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