Very brief notes: I enjoyed this immensely and was surprised how well you could indicate tone and shape with line (contour line, hatching and stippling)… and the range of weight both by pressure and breaking the line.
Another thing I played with was finding the pattern and trying to find a composition/interesting aesthetic as well as be true to the object. So, true enough to read but also have compositional elements that improve artistic balance. This was mainly intuitive by ‘feeling’ what worked.
This is the first time I’ve drawn something and not felt I had to ‘copy’ it exactly as it was. A different criteria for success – it’s liberating and opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
A few things I found especially hard.
This was an oyster shell in case you hadn’t guessed!
There was lots of pearly white with minute gradations in texture/tone that became apparent if you stared at it for several minutes. To render this was extremely difficult.
However, if I could have done it as the eye is extremely sensitive and would have picked it up.
So, in terms of realism the tones were challenging – part of this is lack of skill with the pencil but also part of it is making a strong structured composition which required stronger local contrasts.
Finally two technical points.
If you press on too hard and ’emboss’ the paper you can’t draw over it and it loses it’s life. Much better to build up dark tones by many layers light application. Note to self: be patient!
Using the rubber to try and lift some pencil to indicate a lightening of tone didn’t work and just made the shell look muddy. Even going back over it didn’t rescue it. So I abandoned this as a technique fairly early on. I think the rubber works best to lift ‘dust’ off highlights not lighten hatching… or maybe where you’re shading it works better than when you’re using line.
I’m happy that my drawing achieves some of what I attempted – it resembles the shell and has some compositional elements.
This was the hardest to research as I wanted to look at artists five years out of Art School just finding their own voice and gaining a market.
Searching online it was easy to find expensive contemporary still life paintings through commercial sites such as Saatchi Art with still lifes selling for up to $9,000. But the artists were (usually) in their 50’s and this would only show me what was commercially successful not what was artistically successful.
If the equivalent of the early Impressionist are out there breaking rules and living in a garret their work won’t feature on the Saatchi site.
I tried all sorts of search terms for young contemporary still life artists such as ‘Best young still life artists of 2015’ (sale price is a commercial filter but I wanted an artistic filter so was looking for a list by a recognised art expert) but found nothing.
So, even though it’s a bit of a random, I decided to go to Art Schools, find this years degree show for Fine Art, put ‘Still Life’ in the search box and see what comes up. And take the first three without filtering so I didn’t influence my results with personal taste.
Random, but any student who has done three years training and specialised in still life (as their final piece) should throw up something interesting about the genre?!
This proved really, really, hard…
Firstly most of the universities didn’t have an online gallery of their final show degree students and the yearly shows online were just directions to the venue and some advertising shots left over from the shows which had now closed.
When I did find final year students’ degree work it was very difficult to find any still lifes.
There were plenty of traditional still lifes (pre nineteenth century representational bunches of flowers in a vase or fruit in a basket) on the expensive non degree art ‘school’ websites – of the no qualifications necessary, everybody welcome and we will teach you to draw like a master if you give us £500 and study for a term.
So, I’ve learnt that still life doesn’t have a very high status in the academic artistic world, at least not among young art students. Whatever they’re about their end goal doesn’t seem to be painting pretty flowers in a vase.
In contrast the commercial sites show there is a market for more edgy still lifes with a social comment, like a bed strewn with clothes and pants or a close up of a wedding table jammed with expensive crockary and half a person standing at the side. Both picture planes were crammed full of objects right to the edge of, and breaking out of, the frame and looked like ‘found’ still lifes. The clothes looked like they could be the woman’s bedroom and ‘The Perfect Hostess’ which shows wedding table (by Rebecca Scott, 2006, from her series The Perfect Life) is a tight shot of a ‘perfect’ wedding table piled high with plates and silver cutlery.
(1) “Rebecca Scott, 2006, In her series The Perfect Life (which includes paintings called Oh, it’s a perfect day, and The Perfect Christmas Dinner), Rebecca Scott’s work skewers the “perfect” lives found on the pages of women’s magazines and catalogues. Scott questions the fictional notion that by buying some new tableware she could or should make her home perfect. Scott recognises that these illustrations of domestic bliss are aimed at her, not her male partner. It is her job as a woman, the Perfect Hostess, to provide this unobtainable ideal. She paints these readymade images that hope to instruct her and other women to buy such wares and in doing so disrupts what would otherwise be traditional still lifes.”
And there is a big ‘amateur’ market in traditional still life training as the internet is jammed with non degree Art ‘Schools’ that offer weekend, week and termly courses and feature traditional still lifes heavily in their advertising material.
In the end after a couple of hours looking I only found two examples of final year degree students still lifes.
Manchester Met and Slade.
Sophie Chen (Degree show Fine Art Manchester Met: 2016)
My practise involves selecting and depicting in oil paint still life objects of culture from our everyday. I intend to provide a re-enchantment of the things that are overlooked. Initially selecting the objects through instinct, filtering the material world around me. Thinking about the properties of these objects and how they lend themselves to being painted: how they occupy the picture plane, colour, form, shape and line.
Purge, Nicholas McLeod2016, acrylic on linen, 30 x 36.5 cm.
I found these very, very interesting… firstly both are fresh and alive (not copies of traditional still lifes) involving ideas and a developed visual language.
This was in direct contrast to all the low to middle priced commercial art I found (which obviously sells) which were technically brilliant but ’empty’ copies of traditional still lifes such as realistic and aesthetically pleasing arrangements of objects, Impressionistic, Cubist and what I call ‘Warhole’ still lifes… extreme close up of objects like a coke can or pair of trainers (usually sketchilly painted in bright acrylic). I couldn’t fault their technical skill but they didn’t engage me and lacked soul.
(Which I know isn’t an artistic term but I can’t think of how else to put it.)
Wheres the two examples of student work above are fresh and captivating. Alive and immediate.
So, to the question of how do young contemporary artists differ from traditional practice in terms of subject matter, materials and composition?
They both conform to the definition of still life as being arranged objects… one a single object the other a collection.
Sophie Chen is part of a modern movement where the artist selects a single object with a psychological purpose in mind. In her case to ‘reinvigorate’ everyday objects… to turn design into art and make us see the world around us with new eyes.
With a different purpose, but equally immediately, Peter Jones – an established artist – paints old stuffed monkeys – soft toys at the end of their lifespan – (one of the Guardian top ten practising artists 2013 :
(1) “Animals have always been depicted in art, showing the wealth of the owner – horses and hunting dogs for the rich, along with heaps of dead rabbits. Foxes were seen as cunning, a randy goat stood in for the devil and a lamb for Christ. And Peter Jones often paints lambs and bunnies, but his major fascination lies with monkeys; not real ones but vintage stuffed toys on the verge of falling apart. Monkeys were traditionally painted to hint at the beast within each man or woman, our link to untamed nature and the sexual danger within us. Jones’s Ollie and all his kin are nearing the end of their lifespan, worn out from love (or neglect), and their vulnerability is doubled because, as still-life subjects, they lie ready for inspection.”
Taking a single object as a subject with ‘blank’ negative space around it seems to be a new developement in still life and intuitively feels as though it has it’s roots in Warhole’s close up paintings of Coke cans etc.
Nicholas McCleod takes a conventional grouping of plates and bottles…
Sophie Chan paints with oil (she doesn’t say what on but it looks like board) which is a traditional medium.
Nicholas McCleod paints with acrylic on linen. Acylic is traditional from the fifties and linen is unusual (maybe because it is expensive?) but I would suppose acts as a very fine canvas allowing highly detailed work?
Sophie Chan uses elements of traditional composition with the object (traditionally a group of objects rather than a single object, such as bunch of flowers) surrounded by monochromatic negative space. It has elements of geometric design which reminded me of Viennese Art Nouveau – clean strong lines and geometric shapes such as the different size triangular corners of negative space [the ‘corners’ are all linked by being the same tone] and a triangular book with straight sides). She uses linear perspective on the book but no colour perspective on the background just flat negative space like Patrick Cauldfield.
So a mixture of compositional elements that force us to focus on the book and think about it’s inherent beauty… it’s shape, colour and the texture of its surface. And in seeing a functional object anew it reinvigorates our whole sense of the world around us.
Nicholas McLeod uses modern comositional elements such as making the objects break the picture frame.
‘Purge’ reminds me of an old black and white photgraphic negative. The objects are not the focus of attention but the aesthetic arrangement of positive and negative shapes. It turns the mundane into the beautiful and yet we are still aware of the objects. It’s almost an abstract painting made out of a conventional still life composition.
After a while you don’t notice the objects you are just lost in the moment.
Had this been painted realistically with colour and all the ‘traditional’ compositional elements it would have been a traditional still life. His treament has taken us away from the objects and to a place of meditation.
I don’t think the big difference is the subject matter, the materials or the composition (if you take composition to mean the application of a visual language and artistic technique).
It is the intention of the artist which has changed.
Having an intention has always been part of great art. Young artists today are reflecting their artistic and social world just as the young Impressionists and Cubists did.
Nicholas McCleod is working in the tradition of an artist investigating the aesthetics of looking (like the Cubists) while Sophie Chan is teaching us to see beauty in the ordinary (just as the Impressionists taught us to ‘see’ in a new way.)
The big difference is that the world (both artistic and social) has changed so the artistic dialogue has changed. And when you look at young contemporary still life artists you are being included in a creative dialogue which is fresh and invigorating.
The best will stand the test of time like Manet or Poussin.
They have soul.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 201214.25 GMT
Nineteenth Century Still Lifes
And the book:
(4) Musee d’Orsay – Art and Architecture by H.F.Ullmann
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)
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.
MONOCHROME “BANQUET” or “BREAKFAST”
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.
VANITAS STILL LIFE
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.
LARGE “MARKET” AND “KITCHEN” STILL LIFE
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:
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.
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.
PRONK (DISPLAY) STILL LIFE
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.
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.
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.
LATER FLOWER PAINTINGS
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.
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.
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.
Another cornucopia display of floral glory.
DEAD GAME OR “HUNTING TROPHIES” STILL LIFE
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.
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.
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) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800 (an essay)