still life

(redirected from Still-Life Painting)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.

still life,

a pictorial representation of inanimate objects. The term derives from the 17th-century Dutch still-leven, meaning a motionless natural object or objects.

Evolution of Still Life

Until the Renaissance, elements of still life, often imbued with symbolic or ritual significance, appeared as subordinate subject matter in religious or allegorical paintings. Hellenistic frescoes and mosaics from Pergamon, Alexandria, Rome, and Pompeii included depictions of plants and food in which a trompe l'oeil illusionismillusionism,
in art, a kind of visual trickery in which painted forms seem to be real. It is sometimes called trompe l'oeil [Fr.,=fool the eye]. The development of one-point perspective in the Renaissance advanced illusionist technique immeasurably.
..... Click the link for more information.
 was often stressed. In early Christian and Byzantine religious paintings still-life elements were handled in a schematized and symbolic fashion until the end of the Middle Ages. Franco-Flemish paintings of the late Gothic era revealed close observation of natural details, as seen in much of the period's manuscript illuminationillumination,
in art, decoration of manuscripts and books with colored, gilded pictures, often referred to as miniatures (see miniature painting); historiated and decorated initials; and ornamental border designs.
..... Click the link for more information.

At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance such detail was handled far more formally and was utterly dominated by the religious theme of the work, as in the paintings of Giotto. By the 15th cent. still-life objects were used to enhance the illusion of scientific perspectiveperspective,
in art, any method employed to represent three-dimensional space on a flat surface or in relief sculpture. Although many periods in art showed some progressive diminution of objects seen in depth, linear perspective, in the modern sense, was probably first
..... Click the link for more information.
, a subject of passionate study in the new humanism. At that time still life became a separate genre in Italy; it was used to great effect by masters of marquetrymarquetry
, branch of cabinetwork in which a decorative surface of wood or other substance is glued to an object on a single plane. Unlike inlaying, in which the secondary material is sunk into portions of a solid ground cut out to receive it, the technique of marquetry applies
..... Click the link for more information.

It was in the religious works of Northern European masters that the revival of the study of nature was most completely revealed. The van EycksEyck, van
, family of Flemish painters, the brothers Hubert van Eyck, c.1370–1426, and Jan van Eyck, c.1390–1441. Their Lives

Very little is known of Hubert, the older of the two brothers.
..... Click the link for more information.
, van der WeydenWeyden, Roger van der
, c.1400–1464, major early Flemish master, known also as Roger de la Pasture. He is believed to have studied with Robert Campin. His early works also show the influence of Jan van Eyck.
..... Click the link for more information.
, van der GoesGoes, Hugo van der
, d.1482, Flemish painter. Probably born in Ghent, he was a member of the painters' guild there in 1467 and became dean of the guild in 1474, a year before his semiretirement to a monastery near Brussels. Early works, such as The Fall of Man (c.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and Robert CampinCampin, Robert
, 1378–1444, Flemish painter who with the van Eycks ranks as a founder of the Netherlandish school. He has been identified as the Master of Flémalle on the basis of three panels in Frankfurt-am-Main said to have come from the abbey of Flémalle
..... Click the link for more information.
, to name but a few, observed carefully and recorded exactly objects of everyday use and subjects from nature. They incorporated these into religious works, giving them more and more importance until the still-life elements appeared in the foreground and diminished the religious, or landscape subject, as in the works of AertsenAertsen or Aertszen, Pieter
, 1503?–1575, Dutch painter, b. Amsterdam. Aertsen painted genre scenes (see genre) that are lighthearted in spirit.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and Beuckelaer.

Specialists in the handling of specific textures or effects such as glass, fur, plants, and the translucence of grapes came into being. Where Italian artists had communication with Northern masters, their works reflected the Northern interest in still-life subjects. The direction of this influence was reversed by the time of Caravaggio. Specialty pictures were the first major separate still lifes. These included works on the vanitas vanitatum theme featuring skull, hourglass, candle, book, and flowers in their iconography, as well as the banquet pieces that had become popular with collectors of 1600.

Still Life in the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries

Still life was developed as a separate genre primarily in the Netherlands in the works of Jan Bruegel (see under BruegelBruegel,
or Breughel
, outstanding family of Flemish genre and landscape painters. The foremost, Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, c.
..... Click the link for more information.
, family), RubensRubens, Peter Paul,
1577–1640, foremost Flemish painter of the 17th cent., b. Siegen, Westphalia, where his family had gone into exile because of his father's Calvinist beliefs.
..... Click the link for more information.
, SnydersSnyders, Frans
, 1579–1657, most celebrated Flemish still-life and animal painter, b. Antwerp. He studied with Bruegel, the younger, and Hendrik van Balen but was principally influenced by Rubens.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and RembrandtRembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn or Ryn
, 1606–69, Dutch painter, etcher, and draftsman, b. Leiden. Rembrandt is acknowledged as the greatest master of the Dutch school.
..... Click the link for more information.
. In France still life was used in the 17th cent. primarily for trompe l'oeil exercises and not significantly elevated until it received brilliant handling by ChardinChardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon
, 1699–1779, French painter. He was a major figure of 18th-century painting. While the Académie royale still advocated history painting as the noblest form of art, Chardin painted still lifes and domestic interiors.
..... Click the link for more information.
 in the 18th cent. French 19th-century masters, including CourbetCourbet, Gustave
, 1819–77, French painter, b. Ornans. He moved to Paris in 1839 and studied there, learning chiefly by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. An avowed realist, Courbet was always at odds with vested authority, aesthetic or political.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and CézanneCézanne, Paul
, 1839–1906, French painter, b. Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne was the leading figure in the revolution toward abstraction in modern painting.
..... Click the link for more information.
, adopted still life wholeheartedly, giving it status equal to that of their other subjects. In the United States, HarnettHarnett, William Michael
, 1848–92, American painter, b. Ireland. He emigrated to Philadelphia as a child; he first learned engraving and then studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union.
..... Click the link for more information.
 and PetoPeto, John F.
, 1854–1907, American painter, b. Philadelphia. Largely self-taught, Peto worked in the exacting style of trompe l'oeil illusionism perfected by William Harnett.
..... Click the link for more information.
 used still life in order to display brilliant trompe l'oeil techniques.

Still Life in the Twentieth Century

In the 20th cent. both American and European artists' most characteristic subject matter was still life. The cubist artists, PicassoPicasso, Pablo
(Pablo Ruiz y Picasso) , 1881–1973, Spanish painter, sculptor, graphic artist, and ceramist, who worked in France. He is generally considered in his technical virtuosity, enormous versatility, and incredible originality and prolificity to have been the
..... Click the link for more information.
, BraqueBraque, Georges
, 1882–1963, French painter. He joined the artists involved in developing fauvism in 1905, and at l'Estaque c.1909 he was profoundly influenced by Cézanne.
..... Click the link for more information.
, and GrisGris, Juan
, 1887–1927, Spanish cubist painter, whose original name was José Victoriano González. After studying in Madrid he settled in Paris in 1906, where he held his first exhibition at the Salon des Indépendents of 1912.
..... Click the link for more information.
, painted still-life subjects predominantly. The artists in many schools of abstract painting, beginning with Cézanne and continuing to the present day, forsook the objective representation of still life and developed myriad varieties of treatment of the subject, concentrating on color, form, and composition. Occasionally they painted other subjects, applying to these their still-life stylistic techniques. The painters of the pop artpop art,
movement that restored realism to avant-garde art; it first emerged in Great Britain at the end of the 1950s as a reaction against the seriousness of abstract expressionism.
..... Click the link for more information.
 movement and their followers frequently criticized contemporary social values using, almost exclusively, still-life subject matter. They chose objects of popular culture relevant to their thesis such as soup cans and comic strips.

East Asian Still Life

In East Asia still-life subjects were depicted as early as the 11th cent. Chinese works were distinguished by brilliant brushwork and rapid execution. Objects were frequently endowed with symbolic import in both Chinese works and the Japanese compositions often derived from them. The importance of illusionistic representation of the object was minimized in East Asian art, and in general its treatment of still life does not correspond with that of Western art.


See C. Sterling, Still Life Painting (rev. ed., tr. 1959, repr. 1981); W. H. Gerdts and R. Burke, American Still-Life Painting (1971); R. Gwynne, The Illustrated Guidebook to Still-Life Painting (2 vol., 1982); E. E. Rathbone and G. T. M. Shackelford, Impressionist Still Life (2001).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Still Life


a genre in fine arts, primarily in easel painting, consisting of the representation of objects arranged against a common background. The special organization, or formulation, of the motif is one of the principal components of the genre. Besides depicting such inanimate objects as household utensils, still lifes include objects from nature that have been removed from their natural environment—for example, a fish on a table or a bouquet of flowers. Live, moving creatures—insects, birds, animals, and even people—may sometimes appear in a still life, but they serve only in a subordinate capacity. Unlike other genres, still life deals with small objects from everyday life. It requires that the artist and the viewer pay particular attention to the subjects’ structure and details, to texture, and to spatial relationship. Attention must also be paid to the purely plastic problems of painting.

The still life as a genre does not merely strive toward symbolic expression, toward the solution of decorative problems, or toward an exact definition of the objective world from the viewpoint of a natural scientist, although such tendencies contributed to the development of the genre. Its images are often marked by a wealth of associations, bright decorativeness, and an illusionistic meticulousness in reproducing nature. The representation of objects in still-life painting has substantive artistic significance. The artist can create a comprehensive multidimensional image with a complex hidden meaning. The historical development of still life, with content that has changed in various epochs, reflects in a specific way the social orientation of art as a whole.

Still-life motifs as compositional details and as decorative and symbolic elements are evident in ancient Oriental, ancient Greek and Roman, and medieval art. Elements in which it is possible to discern compositional and thematic prototypes of later still lifes appear in ancient Roman frescoes and mosaics dating from the first century. It is difficult to speak of the still life proper within the context of classical Oriental, particularly Chinese and Japanese, art. In Oriental countries, artistic perception and the system of genres differed in essence from those of Europe. Comparable to still lifes, if only in part, are works of the flower-and-bird school and various depictions of fruits (in China, Ts’ui Po, late 11th century, and Mu Ch’i, 13th century; in Japan, Ogato Korin, late 17th and early 18th centuries).

The emergence of still life as an independent genre is related to the general character of European art in modern times, to the rise of easel painting, and to the formation of a ramified system of genres. In the works of Italian and, especially, Netherlandish masters of the Renaissance, unprecedented interest in the material world and love of the sensuous beauty of things are evident. At the same time, the symbolic meaning that characterized the pictorial rendering of objects during the Middle Ages was often preserved.

The history of still life, particularly of the trompe l’oeil type, as a form of easel painting began with works by the Italian artist Jacopo de’ Barbari (1504), in which objects are rendered so faithfully that they seem to be real.

Still-life painting did not become popular until the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Its popularity was spurred by the interest in natural history characteristic of the era, by the artists’ interest in people’s everyday and private lives, and by the development of artistic methods of representing the world. In the paintings of the Netherlander Pieter Aertsen and his followers, an important place was assigned to the depiction of kitchens and shops in which food and utensils are piled up; this was done sometimes even in works dealing with religious subjects. The Flemish artist J. Brueghel was preoccupied with botanical accuracy in reproducing various flowers and the beauty and diversity of their shapes and colors; he was also interested in floral symbolism.

The 17th century marked the height of development of the still life. The diversity of its types and forms at that time was connected with the development of national schools of painting. Italian still-life painting was largely influenced by the innovations of Caravaggio, which resulted in artists’ addressing themselves to common “low-life” motifs and which determined the distinctive stylistic features of Italian still lifes. The most popular subjects of Italian still-life painters (P. P. Bonzi, M. di Campidoglio, G. Recco, G. B. Ruoppolo, E. Baschenis) were flowers, fruits and vegetables, sea life, kitchenware, musical instruments, and books. Italian still-life painting as a whole is characterized by a diversity of composition, a rich and brilliant palette, and a sculpturesque rendering of the objective world.

Still lifes in the tradition of Caravaggism appeared in Spain. They are marked by a preoccupation with fine plastic forms and chiaroscuro. In Spanish painting the depiction of objects, which are often quite commonplace, is marked by sublime austerity and signifies the renunciation of the secular world (J. Sanchez Cotán, F. Zurbarán, A. Pereda). Dutch still-life painting reflects an interest in simple motifs. Informal and popular images predominate. There is concern for rendering effects of light, textural diversity, subtle tonal relationships, and color structure—ranging from the refined, modest color of V. Heda and P. Claesz’ monochromatic “breakfast” pieces to W. Kalf’s compositions done in a contrasting and effective palette (“desserts”). Dutch still-life painting is distinguished by its diversity and by the large number of artists who worked in the genre. In addition to “breakfast” and “dessert” pieces, there were still lifes of fish by A. Beyeren, flowers and fruits by J. D. de Heem, game by J. Weenix and M. Hondecoeter, and the allegorical vanitas. The Dutch variation of the term still life—still-leven—originally meant “motionless model” and did not come into use until the end of the 17th century. The term unifies all the above-mentioned variations.

Flemish still lifes, consisting primarily of depictions of markets, shops, and flowers and fruits, are distinguished by the scope of compositions, with their multitude of objects and their pictorial grandeur and dynamism. These works constitute a hymn to fertility and abundance (F. Snyders, J. Fyt). German still-life painting developed in the 17th century (G. Flegel, C. Paudiss), as did French still-life painting (L. Baugin). At the end of the 17th century, the decorative tendencies of court art dominated French still lifes. Together with flower pieces (J. B. Monnoyer and his school) and hunting scenes (A. F. Desportes and J. B. Oudry), still-life subjects from everyday life were occasionally depicted. In 18th-century France, one of the outstanding masters of still-life painting, J. B. S. Chardin, produced works characterized by a grasp of pictorial form, a casual composition, and rich color. His depiction of everyday objects is essentially democratic, intimate, and personal, as though infused with the poetry of the domestic hearth. The term nature morte originated in the mid-18th century, reflecting the disdainful attitude toward still-life painting of academicians who preferred genres, such as portraiture and historical painting, that were based on live models. However, progressive tendencies broke down the academic hierarchy of genres, which had impeded the development of still life. Conventional devices were cast aside, and the genre as a whole was reevaluated.

In the 19th century, the direction of still-life painting was determined by leading painters who worked in many genres and who involved still life in the struggle of aesthetic and artistic ideas (in Spain, F. Goya; in France, E. Delacroix, G. Courbet, E. Manet, and the impressionists, who occasionally painted still lifes). For a long time, there were no outstanding 19th-century artists who specialized in still life. Along with the uninspired salon still lifes of the late 19th century, some outstanding traditional works were produced by the Frenchman I. H. Fantin-Latour and by the American W. Harnett, who revived trompe l’oeil elements in an original way.

The resurgence of still-life painting was connected with the work of the postimpressionists, who considered the world of objects a theme of paramount importance. The expressive possibilities of still life, including the intensely dramatic expression of the social and moral beliefs of the artist, were reflected in the late 19th century in the work of the Dutch artist V. van Gogh. The French painter P. Cézanne revived three-dimensional representation in painting, remaining true to both nature and high pictorial ideals. The still life became an essential part of his aesthetic, which greatly influenced still-life painting and painting in general in the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, still-life painting became a kind of creative laboratory of painting. In France the fauvists, including H. Matisse, emphasized the emotional and decorative expressive possibilities of color and texture. Representatives of cubism, such as G. Braque, P. Picasso, and J. Gris, using the analytic possibilities inherent in still life, introduced new means of depicting form and space. The problems and motifs of still life attracted masters of later trends—from artists who, in various degrees, combined the classical legacy with new developments in painting (Picasso in France, A. Kanoldt in Germany, and G. Morandi in Italy) to representatives of surrealism and pop art, whose works as a whole are not confined within the framework of the historically developed genre of still life. The realistic traditions of still-life painting, often with emphatic social content, are evident in the works of such 20th-century artists as D. Rivera and D. Siqueiros in Mexico and R. Guttuso in Italy.

The still life emerged in Russian art in the 18th century together with other forms of secular painting. Its appearance reflected the cognitive spirit of the epoch and the striving to paint the objective world with truth and accuracy (the trompe l’oeil works by G. N. Teplov, P. G. Bogomolov, and T. Ul’ianov). Russian still-life painting developed at an irregular pace. Its moderate flowering in the early 19th century (F. P. Tolstoi, I. T. Khrutskii, and the school of A. G. Venetsianov) resulted from the desire to apprehend beauty in that which is small and ordinary. During the late 19th century, still-life studies were only occasionally produced by I. N. Kramskoi, I. E. Repin, V. I. Surikov, V. D. Polenov, and I. I. Levitan. The unimportance of the still life in the art of the peredvizhniki (the “wanderers—a progressive art movement) resulted from their ideological preference for narrative and thematic paintings. The substantive importance of still-life studies increased at the turn of the 20th century (M. A. Vrubel’, V. E. Borisov-Musatov).

Russian still-life painting reached the zenith of its development in the early 20th century. The best examples are works by K. A. Korovin, I. E. Grabar’, and M. F. Larionov. The impressionistic beginnings of these artists were enriched by new artistic influences. The works of artists belonging to the World of Art group (A. Ia. Golovin and others) subtly interpreted the historical and everyday nature of objects. The still lifes of P. V. Kuznetsov, N. N. Sapunov, S. Iu. Sudeikin, M. S. Sar’ian, and other painters of the Blue Rose group are romanticized, sublime, and extremely decorative. The bright, modeled still lifes by members of the Jack of Diamonds association, including P. P. Konchalovskii, I. I. Mashkov, A. V. Kuprin, V. V. Rozhdestvenskii, A. V. Lentulov, R. R. Fal’k, and N. S. Goncharova are marked by devotion to the unity of color and form and by a fervent attitude toward nature.

Soviet still life, which has developed in the common stream of socialist realism, has been enriched with new content. In the 1920’s and 1930’s an almost philosophical understanding of contemporary times was expressed in the tense compositions of K. S. Petrov-Vodkin. Experiments with the texture of materials were conducted by such artists as D. P. Shterenberg and N. I. Al’tman to reproduce in palpable form subjects that were being rejected by abstract artists. Soviet still lifes of this period included the faithful re-creation of foodstuffs, utensils, and the colorful and abundant fruits of the earth (Konchalovskii, Mashkov, Kuprin, Lentulov, Sar’ian, A. A. Osmerkin). The paintings of V. V. Lebedev, N. A. Tyrs, and similar artists are marked by subtle color harmony and the poetization of the objective world.

Still lifes depicting subjects from everyday life have been developed by Iu. I. Pimenov since the 1930’s. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, A. M. Gerasimov and P. V. Kuznetsov produced still lifes. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, predominant still-life painters have included A. Iu. Nikich and V. F. Stozharov. In the Union republics, outstanding masters of still life include M. A. Aslamazian and E. A. Aslamazian in Armenia, T. F. Narimanbekov in Azerbaijan, L. Svemp and L. Endzelina in Latvia, and N. I. Kormashov in Estonia.


Vipper, B. R. “Problema i razvitie natiurmorta.” Zhizn’ veshchei. Kazan, 1922.
Shcherbacheva, M. I. Natiurmort ν gollandskoi zhivopisi. Leningrad, 1945.
Kuznetsov, Iu. I. Zapadnoevropeiskii natiurmort. Leningrad-Moscow, 1966.
Glozman, I. M. “K istorii russkogo natiurmorta 18 veka.” In Russkoe iskusstvo 18 veka: Materialy i issledovaniia. Moscow, 1968. Pages 53–71.
Rakova, M. M. Russkii natiurmort kontsa 19-nachala 20 veka. Moscow, 1970.
Pushkarev, V. I., and I. N. Pruzhan. Russkii i sovetskii natiurmort. Moscow-Leningrad, 1971.
Furst, H. The Art of Still-Life Painting. London, 1927.
Sterling, C. La Nature morte: De l’antiquité a nos jours. Paris, 1952.
Bergström, I. Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century. London, 1956.
Faré, M. La Nature morte en France: Son histoire et son évolution du 17 au 20 siècle. Geneva, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

still life

a. a painting or drawing of inanimate objects, such as fruit, flowers, etc.
b. (as modifier): a still-life painting
2. the genre of such paintings
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in periodicals archive ?
Fry acknowledges that still-life painting can contain some ideas and emotions worth our consideration--like those we find in Bell's letter to him and in Woolf's diary entry--provided, of course, that the genre remains in Cezanne's hands.
The rise of still-life painting from the bottom rank of artistic subject matter, especially in the cities of Antwerp, Haarlem, Leiden, and Utrecht, reflected the urbanization of society and a shift in emphasis from religious subjects to domestic scenes featuring personal possessions, earthly pleasures, and the economic prosperity following an explosion of global commerce.
Several of his still-life paintings were designed in pairs and were therefore balanced in theme or composition.
And lest anyone should refuse to accept the contrast between the culture that produced the Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century and the Dutch culture of today, which is indistinguishable from most modern cultures except that it is more self-consciously extreme in its rejection of refinement, it is worth remembering that Dutch still-life painting was not an elite, but a popular art (though of course Coorte and Claesz were distinguished practitioners of it): and that if that art had been as popular in America today as it was then in the low countries, American professional artists would have painted approximately 175 million still-life paintings this century.
Often called the Chaste Giovanna due to her vow of chastity, she was one of the first women to practise the art of still-life painting (Fig.
SYMBOLISM: In European still-life painting from the 16th and 17th centuries, the knife seems to serve several uses.
This two-sided, freestanding cardboard wall features its title and a sketch-like painting on its front; behind it, something like the three-dimensional model of a still-life painting: a large table in raw canvas, with, on top, a pair of shoes, a book, a cube, a black square painted directly onto the canvas, a circle made out of black felt, and what seemed to be a maulstick.
They include lessons from Sartre on the egological structure of consciousness for an analytic philosophy of mind, phenomenology in artificial intelligence and cognitive science, environmental philosophy, sexuality, the search for immediacy and the problem of political life in existentialism and phenomenology, and the phenomenology of self-consciousness in Dutch still-life painting. The first edition appeared in 2006.
"Still-life painting is closer than anything else to abstraction," he said.
The small still-life painting near the door, the designs on the wallpaper, and the cat's marmalade stripes demonstrate Lee's attention to detail.
These concerns, apart from the underlying threat of decay through the relentless passage of time, a common theme in still-life painting, would be many, even if they were only limited to food.
Most of the catalogue entries, written by ten different scholars, are devoted to history painting with much less attention to portrait, landscape, and still-life painting. The biographies, also written by Marten Jan Bok, are helpful for readers first being introduced to Utrecht painting, since a single artist may be discussed in different sections of the catalogue.