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Still life painting

The Dead Nature

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Still life is a picturesque genre that focuses on depicting the objective world. The French name of the still life is "nature morte", the Italian one, "natura morta", both meaning "dead nature". Still life depicts inanimate objects, which are compositionally located in realistic surrounding.

The genesis of the still life genre

The earliest still lifes, as we understand them now, were created in the 15th century BC. In the burials of the ancient Egyptians, the images of food, fish, and meat were not rare. Still life elements can be seen in the antique frescoes and mosaics. The interiors of the houses were also mostly covered with still lifes: images of flower garlands decorated arches, doors, furniture.

Until the 16−17th centuries, still life existed as a component of the works of art created in other genres. These were images of flowers, tables with various objects placed on them, dead game in the paintings with hunting trophies.
The first known artwork that can be fully attributed to the still life genre is the painting created by the Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari (1460—1516). He painted the view with a partridge, an armour plate and a crossbow bolt, also known as "Munich still life", in 1504. At this time, de Barbari worked at the court of the Saxon elector Frederick III.
Art historians often refer to Caravaggio's painting as the "first still life". By the way, the artist’s remains were buried only in July 2014, in the Tuscan town of Porto Ercole, where he died back in 1610, at 38, from the consequences of his disease. During the burial ceremony, a fruit basket was placed on the coffin with the remains of Caravaggio instead of a bouquet — such basket, just as he depicted in this still life.

Vanitas still life

There is a separate subgenre of still life — vanitas (from the Latin vanitas — vanity), where the human skull is the central subject of the composition. "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity." (Eccl. 1, 2) — this biblical verse is the leitmotif of all vanitas still lifes. Sometimes the skull was depicted on the back of the portrait. Thus, the masters of the Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
era allegorically showed the transience of life and mortality. The first Dutch still life by Jacob de Gheyn is considered to be the "Vanitas" (1603). The vanitas genre was so popular that it was reflected in the literature: William Shakespeare portrayed it in the Hamlet (1600 — 1601) tragedy, giving Hamlet the skull of Yorick.

Symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



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of still life

Still life became an independent genre in the 17th century, which was greatly facilitated by Dutch and Flemish artists. The term "still life" came into use (dut. — stilleven, germ. — Stilleben). The genre gained popularity due to the hidden symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



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of the depicted objects, which vanitas contributed a lot to. And while the skull was a clear reminder of death, sprouts of grains symbolized life, flowers — love, and fruits — fertility or abundance. Each series of objects also had their allegorical meanings. Thus, rotting fruits meant aging, apples or pears reminded the audience of the fall from grace, and plums or peaches symbolized erotica and sex. Symbolism
Exquisite still-lifes and marvelous plants on canvases: flowers do not only beautify the appearance, but also open secret meanings, and convey messages to the attentive researcher. Leafing through captivating Herbarium, we're examining enigmatic garden of flower symbols.

Read more Symbolism is an art movement that has been reflected in painting, literature and music. It emerged in the 1870s-1880s in France, later spread to Belgium, Norway, and the Russian Empire. It reached the peak of popularity at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. Symbolism is characterized by sadness, introspection and understatement: as if an artist came to quiet despair, but he was too shy to talk about these feelings, so he painted them.



Read more
was so common that emblematic collections were used to interpret the paintings, which were published in quite large runs.
The still life genre developed rapidly along with scientific achievements and geographical discoveries. The paintings depicted various rarities — household items and plants, dishes and fruits, the technology of manufacturing various objects.

Types of still lifes

The first type of still life depicts things belonging to a certain owner, and is characterized by a fairly free, natural composition. Moreover, the objects in the picture are an indirect characteristic of their owner.

The still lifes of the second kind depict objects as valuable things. A deliberate, exhibition composition is designed to emphasize the image decorativeness.

Flower still life

In the 1620s, Holland became a centre for the sale of exotic tulips. This led to the development of the flower still life genre. The main artists of this genre were Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, Balthasar van der Ast, Jan Davidsz. de Heem. Flower still lifes were very popular not only in Holland, but throughout Europe: tulip bulbs were so expensive that not everyone could afford them. While it was much more profitable to buy a picture with a luxurious bouquet, which is to please one’s eye for many years. In addition, it was often impossible to get the bouquet depicted in the picture in reality: the artists collected plants that bloomed at different times in whole compositions.

Breakfast in the pictures

The image of the laid table is another kind of Dutch still life, which was popular in the 17th century. The paintings depicted traditional breakfast dishes — cheese and rolls, fruits, ham, vessels with beer. More prosperous citizens could afford to admire the images of pies and game, lobsters, shrimps and wine. The dishes showed a lot: graceful glass (it symbolized fragility), silver (wealth), Chinese porcelain (purity). The mortar and pestle symbolized the feminine and masculine beginnings, an empty glass meant death, and a half full one meant moderation.

Scientific still life

Another genre of still life popular in the 17th century was scientific still life. It abounds in the images of religious symbols, books, geographical maps, as well as optical illusion techniques and hyperrealism ("tricks", trompe-l'oeil). To understand all the symbols of scientific still life, you had to be a fairly educated person and know the Bible thoroughly.

Hunting still life

Hunting still life depicted dead game and fish and was very popular with the wealthy aristocracy. The hunting still life was often the interior subject of men’s suites, symbolizing the owner’s fortunateness.
Ian Faith. Hare, fruit and parrot
Hare, fruit and parrot
1647, 70.5×97 cm

At the genre borderline

You may often see still lifes painted into a landscape or an interior. In this case, still life is the main thing, and its artistic setting is secondary and carries additional semantic load.
Eugene Delacroix. Basket with flowers
Basket with flowers
1849, 107.3×142.2 cm

Still life in Russia

Still life appeared in Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. The traditions of academism considered still life a low genre, in contrast to the high genre of historical and mythological painting. At the Academy of Arts, students of the third and second years painted, in fact, still lifes — gypsum heads and figures, — training the drawing technique.

Modern still life

Another heyday of still life as a genre came at the beginning of the twentieth century. Artists actively developed the colour visual language, form and composition of picture. Still life became a genre of art experiment.
Vincent van Gogh. Sunflowers in yellow vase
Sunflowers in yellow vase
January 1889, 95×73 cm
Each subsequent art movement brought its own features to still life. This genre was well suited to show the viewer the basic principles of a particular style. Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir paid much attention to still lifes, drawing bouquets of flowers and fruits. One of the components of the popularity of post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh were his floral still lifes. Cézanne and still life are another persistent association: the artist painted the famous series of paintings with apples, wine bottles and jugs of water. Pablo Picasso, going through various stages of his artistic career, created still lifes in the styles of cubism, surrealism
Avant-garde is how modern art critics refer the general trend of new artistic directions that arose in world art at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. A very thin line separates it from the concept of “modernism”. Read more Surrealism (Fr. surréalisme) is an avant-garde art movement of the first half of the twentieth century characterized by the fusion of reality with something else, but not oppositional. Surrealism is a dream which is neither real, nor surreal. The style is characterized by allusions and a paradoxical combination of forms, visual deception. In the paintings of the Surrealists hard objects and rocks often melt, and the water, on the contrary, hardens. Read more
and post-impressionism
"Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Gauguin asked when naming his famous painting. Well, the answers were given by the world renowned artists, who once have determined the style. Read more
, each time reinterpreting the surrounding objects.

Surrealists also paid tribute to the still life genre. Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Giorgio Morandi — each of them repeatedly captured inanimate objects that exist in fantasy worlds and other creative dimensions in their paintings.
The development of advertising played a significant role in the development of the genre. Idealization of objects and glamor, designed to attract potential consumers, were typical of commercial artists who created attractive images of goods for their promotion on the market. At the same time, a number of artists, for example, Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist, used still life techniques to ridicule the consumer hype cultivated in society.
Andy Warhol. 100 cans
100 cans
1962, 183×132 cm
After the Second World War, installations became very popular: embodied still lifes were represented in the form of spatial compositions. Modern readings of still life have become one of the most expensive trends in current pop culture: Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst are the representatives of the genre.