Arts·Art 101

Why the still life — an artform that was once put at the bottom of art's hierarchy — has endured

What's the deal with still life painting? On this edition of Art 101, Professor Lise walks us through the history of this form of painting.

What's the deal with still life painting? Professor Lise walks us through the history of this form of painting

Why the still life — an artform that was once put at the bottom of art's hierarchy — has endured

2 years ago
Duration 5:08
What's the deal with still life painting? On this edition of Art 101, Professor Lise walks us through the history of this form of painting.

Want to learn how to make your own still life paintings? Check out our Culture Days still life painting class.

Hey guys! Welcome back. I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). We're going on a deep dive into an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that may be controversial, difficult, boring or just plain weird.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, some men who were undoubtedly uncles came up with a hierarchy of painting for the art world. At the top: paintings with people in them (so usually scenes of historical, mythological or biblical events). Then, you have portraits (also of people). Then subjects that come from everyday life; then landscapes; then paintings of animals; and then — way down at the bottom — still life.

But for some reason, it's stuck around, for the entire history of visual art.

The 16th and 17th century hierarchy of painting. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection)

And our question today is, what's the deal with still life painting? What is it? Why did it start? What were some of the motivations behind it? And how has it clung onto that low spot on the gallery wall instead of politely disappearing?

What's a still life? Well, let's simplify it and say it's a painting of objects that are ... at rest. It was ubiquitous throughout European painting and featured tables laden with fruit, flowers, maybe a skull.

Still Life, noun. A painting of objects that are at rest. (CBC Arts)

Why did artists make them? Here's one reason: because they like to win win win! There's a story from antiquity about how two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, had a contest to figure out who was the better painter. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes that looked so real, birds tried to eat them. Parrhasius had his painting hidden behind a sneaky curtain, and when Zeuxis tried to move the curtain to reveal Parrhasius's work — it turned out THE CURTAIN WASN'T REAL.

I don't know whether this story is true, but it points to the drive among artists to fool our eyes and the banality of normal objects as a vehicle to showcase their talent.

Detail of a depiction of Parrhasius's deceptive curtain painting. (New York Public Library)

Another reason artists painted still lifes? Religion.

Religious art is a trickstery little art form, full of symbols. When you saw a small still life as part of a scene in a religious work, it could be commenting on the larger narrative playing out around it. For instance, a rose could symbolize the Virgin Mary, or a lily, virginity.

In both northern Europe and in Italy, where still life painting tended to be called "nature morte" (or "dead stuff"), there was also a scientific impulse. In the age of scientific inquiry, there was a drive to find out more about things in the world, classify them, order them and find out more about their individual properties. This coincided nicely with the idea that art was aiming to perfectly replicate the world in two dimensions.

But the symbolic nature of still life painting never quite went away. In Northern Europe, it wasn't uncommon to see a skull amongst the fruits and flowers or see everything in a state of kind of gross decay. This was to signal an element of vanitas or memento mori (by the way, there's a whole Art 101 about that) — the idea that time passes, things rot, and you will one day not be here.

Vanitas Still Life (1667-1726) by Herman Henstenburgh. (Art Institute of Chicago, Firts and Rita Marcus Fund, 2003)

Still life painting fell somewhat out of favour as we moved into the later 19th and early 20th century as artists started breaking the rules of painting and revolting against rules made by surly men. But even then, the detritus of normal life, like wine bottles and newspapers, made a great tool for saying things about painting.

Cézanne played with perspective in his still lifes, to the point that it often looked like a table about to topple. Matisse used still life to play with colour. And Picasso (I still don't like you, Picasso) and his Cubist compatriots painted a lot of cafe tables not only to play with ideas about two-dimensionality, but to comment on the cafe culture of the time and the conversations and music happening around them.

Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1893-94) by Paul Cézanne. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960)

Later in the 20th century, still life subjects got further transposed by the artists of Dada and Surrealism. Marcel Duchamp used things like a urinal and a bike wheel to question what we consider to be art, and artists like Meret Oppenheim took normal objects and made them uncanny. It's a fair distance from still life's origins, but it still means still life painting is more important than an afterthought to be hung at the bottom of the wall.

Even in more contemporary art, the still life is still relevant. Think of Warhol's Campbell's soup cans — an examination of a common object that's ALSO a critique of commodification. Artists today have resurrected the phantom of the still life in a critical way, such as Ursula Johnson, who stages her works like still life sculptures of tourist souvenirs to talk about stereotyping and commodification of Indigenous culture.

The Indian Truckhouse of High Art (2011) by Ursula Johnson (Ursula Johnson/Edgewood Studio)

We may not be invoking religious symbolism or competing in weird art contests, but still life painting still held — and holds — real value for artists. Even if your uncle doesn't think it's real art.

See you next time on Art 101!

Now that you know the history of still life painting, learn how to make your own in our Culture Days still life painting class.


Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an art history instructor and is always quite terrified of bees.

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