Still Life – in context
Still Life –in context CHAPTER 1
Still Life – in context
Still Life –in context CHAPTER 1
Still Life in Western Art in context

As the history of western art evolved, the subject matter of paintings became known as “genres” and some were considered more important than others.


These genres had a hierarchy which became established in the 17th century by the French Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts). It went as follows… 


In first place was history painting, featuring subjects from classical history, mythology, and the Bible, as well as more recent historical events. Next up was portraiture, capturing the great and the good, followed by genre painting, with a focus on scenes of everyday life, such as people having a party or going to the market (not to be confused with the term “genre” described above). 


Trailing in fourth place, was landscape painting, and then, finally, the lowly still life, at the bottom of the heap. Landscape and still life did not feature people and so were seen as far less important. 

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People,
1830, oil on canvas, Louvre
Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier,
1624, oil on canvas, The Wallace Collection
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding,
1568, oil on wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum
JMW Turner, Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,
1842, oil on canvas, Tate
Rachel Ruysch, Still-Life with Flowers,
1664, oil paint on canvas. Photo: the Hallwyl Museum/SHM (CC BY).
In a nutshell

In the 17th century still life was seen as the least important genre in art, after history painting, portraiture, genre painting and landscape.

What’s behind the name?

This is a still life. But what does that mean? That the objects are still? Yes. That they do not move? Yes. That it is a representation of life, so it shows things that are alive? No. Well, sometimes yes, but often they are dead, or dying.


In essence, still life is a subject in art that refers to anything that does not move – an inanimate object which can be natural or humanmade, or, frankly, dead.


But where does the term come from?


While still life as a subject in art has been around for literally ages – for example, it has been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and pops up all over the place in medieval and Renaissance altarpieces; it only became used as an actual term in the 17th century Netherlands.


The English term “still life” stems from the Dutch “stilleven”, which means “quiet life”. The French called it nature morte and in Italy it became natura morta which both mean “dead nature” – except, remember, not everything in a still life is dead…

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Cheese, Almonds and Pretzels,
1615, oil on canvas, Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague
In a nutshell

The term “still life started to be used in the Netherlands in the 1600s. It comes from the Dutch stilleven, which means quiet life.

Early Still Life
Unknown, Still Life from the Tomb of Menna from Ancient Europe,
1422-1411 BCE. Located: Theban Necropolis of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna in Luxor, Upper Egypt


Although still life painting became particularly popular with artists and audiences from the 1600s onwards, it has been going for millennia.


Look at these piles of fruit, bread, eggs, fish, and ducklings found painted on the walls of the Tomb of Menna in Thebes, Ancient Egypt, from around 1400 BCE. What a treat was in store in their afterlife!

Unkown, Still Live with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases,
circa 63/79 d.C., fresco on wall. Located: House of Julia Felix, Pompeii


These bowls and jars of fruit are paintings from Roman Pompeii. Despite being over 2,000 years old, it is still possible to see the hallmarks of an outstanding still life painting – an exquisite manipulation of light and shadow, and the illusion of depth and threedimensionality.

Johan Jakob von Sandrart, Zeuxis and Parrhasius,
1613, etching, Wellcome Collection, London


Still life is a brilliant vehicle for artists to show off and compete with one another, and there have always been artistic competitions and rivalries! In 5th century BCE Greece – or so legend has it – the rivals in still life were Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  


According to Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, the story goes that Zeuxis made a painting of grapes which was so realistic that birds flew down to eat them. But his rival, Parrhasius, went a step further. When the judges went to move back a curtain to see his painting underneath, they realized that the curtain was the painting!

In a nutshell

Still life has survived as a genre for centuries, dating back to tomb paintings in Ancient Egypt, and mosaics and frescoes in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Types of Still Life
Willem Claesz Heda, Still Life with Gilt Goblet,
1635, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum
Edward Collier, Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’,
1696. Oil paint on canvas, 83.8 x 107.9 cm, Tate. Photo: Tate

Still life paintings tend to fall into five main categories. One of these is food and drink, often laid out as a sumptuous banquet, or as the remains of a simple breakfast.  


The objects can tell us about the social status of who owned the painting, as well as about a particular time and place. For example, let’s look at the still life on the left. By featuring a lemon from the Mediterranean, and a gently twisting jug made out of Venetian glass, the artist is showing us the global trading power and prosperity of the Dutch Golden Age.


It looks like whoever lived here knew how to have a good night in! Household objects that point to pleasures and pastimes – such as wine, books, maps, jewellery, and musical instruments – are also featured in still life paintings.

Another popular theme is flowers, often in spectacular arrangements where the species on display couldn’t possibly have been in season at the same time, as in this wonderful painting by Jan van Os. Alongside a blossoming (ahem) international trade in bulbs in the 1600s, a huge interest in botany grew (get it?).


Or take Vanessa Bell, a prominent figure within the Bloomsbury group (a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the early 20th century), who explored flowers as symbols for beauty, vitality and sorrow. In her post-WWI painting “Chrysanthemums”, she painted flowers typically associated with death and grief to capture the widespread mourning felt by nations who had lost lives during the war.


Let’s not forget some of the most iconic artworks of all time, Vincent van Gogh’s series of sunflower paintings. Surely, this glowing expression of hope and emotion shifts the humble still life genre into the premier league?

Jan Van Os, Still Life with Fruit,
1769, oil paint on canvas, 69.9 x 57.8c, Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh
Vanessa Bell, Still Life with Chrysanthemums,
1920, oil on canvas, Tate © Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett
Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers,
1888, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
Sebastiano Lazzari, Still Life with a Cat,
1760, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell’accademia, Venice

Then there are animals. In most cases the animals are dead or will be eaten, such as hares or birds being hung to develop their flavour. In other paintings, animals such as cats or dogs are introduced to bring a sense of movement or drama, such as in Sebastiano Lazzari’s Still Life with a Cat.

In a nutshell

Still life has five main categories: food and drink, household objects, flowers, animals, and symbolism.

Memento Mori and Vanitas



Still life was not just a vehicle for artists to flaunt their dazzling technical skills; it also allowed them to show objects with symbolic meaning. For example, ripe grapes and blossoming roses were not just objects of beauty and pleasure, but a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, for they will soon rot and die. Cheery.


This kind of artwork, which sets out to remind us of our own mortality, is called a memento mori or vanitas. While these terms are very similar in meaning, each has a slightly different nuance.

Willem Claesz. Heda, Vanitas,
1628, oil on canvas, Museum Bredius, The Hague
Philippe de Champaigne, Still-Life with a Skull,
1671, oil on wood, Tessé Museum

Memento mori is Latin for “remember you must die”. That’s a pretty direct message! Artists started to paint memento mori objects like skulls on the back of portraits during the 1400s and 1500s. By the 17th century it had become popular as a genre in its own right, particularly in Northern Europe, and was heavy with symbols like a snuffed-out candle or an hourglass.


Vanitas is Latin for “vanity”. As well as reminding us that our time on earth is temporary, vanitas paintings give an extra punch by setting memento mori symbols against the joys and trappings of material life.


In other words, don’t be too distracted by worldly pleasures like fine wine, music, and literature, as they are ultimately worthless. Nurture your soul and spiritual life, not just your body!


In a nutshell

Memento mori and vanitas artworks remind us of the fragility of human life, and encourage us to look beyond material things.

Surviving the Centuries

As an incredibly versatile subject, artists have continued to use still life as a playground for expression and experimentation, as a place to try out new styles and techniques, and a way to break the rules.


Obviously, things have changed a lot since the 1600s. For example, in the early 1900s Cubist pioneers like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris were dismantling the rules of painting by trying to show objects from different perspectives at the same time in the same picture.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper,
1913. Printed papers and ink on paper, 46.7 x 62.5 cm, Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS 2020 Photo: Tate
Georges Braque, Still Life: Le Jour,
1929. Oil on canvas, 115 x 146.7 cm, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Juan Gris, Guitar and Music Book,
1923, Ink on paper, Tate
Fernand Léger, Three Bottles (Les Trois Bouteilles), 1954
Oil paint on canvas, 33 x 46 cm, Tate. Presented by Gustav and Elly Kahnweiler 1974, accessioned 1994. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2024 Photo: Tate
Patrick Heron, The Long Table with Fruit,
1949. Oil paint on canvas, 45.7 x 91.4 cm, Tate © Estate of Patrick Heron. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2024 Photo: Tate
Mary Fedden, Mauve Still Life,
1968, Oil paint on hardboard, 610 x 819 mm, Tate collection, presented by the artist 1997. © The Estate of Mary Fedden / Bridgeman Images. Photo: Tate

Other artists, like French painter Fernand Léger and British artists Patrick Heron and Mary Fedden were using still life to explore light and colour through expressive brushstrokes and lively shapes of contrasting colour.


Artists had also started to use real objects in their work, which we’ll get on to later. So well done, still life, for sticking it out, and tipping convention – and ideas of hierarchy on its head!

In a nutshell

Still life as a genre lives on, spanning not only across art movements such as Impressionism, Cubism or Pop Art, but across times, places, and cultures.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • Contextualising Still life in Western Art 
  • What’s behind the Name?
  • Early Still Life
  • Types of Still Life
  • Memento Mori and Vanitas
  • Surviving the Centuries 
To practice

Which subject in painting came out on top in the hierarchy of genres established by the French Academy of Fine Arts?

You have to choose an answer

What does stilleven, the Dutch word for still life, mean literally?

You have to choose an answer

Which of the following wouldn’t you find in a vanitas or memento mori painting?

You have to choose an answer

You have unlocked the next chapter in your course Art of the Everyday – Modern and Contemporary Still Life.


Found Objects and the Readymade


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