Research 1 – history of still life

Research point 1 – a history of still life : From the 16th Century to the 19th Century

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A brief history

Still life began in the 16th century although its origins were from the Middle Ages and Greco-Roman Art.  Religious forms and artifacts featured in many paintings before the 1700s but the later part depicted a range of objects, quite often game and flowers.

Popular forms of still life were food and flowers, with still life of game and fish often depicted in realism forms.  The earliest forms of still life were found on walls and in mosaic designs from the Grecco-Roman period and Egyptian period, but the form of painting became more popular in the early 1600s.

Although the motifs were found commonly in books and manuscripts prior to this date, they were often related to religious symbolism.  The later forms depicted many symbols but were not purely religious in their message.  The term ‘still life’ is derived from the Dutch word ‘stilleven’.  Much of the work that is attributed as being part of the Golden Age of still life was done between the 1500 and 1600s  as Netherlandish art.

Willem Kalf was a Dutch painter that studied light reflections, colour, texture, harmony and contrast.  He’d put odd objects together to create an interesting image but the focus was still on making the painting as real as possible.

The main reason for its rising popularity in the early 1600s, particularly in The Netherlands area, was down to the suburbanization of the Dutch and Flemish society, which in turn gave rise to an increase in value on material objects.  Things were valued and as such, objects were represented in paintings.  Nature was also represented, particularly rare flowers and herbs, along with the symbolism associated with these plants there was the acknowledgement of botanical studies and appreciation of the sciences.

These objects were often held in high value so to have them painted demonstrated the clients wealth.  The mid 1600s is the best representation of this as items imported were often depicted in still life displays such as Chinese porcelain and imported flowers.

Hunting trophies became a popular thing to include in a still life.  Again it related to the prestige and wealth associated with having a full table and the luxury of good hunting.

The traditional form of still life was based on realism and being true to nature and what you were observing.  Towards the mid to late 1800s and the early 1900s, this changed as artists began to explore the texture and form of the objects rather than focusing just on the realism of them.

Paul Cezanne(1879-1882) broke with tradition and created still life paintings that had sloped tables and colour in patch work.  The perspective is skewed in some images and realism is avoided as he pushes for colour, shapes and tones.  A depth was created and correctness was sacrificed in order to keep the painting vibrant.  He deliberately broke the rules.

Vincent van Gogh went one step further and broke the tradition of representation by going with what he felt.  He focused on colour and form rather than accuracy and reality.  He didn’t sell his work and most of it was produced in the last ten years of his life, but he is well known for his work and it has a high value attached to it now.

Both him and Cezanne didn’t want to overthrow traditions but did want to distort it to achieve their goal.  A Spanish painter, Juan Gris, was influenced by cubism and his still life focuses on symbolism as well as literal image of the objects.  There is a dual message in his painting but it is far from the realism of the Dutch painters from the 1500 and 1600s.

Juan Gris – Le Beau – image from

It seems that the form of traditional art was rebelled against and experimentation of colour, texture, form and feeling took precedence. Artists had access to a range of new colours too, so that influenced their approach as well as a deliberate break with tradition.  Cubism rejected the single viewpoint and experimented with different perspectives and views.

Later a return to traditional forms occurred and artists rejected fashionable movements in favour of a return to the art form of the Golden Age in a bid to perfect their craft.  Art was originally for the wealthy and aristocracy, but as this notion of art was questioned and forms experimented with, art became more accessible for the masses and thus changed its form to suit that.

Pieter Claesz
image from

Pieter Claesz  Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill  1628  oil on wood

Haarlem Painter

  • Composition

There is a small candle holder, a feather quill and skull sitting on a book and papers with a goblet on its left side.  The wood is filled with the shapes of the objects and there is very little background filling up the space.

  • Lines

The medium is oil and so there isn’t much in the way of lines produced by a sketch visible.  There are lines that are created by the objects however, and they serve to guide your eye around the image.

  • Shapes

Most of the shapes are circular with a suggestion of rectangle from the book and paper.  The quill offers a tapered elliptical shape at one end and a sharp triangle at the other.  It sits on a rectangle base.

  • Tones

The tones are quite muddy and the main contrast is from reflective surfaces of the glass, skull and candle holder.  It feels like everything in the image is old and well worn.  The quill is weathered looking from use and the books pages yellow from aging while the cover for the paper is creased and well worn.  There appears to even be a layer of dust on the table surface.  The skull is even missing teeth.

  • Colours

The colour scheme looks like it was from a blue and orange complimentary scale but the weathered theme brought them into tired looking hues rather than bright versions of the colours.  The glass is a dark finish and echoes a black from the item under the quill, while the white of the quill brings your attention to the centre of the image and leads your eye to the skull.

  • Patterns

There doesn’t appear to be any pattern from etching or a fabric design but the reflections of the window in the glass suggest a pattern of pairs.  Two eye sockets,  the windows of the soul, two window reflections and two white lines from the quill and exposed paper along with the circles under the quill.  The candle stick has a pattern of two surfaces.  Symmetry appears important.

  • Textures

The main texture is from the skull and quill.  Hard versus soft.  Then the glass and candle stick are hard so the book and paper balance that out as they’re softer materials.

  • Process and technique

He used oil on wood but there doesn’t appear to be any wood grain coming through the image.  The soft diffused light on the skull and the strong reflections on the glass are a beautiful way to render those objects.

There appears to be a light from the left and front while the shadow is also on the left and then a shadow is cast behind the skull which is then highlighted by some soft light to set it off.

  • Interpretation and context

My interpretation is that the candle represented burning the midnight oil, possibly working a lot.  The skull represents death and the end of something, as it is sitting on papers and a book I think it suggests that the work related to writing.  The glass is empty, so it would suggest that this work and dedication to it yielded no wine perhaps.

According to  it suggests that “worldly efforts are ultimately in vain.”

Photo 06-02-2018, 16 22 00
National Gallery of Ireland 

Frans Snyders   Still Life Banquet Piece  1620s  oil on canvas Flemish artist

  • Composition

This is a full painting and fully lives up to the name of banquet.  It has a range of food and flowers along with drink and even a live animal at the centre.  The squirrel may not be for eating but the lobster most definitely is.  The centre of the banquet seems to be the fruit bowl which is brimming with an assortment of things.  In fact there is so much abundance on the table that things are piled on top of one another.  The flowers that are dipping into the frame on the left may not be a central feature but they are still important so contribute to the decadence presented to us.

  • Lines and Shapes

Again there are no obvious lines produced from a sketch as it is has been painted over, so I will focus on the lines guiding the viewer in the image instead.  The cutlery is not presented in an orderly fashion, instead it is strewn around the table but it still acts as a guiding line to where the eye should be.  It acts to contain the important objects within that sector.  It appears to me that the image is broken into 3 sections.

The first section from the left has a vertical focus but the flowers are taller and soften the height by the roundness of the buds.  The round vessels in the middle also slow down the eye and we have a similar shape in the tail of the squirrel to the jug.  The glass at the back of this jug helps your eye move up again and into the centre of the fruit bowl in the middle section.  Here it is a festival of fruit and difficult to know what to focus on as the shapes are oval, circular and very round.

We depend on the vines to drop us off at the lobster in the third section and the lines created in the segments of its tail are echoed in the lemon and the melon.  To ensure your eye enjoys this section the knife is perpendicular to the tail of the lobster to cut off a return to the left.  It is a remarkably busy piece and as such you rely on the artist to guide your eye through it or be left to wander and not enjoy it as much.

  • Tones

The background is dark and the table top is neutral and light but without reflection.  It has a light from the front and so we see everything clearly and no sharp shadows are present except for the squirrels tail and plate.

  • Colours

The dominant colours are red, orange and yellow and the accent is green.  The brownish orange hue of the squirrel balances out the hot red of the lobster and keeps the colour balance in the centre of the image.  Without it the red of the glass next to the pink of the rose would sever the image almost in half.  The colours are rich and express the freshness of the banquet, but the abundance of food and it’s piling up suggest it could go off quickly.  In fact the presence of a squirrel suggests that the person holding the banquet isn’t aware of their own abundance.

  • Patterns and Textures

These are present in the glassware and metal containers on the left which are softened by the rose petals.  The centre is well balanced by having reflective surfaces on either side of matt finish fruit and the lobsters glowing shell has a lovely reflective quality that gets stopped by the coarse melon skin.  The bird on the top echoes the same colours as the containers on the left and again it shows us that the animals are stepping in to feast on it as there was more food than was needed.

  • Process and technique

He is constantly wrestling the colours on the canvas and the amount of light bouncing off surfaces.  He has a glass receeding into the background because he wanted the height and transparency only, not the high reflection.  Meanwhile the strong colours of the red grapes and fruit coupled with the lobster have to be kept in a cooler form by keeping the brightness of it through the peachy tones to the left and right.

  • Interpretation and context

My interpretation of it is that the owner of the banquet has no idea of their own wealth and they don’t care either.  They’re happy to avail of the food and abundance they have but there is a gluttony attached to it too.  The fact that it was a bird and a squirrel was interesting so it must hold some meaning.  In that situation a mouse or a rat would have been a more accurate rodent to pick for it.

It’s a Baroque painting so this period would have been extremely lavish in its form of interior decoration and so this painting represents that extreme decorative format well in the food department.

National Gallery of Ireland

Juan Fernandez – A still life with citrons a knife and a Peapods on a Stone Ledge  oil on canvas  mid 1630s  Spanish artist

  • Composition

This is very focused and unlike the other images discussed, it is one fruit only for the still life.  This is very different from the others as we focus in on just the one item and the variation comes from the ways in which the segments are displayed.

  • Lines and Shapes

The main lines for the image are formed from the knife, leaves from the stalks and branches and the peapods.  It all gets used to focus your attention into the centre to where the main feature is.  The citrons are sitting in the centre of the ledge and the roundness of the fruit is offset with the triangular segments and then the half segment.  Within these segments of the fruit we have more triangular shapes to echo the leaves again.  The peas are the only other round shapes present to echo the fruit yet their pods are triangular.  The symmetry is echoed in two citrons and two unopened pods their right.  The sections exposed of the pods echo the segments of the fruit cut.  Even the knife handle has angles on it.

  • Tones and Colours

The contrast between light and dark helps the colours to pop from the canvas.  The centre light on the fruit helps us to see the beautiful yellow but as the skin is uneven there is no reflective quality from it.  The sections of fruit help the light to be reflected and serve to help us see how juicy the fruit is.  This also helps to cool down the tone of the skin of the fruit.  It’s quite bumpy and has a slightly warm yellowy orange tone to it so the clean white of the lemon brings it back to citron colours.

The peapods are very subdued here as are the leaves.  They have an almost dry quality to them as if they were burning in the sun or something.  The background is also interesting as it has this orange hue in it and a hint of red through it.  This is captured in some of the shadows although there is a lot of grey here under the knife.  So I feel like the greens were played down to help allow the yellow to shine and the show in the background was played up as a burnt orange tone to help the yellow stand out further.  To make sure the green still held some hold in the painting I think the aubergine element was added behind the largest citron in the form of an artichoke.

  • Patterns and Textures

The citron has a wealth of texture in it and the leaves are crispy almost.  The patterns appear in the segments and the peas in the pod, along with the almost hidden artichoke in the background.

  • Interpretation and context

He was heavily influenced by the work of Caravaggio and how the painter had a flair for dramatic lighting.  This is evident in his attention to realism in the textures and how the light seems to show the centre part of the image and shroud the rest in shadow.  However, it is the influence of the Flemish painters that gives him his passion for attention to detail.

My own interpretation is that the focus here is on the natural beauty of the object itself and not in any other form of message.  There is a celebration of all parts of the fruit while the peas play a happy part to support that.  I do love how he used every part of the canvas to direct your attention to the fruit.  It isn’t in the middle either, it appears to lean off to the right more and the bunch of leaves on the left emerge out of the shadows to push your attention to the centre.  There is no place to go but to the centre, as all corners have something to push you towards it and where the main feature lies.

So far all three paintings express a traditional approach to honouring what they see.  They focus on realism and putting the form of what they see onto the canvas in a dedicated fashion.  The final result is a thing of beauty and the attention to detail astonishing.  They appear to leap out of the frame and can almost be touched.  This level of attention to detail along with a strong dramatic shadow and light effect was soon to be deconstructed.

Photo 06-02-2018, 16 22 48
National Gallery of Ireland

Jan Weenix –  Game piece : the garden of a Chateau  1690s oil on canvas Dutch painter


This has a phenomenal amount going on in it.  There is now a range of animals in it, relating to game.  There are fruits half eaten and a basket full of fresh fruit.  There is a scene in the background that suggests a house or estate where the person lives or the client lives.  The focus is on the hare, cock and fruit with the extra information behind them adding to the abundance of the hunting trophies.  This is shouting wealth.

  • Lines and shapes

There is the branch or stick that starts at the top of the painting and directs us to the hare straight away.  It is a carcass hanging from it and to its left is a hefty sized bird.  The wings and the feathers shape into a rounded form which echoes the fruit below it.  The front legs point in this direction two while the back leg free rests on the bird.  The half eaten pomegranate has it’s skin point towards the fruit and the basket and this leads our eyes to the right hand side of the painting.  The shadow on the extreme right pushes our view towards the centre slightly and past the hare to the right where further examples of kills are present.  This then presents us with a glimpse of a huge estate from which these gains were made.

  • Tones and Colours

There is shadow along all the edges and the dramatic skies lead us into pale blue calm to suggest that the estate in the distance has an almost heavenly quality to it.  The forefront shows us all the kills gained from a good hunt.  There is no blood present but the limp bodies are plump and suggest they’ve been well fed before hunted.

The colours are soft and fluffy for the feathers and fur and the clouds in the back almost echo this.  The colours are quite muted and soft except for the sharp plum tones and peachy bright hues at the bottom of the painting.  They are balancing the reddish purple tones from the birds head feathers and the grapes.

The blue is the sky in the distance is balanced with softer browns of the fur and ground.  There isn’t a strong green in this and the flowers at the top are to cool the reds perhaps.  Overall there is a feeling of decadence from the colours as they’re quite rich and bright in parts.

  • Patterns and Textures

The main textures noted are that of the bird and hare, the feathers and fur.  There is a fuzzy peach in the basket and the petals of the rose would suggest softness too while everything else gives a sense of softness in the fruit and the way in which they’ve been arranged.  There is a deliberate celebration of the hunt.

  • Interpretation and context

This image does celebrate the hunt but not in the way I thought it was doing.  My interpretation was quite direct and I thought it was celebrating the wealth of the person who commissioned the painting.  The size of the estate they owned could be seen in the distance and the abundance in the foreground.

However this is a painting to which Weetix aspired to.  It represented the type of wealth he wished he had and what the middle class aspired to have and be like.  This is not real but it is out of the imagination of the artist.  Hunting was restricted to the aristocracy only and so although he painted in a realistic style, he was aspiring to something rather than being true to what he saw in a literal sense.

A brief study of colour on two still life paintings:

Stilllife 1 - colour and composition
Stilllife 2 - colour and composition


still life images from the 1600s  21.00  14.02.18

still life articles referencing 1600s 20.05  14.02.18  20.20 08.02.18    06.02.18 visit – images own a history of still life  images of still life

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, Phaidon – pages 113, 430-1, 542-3, 548, 578,609.

Images in slide show taken at a visit to the National Gallery of Ireland and posted here for the purpose of research and study only.