is protected by the artist’s copyright which needs to be cleared by you. If you require assistance in clearing permission we will be pleased to help you.


Still Life with Violin and Fruit (1912), Pablo Picasso.

The tonal and colour range has grown, and the painted letters have become a collage of newsprint.

We can see the pears and violin but they are not connected and this could have been painted without any reference to a still life.

It refers outwards to the wider world rather than inwards to the intimacy of the objects before him. The viewer isn’t focussed on the objects but projected into a non literal space.

Even though we can see a violin and a pear they are elements in an abstract composition not objects in a still life. The connections are aesthetic (black and white rectangles for structure  and orange newsprint complementing the blue violin) and ideological (the nature of art and and the role of the artist) not for example the placement of a blue vase next to an orange bowl.

Though the language of colour is used both in abstract and still life painting.

 These Cubist still lifes are beautiful meditations stripped of their association with arranged objects and are therefore a form of abstract painting not still life.





Part 2: Project 1: Composition: The Still Life Genre (Nineteenth-century and Paul Cezanne)


The mid to late nineteenth century was period of dramatic change for art as great socio economic and technological changes slowly took hold.

In European art it saw the first cracks in the hegemony of salon art and practices established in the Renaissance. For example in France academic painting was losing its grip as the gatekeeper for genre and style with the rise of the Impressionists in France and the opening of alternative Salons: The Salon de Refuses in 1863 and the Salon des Independents in 1883.

This break away had two distinct phases.

Firstly it weakened the hierarchy of genres and landscape and still life, which had been considered lesser genres for minor artists, flourished. As seen in Henri Fantin-Latour.

Gladioli and Roses, 1881 (oil on canvas)

CH988636 Gladioli and Roses, 1881 (oil on canvas) by Fantin-Latour, Ignace Henri Jean (1836-1904); 67.3×51.5 cm; Private Collection; ( Gladioli and Roses; Glaieuls et Roses. Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Oil on canvas. Signed and dated 1881. 67.3 x 51.5cm.); Photo © Christie’s Images; French, out of copyright

I looked at a selection of ‘traditional’ nineteenth century still life painters and Henri Fantin-Latour seemed typical and as I hadn’t heard of any of the others (you could do a whole research paper but there has to be some focussing to this Research point) I’m just using him as an example.

His paintings all seemed much more ‘homely’ than the earlier Dutch still lifes… they didn’t exhibit extravagant wealth and used objects you could easily find in any middle class home… the flowers and fruit were in season and the backgrounds almost monotone (with a base for the objects and a wall behind).

They looked real rather than ‘splendid’ and glowing… like a ‘painting’ of any vase of flowers you might have at home and they were generally modest in size.

And they didn’t have the symbolic insects or skulls of the Vanitas paintings.

From this I would hypothesise that they were painted for a new up and coming middle classes and reflected their lifestyles. Comfortable but not excessively rich. And not governed by the old traditions of symbolism in still lifes or maybe not sophisticated in art traditions.

No doubt there still remained a small market for the old genres like Pronk paintings (as there would still be rich buyers) but maybe they had gone out of fashion.

Flowers and Fruits, 1865 (oil on canvas)

CH1767853 Flowers and Fruits, 1865 (oil on canvas) by Fantin-Latour, Ignace Henri Jean (1836-1904); 55.9×68.3 cm; Private Collection; ( Flowers and Fruits. Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1865. 55.9 x 68.3cm.); French, out of copyright

In Flowers and Fruits there is the same realism (the flowers don’t ‘glow’) with a modest vase, plates and baskets. Simple fruits and a seasonal collection of flowers.

Sweet Peas; Pois de Senteur, 1888 (oil on canvas)

CH1765189 Sweet Peas; Pois de Senteur, 1888 (oil on canvas) by Fantin-Latour, Ignace Henri Jean (1836-1904); Private Collection; ( Sweet Peas; Pois de Senteur. Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). Oil on canvas. Dated 1888.); French, out of copyright

Here again what looks like it could be a natural arrangement of freshly picked sweet peas. A parlour piece everybody could understand and admire.

Secondly the very nature of the genre changed with the impressionists… no longer looking from the outside but experiencing in the moment.

For this I looked at Manet and Monet as the two most famous impressionists and after reading Manet painted many still lifes.

White Lilac in a Crystal Vase, 1882 (oil on canvas)

LEF220656 White Lilac in a Crystal Vase, 1882 (oil on canvas) by Manet, Edouard (1832-83); 55×34 cm; Private Collection; ( Lilas blanc dans un Vase de Crystal;); Photo © Lefevre Fine Art Ltd., London; French, out of copyright

Here Manet presents us with a glittering display of scent and sunshine… the painting swallows you up. It embraces your senses. This is not real, it’s not eternal… it’s a warm Spring day.

The flowers will fall, the sun will set and the scent will fade.

But for now we are lost in the moment.

Oysters, 1862 (oil on canvas)

XOS1765963 Oysters, 1862 (oil on canvas) by Manet, Edouard (1832-83); 39.2×46.8 cm; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA; French, out of copyright

Here Manet paints oysters good enough to eat… they’re not real or defined but you can almost reach out and taste them.

Somehow he has captured the essence of the moment rather than the reality of the object.

He shares some DNA with the traditional nineteenth century still life painters in the homely subject; the simple, almost monochrome background and the differentiation between wall and table.

Vase of Chrysanthemums, 1882 (oil on canvas)

CH1767895 Vase of Chrysanthemums, 1882 (oil on canvas) by Monet, Claude (1840-1926); 95.3×70 cm; Private Collection; ( Vase of Chrysanthemums. Claude Monet (1840-1926). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1882. 95.3 x 70cm.); French, out of copyright

Monet leaps into a feast of colour. The balance of colours in flowers, vase and background is stunning and almost as important as the subject… on the right hand side the wall and table almost blend into one. You are in the room with the vase taken by the moment.

And yet even though they are not real in the traditional sense you can touch and smell these flowers. The highlights give the petals definition and our imagination does the rest. You don’t so much look at these flowers as a painting of reality but more enter into the reality of the painting.

You are not outside the painting looking at a work of art but pulled into and joined to the experience of looking at those flowers.

Azaleas, 1885 (oil on canvas)

NUL407662 Azaleas, 1885 (oil on canvas) by Monet, Claude (1840-1926); 51.5×38 cm; Private Collection; French, out of copyright

Here Monet takes the process even further to the point of almost losing the individual flowers in any objective sense. They are splodges of colour not perfectly rendered blooms.

Again it forces you to join with the painting… to lose yourself in the joyous riot of harmonious colour.

You cannot observe the painting from outside you have to experience it from the inside. Even the background makes a coloured pattern and becomes not a negative space but a colourist element in the composition.

So, whereas traditionally still life had been an aesthetic arrangements of objects with the impressionists it became an exploration in colourism and the (1) ‘… casual temporariness.’ of things. Their fruit would rot and flowers fade, unlike the Dutch seventeenth century paintings whose eternal flowers had to be aged by ideology the impressionist had no need of a skull or an insect, they painted a passing moment that was corporeal in essence.

And then there was Paul Cezanne…

Still Life with Fruit Dish, 1879-80 (oil on canvas)

XMV2639943 Still Life with Fruit Dish, 1879-80 (oil on canvas) by Cezanne, Paul (1839-1906); 46.4×54.6 cm; Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; ( Nature Morte au Compotier. Painting once owned by Paul Gauguin.); French, out of copyright

The whole painting is a composition with the background being almost as important as the objects… no neutral background but interlocking planes carefully toned colour. There is no linear perspective which gives the paintings their odd flatness.

The fruit has lost it’s ‘fruitiness’ and becomes a sculpted object. Sculpted with colour perspective and small heavy brushstrokes of paint, almost physically. These apples are neither real, eternal… and you can’t pick them up or taste them.

Still Life with Statuette (oil on canvas)

SNM128517 Still Life with Statuette (oil on canvas) by Cezanne, Paul (1839-1906); 63×81 cm; © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden; French, out of copyright

When first painted they were revolutionary and did not sell. (4) Cezanne was in debt and eventually abandoned by even his greatest supporter Emile Zola, who said that though he had genius inside him he couldn’t realise it on canvas.

In Still Life with Statuette we can see this process developing further. The background is almost as important as the still life objects… the composition and the canvas are highlighted… the statuette, cloth and background all part of a complex tonal composition. And a composition of warmer colours in the foreground. We are very aware that this is a two dimensional plane painted by an artist and we are not looking either at an illusion of reality or even an illusion of a transitory moment.

We are looking at his vision of those objects.

In short, he was revolutionary in using the still life to foreground the role of the artist. By  abandoning the artifice of making the picture plane into an illusion of reality he emphasised that the painting (3) ‘… is a flat two-dimensional object.’ created by a human.

The artifice is not hidden but highlighted.

He abandons both the reality of the idealised eternal beauty of traditional still life and the impressionist’s illusion of moment… the smell of a flower or taste of a fruit and replaces them with the artist’s personal ‘optical’ vision.

The only traditional element of still life are the objects, but objects that are no longer symbolic, eternal or touchable but (2) ‘… decorative objects coexisting in the same flat space.’

What does he put in its place?

In it’s place is a new aesthetic and an artistic theory about the nature of art and the role of artist.

He abandons linear perspective which flattens his paintings and uses colour perspective to model objects. He slightly changes his viewpoint so the paintings are not from the traditional single viewpoint. He ‘sculpts’ objects in paint using small brush strokes. He uses contrasting planes of colour in a complex and beautifully subtle tonal arrangement of colour.

In many ways he bridges the gap between traditional realist painting and a (3) ‘flat abstract approach.’ He pursues an (2) ‘essence of art’ (as he sees it) and (2) suppresses earthly delights.

His objects are still recognisable those of a still life – an apple or a vase – but possess an otherworldly, almost meditative, beauty. No longer real, no longer eternal, no longer with taste or smell… their individuality has been replaced with his individuality.


Articles used in this essay.


The dark side of the fruit: why still life began to rot in the 19th century

Jonathan Jones on art     Monday 13 February 2012


Nineteenth Century Still Lifes


And the book:

(4) Musee d’Orsay – Art and Architecture by H.F.Ullmann

Part 2: Project 1: Composition: The Still Life Genre (Early Dutch)

As suggested in the OCA text book I’m splitting my research into parts.

Firstly traditional approaches to Still Life by sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century century Dutch painters (though I might widen it slightly to Northern Europe as nothing works in isolation especially the art world where there is constant cross fertilisation of movements, ideas and technical innovation… for example in Musee d’Orsay, Art and Architecture by Peter J. Gartner it’s clear that artists were influenced both by the historical and political setting in Paris – by technical developments like photography – by the provinces – by the Oriental style of art – by Japanese wood prints and by other artists in Europe)… so too for the artists in any epoch.

Secondly, how the genre was interpreted by nineteenth-century artists like Paul Cezanne. And finally how young contemporary artists are working in the genre today.


An introduction is necessary because as I do my research the role of the market becomes increasingly important.

Most importantly, if you do something full time you are going to get better at it.

A full time professional artist has to sell his work consistently and earn enough to pay all his/her bills. This might seem blindingly obvious but it has only just hit me. That’s why art flourishes in rich stable societies and withers in unstable (war torn) impoverished ones.

With that in mind the artist either has to sell a few expensive paintings or lots or lots of cheap ones. I don’t know the cost of artists materials in the 1600’s but suspect they were relatively dearer than today. If a canvas, oil paints and framing now costs up to £100 a painting you would have to sell at least one a week at at £600 (£500 profit) to earn £26,000 a year, just below the median income for 2015.16 of £27,600. There are not many ‘ordinary’ people that can afford £600 for a painting in the living room, so your buyers are rich individuals, corporations or the state.

And if you can’t earn a living you can’t paint full time unless you are supported by a benefactor or prepared to starve in a garrett. If you have to work in a ‘day job’ your art is squeezed into free time after a tiring day’s work and between other commitments.

That being the case today, I would suggest it was also the case in the sixteenth-century and seventeenth century.

Which puts some very important criteria in place.

Foremost the work would have to please it’s sophisticated buyer. To do that it would have to be of a very high technical quality and be something they ‘approve of’, either for it’s meaning or aesthetics (or a combination of the two).

(1) Still Life by sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Dutch painters

This is a quote from Rijks Museum (but I didn’t save the link and can’t find it now)… “Still-life was one of a number of new genres in painting that became popular in seventeenth-century Holland, after the collapse of religious patronage in the previous century (as did landscape, domestic interiors, and townscapes).”

Religion was the equivalent of a present day multinational corporation – so if one monolithic source of work dried up what replaced it? It was replaced by rich individuals created by the  urbanisation of the northern and Spanish Netherlands. These people weren’t bound by a single set of beliefs or doctrines and were free to buy art to suit their varied personal tastes. Hence the rise of different genres.

Equally in still life it led to sub genres serving different markets around the urban elite and their concerns over home, personal possessions, the transience of life, trade, education and commerce. So, there wasn’t just one still life genre with a single subject and message… but many, and these also changed over time as the new genre matured.

Additionally there was still the aristocrats who celebrated the image of the country life with paintings of dead and living animals.

All that said and however rooted in the lives of the buyers the still life genre (an arrangement of objects in the foreground) there must be some artistic ‘truths’ (aesthetics, colour, composition)  that transcend the time of their creation. So, I think this Research Point should look to look at those as well as subject matter, and meaning which are rooted in time.

Different types of still life:


(a) Started in the early 1600’s it involves a highly refined execution with the painters often referring to herbal and botanical texts. They were painted for wealthy merchants and courtly collectors who often had a garden with rare specimens costing more than the paintings, as well as a small library of botanical books and prints.

Leading painters in this field include: Ambrosius the Elder (1573-1621)

Still life with flowers, 1607 (oil on copper)

JMT332565 Still life with flowers, 1607 (oil on copper) by Bosschaert, Ambrosius the Elder (1573-1621); 25×19 cm; Private Collection; © John Mitchell Fine Paintings; Flemish, out of copyright

Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94 – 7 March 16570),

Floral Still Life with Shells, 1622 (oil on copper)

STM620449 Floral Still Life with Shells, 1622 (oil on copper) by Ast, Balthasar van der (c.1593-1657); 33.5×22.2 cm; Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA; Museum Purchase; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.

Roelandt Savery (1576 – buried 25 February 1639), and Jacob Vosmaer (1574, Delft – 1641, Delft)

Looking at all these images on Bridgeman Educational library there seems to be a common composition for the early paintings as exampled above.

A small bunch of highly elaborate flowers taking up the top two thirds of the picture plane. The bottom third being split between a small shelf decorated with a few carefully placed objects – usually a shell (an oriental reference and a collectors item at the time) and an insect (symbolic of death and the transience of life/beauty)… there seems to be an insect – often a butterfly on all the paintings. The background is usually plain and dark with the flowers (roughly forming a pyramid shape above the vase).

Often the flowers were in bloom at different times of the year and from different times of the year so these were not fresh cut flowers put in a vase and painted as I had assumed, and as we might do today. But a very carefully and totally artificial construct for a specialist audience. On Floral Still Life with Shells by Balthasar van der Ast every single flower is different.

Even the composition of these paintings from different artists is similar: a large flower on top, two on the right, one on the left and the middle filled in with smaller flowers. So quite formulaic.

To the modern eye (my eye) they look like botanical drawings rather than painted flowers. Illustrations not art and however skilful more informative than aesthetic.

Like the flowers they depict they are a collectors item.

The insects are a symbol of Vanitas so a symbol of their time.

All of which is a million miles away from my assumption that they were early versions of painting a vase of flowers.


Was the painting of food most notably ham, cheese, oysters, and glasses of wine or beer on wooden tabletops. This was the speciality of Haarlem.

Floris van Dyck (c1575-1651)

Still Life with Cheese, c.1615 (oil on panel)

XOS2909721 Still Life with Cheese, c.1615 (oil on panel) by Dyck, Floris Claesz. van (1575-1651); 82.2×111.2 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; ( The food on this Dutch table, laid with an expensive Haarlem damask tablecloth, is presented in porcelain bowls and plates. The little dish with olives may be an early European imitation of Chinese porcelain. Van Dijck’s clients were mainly wealthy merchants and other members of the elite, who in addition to paintings also owned substantial amounts of Asian porcelain. ); Dutch, out of copyright


Pieter Claesz (c1597-1660)

Breakfast, 1646 (oil on canvas)

BAL236685 Breakfast, 1646 (oil on canvas) by Claesz, Pieter (1597-1660); 60×80 cm; Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia; Dutch, out of copyright


Willem Claesz Heda (December 14, 1593/1594 – c. 1680/1682)

Still Life, 1642 (oil on canvas)

XIR169069 Still Life, 1642 (oil on canvas) by Heda, Willem Claesz. (1594-1680); 59×75 cm; Musee d’Art Moderne, St. Etienne, France; Dutch, out of copyright

Looking at examples of ‘Banquet’ still they all have some basic elements such as a dark background, tabletop with tablecloth, some kind of goblet, and some sort of high point be that a pile of cheeses/tea urn or huge goblet, a plate sticking out over the table and an orange with peel attached.
Two things strike me about these paintings. Absolutely they are designed and carefully arranged. This is not a natural arrangement of objects from your breakfast or dinner. And they are sumptuous to look at.
They are aesthetically pleasing, a sort of ‘still life landscape’ – with the landscape being food. Which is always nice to look at. And it advertises the wealth of the owner… this is the food he can afford to eat and celebrate in his paintings. He is rich and successful and can enjoy the best food.
The orange peel is a Vanitas symbol for the ephemeral quality of life, a nod to the worthless nature of human indulgences and the Christian view that life is attractive to view but bitter to taste.
Still, it does not overwhelm the paintings and is incorporated into the composition, so much so that until I read it’s significance I just thought it was another part of the painting.
My guess is that although these are of their time – most people now can afford ham or an occasional oyster (they are certainly not the reserves of the wealthy anymore) – they will have travelled through time quite well as their overriding appeal is aesthetic. It’s just the subject matter that has aged.
And we now have many more ways of showing wealth so I would be surprised to find anything similar in modern still life… but we’ll see.


These were a specialty of Leiden artists and were symbolic works emphasising the emptiness of life (from a Christian perspective). They stressed the traditional Christian view that earthly goods and pursuits were worthless and life transient.

And by inference that the only truth and reality was to do away with earthly pleasures and devote yourself to God in the hope of eternal life.

Common symbols were skulls (death), rotten fruit, (earthly decay), bubbles (life is over in an instant), smoke (life is in-substantive), musical instruments (?), butterflies (short lifespan), fruit… which will rot, and a peeled lemon (life looks attractive but is bitter to eat).

In that these symbols often appear in other still lives it is likely that death and religion were a big part of the mindset of the time.

Jan Davidsz de Heem (c. 17 April 1606, Utrecht – before 26 April 1684, Antwerp)

Vanitas (oil on panel)

XIR191408 Vanitas (oil on panel) by Heem, Jan Davidsz. de (1606-84); 30.9×48 cm; Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen, France; Giraudon; Dutch, out of copyright

David Bailly (1584–1657)



The background here has become a real setting – the market and countryside or the kitchen and can include people.

They were first made famous in the mid-1500s in Antwerp most notable by:

Pieter Aertsen (Amsterdam, 1508 – 3 June 1575)

The Meat Stall, 1568 (oil on canvas)

NOR61562 The Meat Stall, 1568 (oil on canvas) by Aertsen, Pieter (Lange Pier) (1507/08-75); 123×175 cm; Private Collection; Noortman Master Paintings, Amsterdam; Dutch, out of copyright

It’s definitely a still life – it’s a study of arranged objects in the foreground that covers and dominates the whole picture plane. I don’t see this as a real stall, it’s too aesthetic… the sausages draped over the cloth for example.

The man feeding the chicks is a little distracting as are the line of people in the background, but they give it a setting. It would feel very odd to see this against a plain background.

Joachim Beuckelaer (c. 1533 – c. 1573/4)

Kitchen Interior, 1566 (oil on panel)

XIR93879 Kitchen Interior, 1566 (oil on panel) by Beuckelaer or Bueckelaer, Joachim (c.1530-73); 109.5×139 cm; Louvre, Paris, France; Giraudon; Netherlandish, out of copyright

As before this is definitely an arrangement of objects… including the girl. It feels as though she has been ‘placed’ as another object. Not as a person with feelings and emotions. It’s not her kitchen… the objects do not illustrate her personality.

In looking through these some do shift into portraits with a big still life element, or ‘social’ painting… with a big still life.

So, I’d say not a pure still life but defined as such because the still life element dominates.


These featured expensive expensive objects such as imported fruits, Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware and silver-gilt cups glittering and sprinkled with fairy dust.

They were found mainly in Amsterdam, which by the 1650s and 1660s was the capital of the Netherlands and awash with riches from global trade. The social, political, and financial capital full of rich merchants and artists eager to please them.

These are aesthetic and decorative displays of wealth which would mirror the owner’s lifestyle and riches.

But not much meaning.

Van Beyeren (c. 1620, The Hague – March 1690)

Still Life: Banquey Piece (oil on panel)

YAG23511 Still Life: Banquey Piece (oil on panel) by Beyeren, Abraham Hendricksz van (1620/1-91); 109.2×88.9 cm; © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), UK; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.


This is sparkling with light… like a Hollywood Medieval film set of the 40’s.

Crammed and bursting… it reminds me of Rococo? But not quite as decorative… heading in that direction.

I love the way the lemon peel (still the Vanitas symbol!) becomes the gold braid of the opulent tablecloth and takes a little bit of light into the dark underneath which would otherwise be a black hole.

The empty but visible alcove in the top right offsets the darkness on the bottom left. Lots of composition other than the still life going on here.

Willem Kalf (1619 – 31 July 1693)

Still Life With A Chinese Porcelain Jar (oil on canvas)

IMA1560461 Still Life With A Chinese Porcelain Jar (oil on canvas) by Kalf, Willem (1619-93); Indianapolis Museum of Art, USA; ( Willem Kalf (1619-1693); Dutch 1669 30 3/4 x 26 in. Visual Works: Paintings oil on canvas); Gift of Mrs. James W. Fesler in memory of Daniel W. and Elizabeth C. Marmon; PERMISSION REQUIRED FOR NON EDITORIAL USAGE; Dutch, out of copyright PLEASE NOTE: Bridgeman Images works with the owner of this image to clear permission. If you wish to reproduce this image, please inform us so we can clear permission for you.

Here the focus is tighter but still sparkling.

The plain white tablecloth of the breakfast still life has been replaced with the rich rug and marble top.

Still the plain background – still the lemon peel – and this time the tiny bird key breaking into the darkness bottom left.


The simple vase of flowers has become elaborate and beautifully lit. A much more opulent display that seems to be less about the individual blooms that the effect of the whole.

Much more decorative and aesthetic than the early flower paintings.

Willem van Aelst (16 May 1627 – in or after 1683)


The background is still relatively plain but now defined by light. The base features as expensive marble.

But we still have the butterfly (though it looks more like a moth?) and roughly triangular composition.

Interesting to note the rim of the flowerpot? in the shadow has been highlighted to give it definition.

Rachel Ruysch (3 June 1664 – 12 August 1750)

Vase of Flowers, 1695

BAL2635 Vase of Flowers, 1695 by Ruysch, Rachel (1664-1750); Private Collection; Dutch, out of copyright

Not as showy and the only woman artist. Feels more modern in its bouquet approach, like a handful of flowers has just been left on the surface.

I love the design of this almost in a star shape, the colour composition and buzzing insects – must be a hot day.

Still a dark background but a totally different feel than the early flower paintings.

Jan van Huysum (15 April 1682 – 8 February 1749)

Still Life

BAL5338 Still Life by Huysum, Jan van (1682-1749); Alexander Gallery, London, UK; Dutch, out of copyright

Another cornucopia display of floral glory.


Like the earlier market still life this  has a background… in fact almost a quarter of it could be a landscape painting. But they are both definitely an arrangement of objects – the living birds don’t look alive… the look like arranged objects!

This was popular in the second half of the seventeenth-century and showed the owner lived an aristocratic country life.

Jan Weenix (between 1640/1649 – 19 September 1719 (buried))


Interesting in that there appears to be both an animal still life and a ‘flower’ still life in one painting.

The tranquil swan on the water strikes me as ironic as do the mill chimneys in the background – but that’s probably just a modern sensibility.

It seems a strange mixture of dead birds, human objects and an overturned vase of flowers. And to say it’s outside no insects – which makes the butterflies on the flowers inside even more symbolic.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (c. 1636 – 3 April 1695)

A Pelican and other Birds near a Pool, Known as ‘The Floating Feather’, c.1680 (oil on canvas)

XOS2909699 A Pelican and other Birds near a Pool, Known as ‘The Floating Feather’, c.1680 (oil on canvas) by Hondecoeter, Melchior de (1636-95); 159 ×144 cm; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; ( Commissioned by William and Mary for Het Loo Palace, Apeldoorn.); Dutch, out of copyright

Again an ‘assemblage’ of objects in the foreground (this time birds)… which all look stuffed?! even though they are set in ‘natural’ poses in the puddle. Like the early flower paintings they seem to be a collection of rare and expensive specimens.


Several things have struck me researching these Dutch painters.

Individual painters regularly crossed boundaries between the different still life subjects, especially Vanitas and flowers. And generally there was a lot of hybridisation with elements of one still life (such as flower painting) taking on symbols from another type of still life (like a butterfly in flower painting). This suggests there were basic principles (aesthetics) in the arranging of objects and painting of surfaces that could be applied to different subjects.

Secondly there appears to be have been a battle going on between the message (stronger in the early sixteenth century) and the aesthetics/decorative elements (stronger in the late seventeenth century).

The message could be religious that life is short and heaven is eternal (like the Vanitas paintings); or secular such as a visualisation of the buyers wealth (Pronk still life) or aristocratic country life (Dead Game still life).

I interpret the aesthetic as a grouping of objects (almost a compositional exercise) in a beautiful manner – more decoration than art – involving colour, line, shape, lighting and textures. The subject could be flowers, fruit, skulls, vegetables or live or dead animals.

It’s also helped me towards a definition of ‘still life’ – a ‘compositional’ painting where a foreground grouping of objects is aesthetically arranged surrounded by a background that is diminished in significance.

It could even be people (if they were painted as ‘objects’) as easily as fruit and vegetables.

I would argue that an organic arrangement of objects (where the artist hasn’t rearranged them to look beautiful) like a carpenters bench becomes something else – it can be read… and becomes almost a ‘portrait’ of the invisible/absent person rather than a still life.

Where the interaction (social dynamics) becomes foremost it’s becomes a ‘social’ or genre painting, a single person (a portrait), a whole landscape… a landscape.

So these still life paintings are primarily aesthetic (does this hark back to principles of ideal beauty and harmony of the ancient Greeks and Romans?) with subject matter, moralising and informative aspects added to the taste of the buyer – what they are absolutely not is the individual view of the artist.

That I suspect will appear in the Impressionist still life where the way of seeing will dominate – but will it still have an aesthetic arrangement? Will it be a hybrid of the two? What about the Cubists… did they use it as a way to explore new ways of seeing? If so were they commercially successful?

And then how is still life interpreted by young contemporary artists?

The article below was used as a starting point to categorise the still life paintings so I had a framework to start from. I added my thoughts and observations after looking at the paintings themselves.

(a) – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800 (an essay)




Sketchbook shell

Had a go a shell inspired by Rembrandt’s shell.


Sketch 1:

This was very good for cones and cylinders… it also helped me to look as when I compared it to Rembrandt’s I found I’d angled my shell forward instead of back!

This made me experiment with how you see less of a circle as it turns towards you (foreshortening)… which is relatively straight forward if you’re looking at the circle face on but is much more difficult if the circle is tilted over.

I then realised that the end of the shell had a bump on it and I wasn’t actually seeing the far side of the circle but the top of the bump. This was one reason I couldn’t get it right, I’d been drawing what I knew to be there (the far side of the circle) rather than what I was actually seeing (the bump).

Sketch 2:

I then tried a more detailed drawing.

Without realising I’d swivelled the shell round.

I used architects pencil as I thought it would be a finer medium and I could use a putty rubber to help highlights. This would give me some leeway whereas the ink drawing had to be right first time.

Close up shell

I used my knowledge about the bump to help but couldn’t get the fat end of the cone right. So I held a straight edge against the shell and closed one eye. I found that I’d been taking the curve the wrong way!

As the shell had been swivelled the curve now went back not forward – because it had gone forward on the last drawing I’d assumed it went forward on this shell and was drawing what I ‘knew’ instead of what I saw.

This taught me an important lesson.

Draw what you see not what you understand… understanding how 3D shapes operate in space helps you understand what you see but looking should always come first… look… look… and look again.


(1) Looking comes before drawing.

(2) Draw what you see not what you assume is there – use your understanding to help you interpret unusual shapes – but always be driven by your eye.

(3) The putty rubber is a great drawing tool to give yourself a lighter shade of grey than you can achieve with the pencil alone, this gives you more subtlety. It’s like getting another colour in your palette.

(4) The putty rubber is good for highlights too.

(5) An architects pencil is very soft but a light grey. It is extremely flexible and a bit like drawing with butter.

(6) A good understanding of 3D objects in space and what happens as you move them around helps you draw organic shapes, like a shell.


Tri-ality of Creation

Here I’m thinking primarily about drawing real objects… where there is something to be seen in the outer world, rather than dreams, emotions or concepts.

I’d just got my head round the duality of creation… an outside stimulus (the tree) being modulated by the inner interpretation (the psychology of the artist). And how the artist draws what he/she ‘sees’ in their head, not what is and can never be known, in the outside world.

Now, reading Musee d’Orsay it has struck as comprehensively naive and that I’d missed one of the most important drivers of creation. Which I’ll loosely term as ‘the market’ as it can be anything from the person who buys the art to the drive of the artist to push an ideological position. If they serve a cash rich market they’ll most likely be rich and successful with a high status (or at least not starving)… if their ‘market’ is an ideal like social criticism they may end up being critically acclaimed and forcing social change but most likely will be starving in a garrett.

Most usually it seems to be a mixture of the two, with the predilection (and natural skill) of the artist finding the nearest commercial market.

Either way it is a conscious manipulation of the drawing to serve an outside force – be that a cash buyer or an ideology.

Two examples from ‘Musee d’Orsay Art and Architecture’ spring to mind.

Firstly Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) started life as a socio critical painter with images like “What is known as Vagrancy” in 1855 when he was 32.

 c Public domain.
This caused a political change when Napoleon III was so horrified he ordered his soldiers to (in future) transport vagrants to prison in closed carriages. One can imagine that however socially powerful it did not have many buyers in elegant society. But by the end of his career age 65 he had achieved great success in high society with paintings such as this:
The Gale, 1891 (oil on canvas)

CH987330 The Gale, 1891 (oil on canvas) by Stevens, Alfred Emile (1823-1906); 196×120 cm; Private Collection; ( The Gale; La Coup de Vent. Alfred Stevens (1823-1906). Oil on canvas. Painted in 1891. 196 x 120cm.); Photo © Christie’s Images; Belgian, out of copyright

Although retaining some emotion power (one of his psychological drivers – a sort of Romanticism) the socio political message has been shorn from his works. It would hang in an elegant salon to the joy of its owner. These paintings brought him wealth and status – and he distanced himself from his earlier works (the ideology of which) would not be accepted in ‘polite’ society. Even today there is a prejudice against being a socialist in upper class circles.

So he was very much serving a commercial market.

A final example which really struck home was Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) “Woman Knitting”… 1860 (when he was 46 and working in the Barbizon School)


Here he painted a rural idyll of labourers in a timeless landscape in tune with nature far away from any ties with the modern world or technology.

However the anecdote in Musee d’Orsay tells that the shepherds were wearing modern military coats rather than the traditional capes. So he had a traditional cape sent from Normandy.

In the sense of altering an image for ideological purposes this is very modern (it happens all the time with the manipulation of images (photographs) personally on social media, by organisations for advertising purposes, recently politically in the Brexit campaign where images were used out of context and by government dictatorships – Russia photoshopping out disgraced politicians.)

But it’s somewhat startling that Millet was able to lie to create an image which (accepted at face value) was all about truth, the natural world and religious devotion.

However, in terms of this argument it shows that apart from the object (the woman), Millet’s inner interpretation of that stimulus we also have another external force… the market. The ideology he was pushing.

So wherever the artist seeks an audience (whether for financial or ideological gain, or a mixture of the two) outside of himself that ‘market’ has a powerful effect on his/her artistic creation.



Museum Visits

Following advice from my tutor in my first ‘Formative feedback’ here are photographs of my latest Museum visits from my log book.

In chronological order:

(1) 18/02/2016 (RA: Royal Academy of Arts: London. “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse”).

Overpriced, flooded with people, packed out with sub standard paintings and second rate Monet’s… more a concept to make money than a serious exhibition.

There were a couple of paintings which stood out for me… the Pissaro featuring a cabbage patch which and a wistful Bethe Morisot – I’d not seen any of her work and this was my favourite painting of the exhibition.

Sadly I didn’t take any notes and can’t remember the which of hers it was – but it had an artistic soul that was lacking in 95% of the other paintings, which were technically good but ’empty’ art.

Very disappointing!


(2) 21/03/2016 (LACMA: Los Angeles County Art Museum).

Ten day visit to LA with my son. He popped in the gym with my voice coach so I took the opportunity to nip into LACMA for the morning. Great museum with nice cafe outside. Not busy… space and time to study the exhibits… particularly remember the German Expressionists.

And native Pacific and American Indian Art which I didn’t get time to see.


(3) 23/03/2016 (The Getty Centre: Los Angeles).

This is a stunning museum West of LA in the hills. We got an Uber for about £25 as public transport is fairly useless… beware the lack of signal at the Uber pick up/drop off point, you have to order it at the top then jump on the tram quick. Otherwise you can get stranded.

It’s like the villains mansion on a James Bond film – big chunks of stone without concrete like a medieval castle. The garden a work of art in its own right… the plants perfect with not a slug bite or insect nibble in sight. And strangely silent.

Space inside to see all the exhibits – the shop is great and not too expensive – the cafes serve delicious food. The special exhibition was photography as fine art with luscious stills from Maplethorpe… the talk of LA when we were there.

A must and you could probably visit for a week to see all it has to offer.

We just did a day!


(4) 23/04/2016 (RA: Royal Academy of Arts: London. “In the Age of Giorgione”.)

Very expensive unless you’re a member and the food is massively overpriced. The exhibitions vary so I would always read a review as if you’re watching the pennies this might not be a good investment.

However, the Giorgione exhibition was excellently curated. The text and paintings were very instructional and you really got a feel for a moment in time.

It always seems very packed though and is probably worth trying to find a quieter time as you feel rushed and the stress of throngs of people do take away from the contemplation of the art.

There always seem to be lots of Art Twitchers here too. They go along a wall of paintings photographing them without looking at the painting – flash, flash, flash. And students taking photographs, which is less annoying… there was also a guided tour which stopped at paintings for ages and gave talks which made it hard to focus if you weren’t in the tour, a TV expert talking to a friend with a throng of people pretending not to listen but hanging on every word and the normal RA cram of people.

So, not a ‘socially’ pleasant experience.

But the art was excellent!



(5) 13/05/2016 (Manchester Art Gallery – Mosley Street)

My son’s First Year final show at Manchester Met Film School… we had planned to go to the The Whitworth on our free day but were passing here and popped in and spent half a day here.

A surprisingly good range of paintings – lots of pre-raphaelites which were fascinating to see in the flesh… but I still can’t connect. Lots of cold beauty and precision – no passion.

The staff were lovely and very helpful.

I’d certainly recommend it as an ‘undiscovered gem’.



Manchester Art Gallery: 13/05/2016

(6) 11/06/2016 (Musee d’Orsay: Paris).

I was lucky enough to have a weekend in Paris, after the floods and during the Euros.

What a beautiful city and the street cafes and friendliness so different to anything I’d experienced in England. We watched the opening match of the Euro’s in a tiny bar serving food, coffees and beer full of French young and old, men couples, families… and an old German man.

It’s amazing how you can’t get a real feel of a place from books. The smell… the character… the architecture… the food.

This is relevant as seeing the expressionists in their host city had a profound effect on how I looked at the art. It connected me in a way to the place and time (the impressionist paintings we saw were displayed as collections of rich patrons.)

It’s difficult to explain but they moved from disconnected works of beauty hanging in a temple to art (bottled beauty almost hermetically sealed from their origin) to real paintings made by real artists at a specific moment in time and place. Almost like you could reach back through time and touch them.

And the Musee d’Orsay being in the old train station all added to the effect.

I found found it deeply moving.



…such as Picasso – SO HE IS PART OF ARTISTIC BRIDGE OLD AND MODERN – not isolated!