Within the history of art, still life has a long line covered. Although still life, as we know it now, mostly has its origin in the 16th and 17th century, already during Roman times we see still lives used as decoration in roman villas. Due to the fact that until the 16th century oil paint was not used, hardly any painting, such as still life, survived the test of time. Only through the discovery of a paint with an oil base we can now still enjoy paintings of that period.
The display of products or attributes was rather unusual during the 16th and 17th century. Painting in general had either a decorative or a religious purpose and was, until the oil paint started to be used, done with fresco on a wall or on wood. It was an expensive and time-consuming work.
In the 16th and 17th century, still life started its introduction with paintings that where known as kitchen scenes. Rich paintings of elaborate and lively kitchens with tables filled with exotic foods and spices. However, in most of these scenes there were still people involved. The main connection with still life was the fact that all the food, which was laid out on the table, was neatly composed. These kitchen scenes were the start of a variety of newly found subjects to paint. The most known are the show or ostentation pieces, the banquets and the fruit pieces. The interest for these kind of paintings made the start for commissioned work of products that would show the viewer that the owner of that particular painting was living a rather good life. Still life was born.
In the 16th and 17th century, we see the start of a variety of subjects within the genre of still life. Next to the already existing showpieces and banquets, we now see victory pieces, vanitas, flower pieces and science pieces. The 16th and 17th century were to most productive times for this genre. Until the start of the 19th century, it became less popular. Due to the rise of romanticism, still life received a revival with mostly flower pieces. However, with the years to come, still life was in for a total make over with the influences of artists like Cezanne, Picasso and Mondrian. Through their different approach, still life entered a new age. An age in which realism, measurements and symbolism started to have a total different meaning. The attention moved from subject to experience. Mostly the experience of the artist who wanted to share this through his/her work. This reached its peak in the years between 1965 and 2000.
Today, still life reached a new prime. It became a strong and well-represented genre within the art movement. The most significant difference now is that, although the artist still is the director of its work, the subject became more realistic than ever before. In addition, the subject started to be inferior to the craft. Due to the rise of hyperrealism and photorealism, one can hardly distinguish whether it is painted of photographed.
But where does this story lead to…
Nowadays, although still life is well received among a growing public, it still has a large audience that is unable to see the magic in a bunch of objects placed on an old table. Even if it is painted in a hyper realistic manner.
When I am giving the still life workshop, one of the most delightful things happening is that moment when the students starts to realize how intriguing and ingenious still life actual is. Still life isn’t just a bunch of objects on a platform. It is a well-considered, calculated and measured harmony between space and objects.
But, let’s first look at what ‘still life’ actual means. The use of the word still life derives from the Dutch word stilleven. This is because during the 16th century, when still life became a genre on its own, it where the Dutch artist who were setting the trend. The word still is in this case referring to not moving. This ‘not moving’ does not only gets its meaning from the objects that are unable to move but, and perhaps this is even more significant, refers to the fact that within a still life there is, or should not be, any suggestion of movement. What this means is that even the composition, the use of lines that occur by placing objects in a certain way or angle, should be without any suggestion of movement within the frame. With this in mind you could say that the word still is as well referring to silence. Here we see a resemblance with Zen art. The absence of an amount of information makes it able to focus on the silence, the clarity of mind. For this, a nun-moving environment is of great help. Although still life do not have the same purpose as Zen art, the principle is the same.
The word life refers to the fact that with assembling and arranging objects in a certain way an optical life is created. It does not refer in any way to whether the object should or should not be alive. The arranging, putting the objects in to place is where the real magic takes place. Let me give some examples: Objects are hardly ever just randomly placed on the table, the plate or any surface that will be the base of the still life. If you have ever seen an still life artist arrange the objects to start a still life it might appear to you as if he or she is just putting them there, looking for good matches and then goes for it. However, there is more too this than meets the eye.
Artist in the 16th and 17th century, who started to specialize in still life, created certain well-studied tools to help them in arranging a still life. If you take a good look at still lifes from that time, you will see that there are several similarities in approach. So is the use of a single or plural triangle composition much used. Another composition that was often used for a fruit or banquet piece is the oval composition. The triangle composition gives an easy to access and harmonic composition that lets the viewer unconsciously browse through the picture while using a fixed focus point. The oval composition lets the viewer eyes go in circles until it reaches the middle of the painting. These guidelines for composing a still life where doing its best work when the viewer had no clue about it. You could say that the artist used these tools to force a specific way of viewing on the reluctant viewer.
Other substantiating tools for composing a still life are rhythm, repetition and the angle of the table-line or horizon-line, which is in this case in front of the objects instead of behind as it is with a landscape. Rhythm means the re-appearing of a shape within the cluster of object. For instance, the use of several rounded objects that are placed in the Still life. Repetition means the use of several of the same objects within the cluster. Both will help the unconscious eye to wonder around in the composition. In addition, the angle of viewer to the table-line is of great importance. When we look at a table with objects from above, the appearance is so much different from when we look at it from a lower, more direct point of view. From above the objects will appear more scattered around while from a lower point of view the objects will overlap each other. Although the from above angle is sometimes used with the oval composition we see that the frontal (lower) angle is far more used within this genre. The reason is with using the overlap from objects you create depth and a more harmonic view for the eyes of the beholder.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Feel free to leave your comment below.
If you interested to know more about still life or would like to experience for yourself how it is to make a still life?
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