A still life painting can be plainly defined as a work of art depicting mostly inanimate subject matter, typically commonplace objects which may be either natural (food, flowers, plants, rocks, or shells) or man-made (drinking glasses, books, vases, jewelry, coins, pipes, and so on).
The origins of modern still life painting can be traced back to the seventeenth century. This is when artists began to depict inanimate objects as independent paintings, intended to stand on their own. The style of painting gets its name from the Dutch “Still Leven”.
Initially still life was not given the importance that is given now. Many art critics called it mere copies, requiring no actual skill. This brings us to the question, is a still life painting mere depiction of objects or is there something more to it?
The skill level in still life paintings are manifested not only in the depiction of objects but also the arrangement of the objects, the stage in life cycle of the objects (rotting fruit, budding flower) and the back drop on which it is painted. The objects in a still life painting have a sublime message to convey which could be religious, allegorical, social, cultural, personal, moral, or spiritual. Most of these objects are included to convey a message or reflect the artist’s mood.
Some of the common objects in still life are food, flowers, pearls, wine and the dreaded skull. For example, fresh food and wine conveys the message of affluent living and the joie de vivre that life gifts, where as rotten food reminds a person of the fragility of life. Similarly artists use flowers to depict the same transience of life. However flowers in religious paintings could also symbolize the Virgin Mary or in other contexts even sensuality. The depiction of a skull in a still life is again a reminder of death, in contrast to the fresh flowers and grapes arranged on the table.
An artist with the intention to portray beauty and the good side of life usually has a backdrop of a window showing the blue sky, or the objects arranged on silk table cloth. A flower and vase in the corner of a dark room depicts the opposite.
Some still life paintings portrayed the yearning of man for knowledge and discovery of science, by portraying objects like books, ink pot, the globe, a compass etc. Several still life paintings portray culture of the times through musical instruments.
The artist carefully chooses the objects he/she wants and takes care to arrange the objects around each other with an appropriate background to convey a certain message. The still life artist also uses the objects to experiment with colour contrast and composition.
To answer the question whether still life paintings have a meaning, let’s conclude this article with a saying that sums it all:
“When I paint a still life, I want it to be anything but still. I want it to shimmer with light. I want it to rustle with movement.” (Kurt Anderson)