Project 2 – Research Point: Still life

During my last OCA course unit ‘Drawing 1’ I did a thorough research on still life in art history and pulled up a table that illustrated for me the evolution of still-life (Schaffeld, 2015).

What I know so far about Still life :

  • A range from illusionistic painting with Trompe d’Oeil effect (e.g. Pieter Aertsen, Jan Fyt, Juan Sanchez Cotan) towards more coloristic and abstract images (e.g. Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso) or more experimental, flat, abstractions (e.g Stuart Davis)
  • A range of domestic settings of still life (till the 20th century) and nowadays often within a urban environment (e.g. Claes Oldenburg)
  • A range from oil paintings to collage impressions (e.g. John Peto, Pablo Picasso) and use of a wide range of materials besides 2D collages: painted 3D objects on plaster or metal (e.g. Claes Oldenburg)
  • The selection of objects within a still life (precious or just everyday non-precious) can influence the perception and the meaning. As well through using different materials, simplifications, and perspectives.

I will use this as a starting point for a new research and new perspectives. With the development of my visual and contextual skills I am now more interested in understanding better the importance and meaning of working with paint compared to drawing and illustration.

Still life in the early academics was considered as inferior to the superior history painting and portraits. However still life are known back to the Greek and Roman time (Xenia). But only since the 17th century in Northern and Southern Europe it became a self standing genre with its own merits. Within this context I am wondering about the status of still life in OCA course units (D1 and PoP1) being addressed in the early parts. Are still lifes easier to make? Would the intention behind still lifes still be inferior.?

I found the book from N. Bryson ‘Looking at the overlooked: Four essays on still life painting‘ quite inspiring for a better understanding still life in an historical context  (Bryson, 1990). His four essays are tackling this genre from:
1. Xenia (decorative schemes), 2. Rhopography (discourse of greatness exceptional act and unique individual) and megalography (daily living,domestic, absence of person uniqueness), 3. Abundance (society’s attitude towards wealth, response to affluence, incl moralism and consumption), and 4. Still-life and ‘Feminine’ space (discourse of low-plane and high-plane reality in relationship to gender)

“Still life can be said to unfold at the interface between three cultural zones:
(1) the life of the table, of the household interior, of the basic creaturely acts of eating and drinking, of the artefacts which surround the subject in her or his domestic space, of the everyday world of routine and repetition, at a level of existence where events are not at all the large-scale, momentous events of History, but the small-scale, trivial, forgettable acts of bodily survival and self-maintenance ;
(2) the domain of sign systems which code the life of the table and low plane reality’ through discourses which relate it to other cultural concerns in other domains (for example those of ideology, sexuality, economics, class);
(3) the technology of painting, as a material practice with its own specificities of method, its own developmental series, its own economic constraints and semiotic processes. “
 (Bryson, 1990)


Xenon (greek) = host, guest

The Greek sophist in the third century BC Philostratus (AD170/172 – AD247/250) described ‘imagines‘ (images). Although it is still not clear whether they really existed, nevertheless they  could be placed in the context of ‘ekphrasis‘ (a greek description of a work of art, possibly imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise by verbal descriptions and commentaries). Some of those images resemble strongly the excavated paintings in Pompeii, Campania, Italy. It is not only the sense of imitation, likeliness but rather what a painting can provoke in the viewer’s mind. There are to differentiations between Xenia 1 and Xenia 2.

In Xenia 1 the nature’s abundance without any human presence or cultural work is the main topic. This is rather an idyll and self-sufficient. In the imagines there is no dividing line between nature and human or between host and guest.  It is the hospitality of bringing raw foods to strangers so that they feel welcomed. The relationship between both parties is equal as both are in the same relation to nature.

In Xenia 2 the threshold between nature and culture is being explored. It is moving away from nature progressing towards a culture of the table. Food is temporal and not any longer abundant. The transformation of nature’s raw food  is processed by cultural work. Now there is a social dividing line, a distance, and a hierarchy between host and guest. The images became a representation of the wealth of the owner (host)

Pliny (AD23 – AD79) describes  in is ‘Natural History‘ a discourse between two painters Parrhasios and Zeuxis on a painting competition in a theatre: “Zeuxis painted some grapes so perfectly that a flock of birds flew down to eat them but, instead, only pecked at their picture. Zeuxis had fooled the birds with his picture. Parrhasius and Zeuxis walked to Parrhasius’s studio whereupon Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to draw aside the curtain and witness his own masterpiece. When Zeuxis attempted to do so, he realized that the curtain was not a curtain, but a painting of a curtain. Zeuxis acknowledged himself to be surpassed, for while Zeuxis had deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived Zeuxis.” (Wikipedia – Available from:

In this narrative various levels of degrees of reality and thresholds are been described: 1. Zone of Pre-cultural (nature) 2. Zone of culture (architecture ) 3. Zone of fiction (theatre stage) 4. Zone of 2nd class fiction (painting). In this context one can consider cultural work to be defined as mediation and artifice, representation and simulation. Power is considered as the capacity to control reality (Parrhasios and Zeuxis). In Roman floor mosaics (Campania) this control of reality is being achieved by a strong visual effect of fictional space (interplay of white and black patterns). Walking on the floor overcomes the boundary and demarcation. Ceilings on the other hand do show an opening up into a fictitious space like a dissolving into infinity.


Rhodes (greek) = trivial objects

In this context still life is being defined as an image with absence of the human figure, no bodily contact, and no narrative.  It is an exploring of the world without importance, without the need of cultural organisation, refinement or symbolic play.

Examples here are the kitchen pictures (bodegones)

Juan Sanchez Cotán (1561 – 1627)  ‘Quince, cabbage, melon and cucumber‘, 1602
Oil on canvas (64.8 x 81cm)
[online image] 
Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Juan Sánchez Cotán_Quince Cabbage and Cucumber_1602

=> This painting out nature’s raw produce on stage (Xenia 1). There is an avoidance of invention and a human act of creativity, objects are placed on a geometrical arch with nearly a  mathematical calculation. The trompe d’ceil effect conveys a perception of nearness, the dark wall behind cuts off the world. Bryson argues here about the proximity that is build of tactile gestures (gesture of eating, laying a table, creating of the laid objects) as a result of bodily action. The geometrical arch as describing curves and turning (of hand, arm).

Francisco de Zubaran (1598 – 1664) ‘Lemons, oranges, cup and rose‘, 1633
Oil on canvas (62.2x 109.5 cm)
[online image] 
Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Francisco de Zubaran_Lemons oranges cup and rose_1633
=> This painting consists of nature’s raw produce (Xenia 1) and also cultural refinements e.g. cup, saucer, basket, plates (Xenia 2). In this still life the tactile space is described with brilliant illumination. A  chiaroscuro and tenebrism style with harsh lines of light and dark that separate visual forms from a tactile space. Bryson argues that under soft lit conditions of the scene the ‘touch would reign ‘. But with the brilliant light the visual perception becomes stronger. The scene is like on stage as in the narrative from Pliny. There is no entry point for the eye to move into the scene, it is detached.  In this way it is different to the one from Juan Sanchez Cotán.

Caravaggio (1573 – 1610) ‘Basket of fruit‘, 1596
Oil on canvas (47×64.5cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

=> This painting in the context of Xenia 1 is quite a modern painting as it eliminates any signs of depth or receding spaces, it is rather a silhouette on the fact canvas. It is pure illusion and plays with the perception of the viewer to convey a sense of form and volume. There is not context, art (still life) presents here in a purely aesthetic form.

Impressionism and Expressionism:

With upcoming interest of colour theories and plain air painting and a major interest of light, still life moved towards a subject for interpretation and visualisation of new approaches with color and planes. Hyper-realistic painting shifted towards a rather perceptive articulation. The artist’s eye and how he/she perceives the world around came into the focus.
Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906)
– ‘Still life with apples‘, 1895-9
Oil on canvas (68.6×92.7cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Paul Cézanne_Still Life with Apples_1895
=> Again a still life presenting nature’s raw fruits (Xenia 1) alongside refined cultural objects. But the main topic here is that reality and context is being removed towards artifice. In this painting it is the process of painting as such that presents. The brushstrokes, the color relationship are the main players on stage. The curtain and the table cloth is merely there to present art and to establish a balanced composition.


Cezanne initiated the way of the later cubism movement of flatting and dissecting forms into planes.

Juan Gris (1887 – 1927) ‘Breakfast‘, 1914  (80.9 x 59.7 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Juan Gris Breakfast (1914)

=> A further moving towards artifice. No depiction of nature at, all refined cultural work. And the illusions moves further towards fictitious space. In this cubistic painting the objects and the planes are moving across different levels of reality (see Pliny’s narrative).  Known objects (table, cups) are rendered as a secure base for further and more illusionistic reduction to the minimal recognizable marks, signs, forms. Real objects are interplaying with fictive objects (e.g. cut out newspaper and the rectangular shapes).

Georges Braque (1882 – 1963) ‘Bottle and Fishes’, 1910-2
Oil on canvas (619 x 749 mm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 Georges Braque 1882-1963 Purchased 1961

=> This painting is a similar domestic table scene as from Juan Gris with a similar limited colour palette. The fragmentation goes further, objects are harder to decipher, and visual planes are with intersecting with each other.

Morandi (1890 – 1964) ‘Still-life ‘, 1946
Oil on canvas  (37 x 45 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Still Life 1946 Giorgio Morandi 1890-1964 Presented by Studio d'Arte Palma, Rome 1947

see also youtube video: ‘Morandi: Master of Modern Still Life, The Phillips Collection (February 21-May 24, 2009)‘ Available from:

=> This painting is a modernist approach to the traditional subject. Quite in the context of Rhopography of the at times monastic perception of the still lifes of Francisco de Zubaran Morandi’s painting is a mediative approach in contrast to the embarrassing and abundant painting of dutch still life and to the fragmented images of cubism.  It is the emptiness and the vibration between shown objects and the surrounding space that matters.

Abundance (Dutch stillleven in 17th century)

In the 17th century with an increasing wealth paintings were considered as a kind of property (Berger, 1972) and as an expansive view of objects from the owners. In parallel to showing their wealth, especially in the calvinistic Netherlands with a strict moral code, the idea of Vanitas  became popular. An advise that all wealth on earth is finite and people should remember resurrection and eternity. This stood quite in contrast with the affluent possession of the wealthy class. The Netherlands in the 17th century were a country of merchants and through their power in the trade and on water were able to bring precious objects into the country.  The strong moral code was embedded into the cultural heritage of the country. Seasonal cycles of shortage and surplus dictated the life of all people regardless of ranks and classes. As the surplus and overproduction of wealth could not be absorbed externally it was invested in precious objects collected from the world. There was no court life in Netherlands as in other European countries the surplus and the wealth accumulated went into domestic life.


Abraham van Beyeren (1620/21–1690) ‘Still Life with Lobster and Fruit’,  1650s
Oil on wood (96.5 x 78.7 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]
Digital Photo File Name: DP143207.tif Online Publications Edited By Steven Paneccasio for TOAH 12-18-2015

=> the abundant table scene with unprocessed nature’s products (lobster, fruit) in the context of Xenia 1. Also with fruits not from the Netherlands but imported i.e. of value. Value that is also shown in the precious glass objects and the velvet cloth.


Willem Kalf (1619 – 1693) ‘Still life with Nautilus cup’, 1665/70
Oil on canvas (68.2 x 58 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

after Willem Kalf, Still Life with Nautilus Cup, 1665/1670, oil on canvas, Gift of Robert H. and Clarice Smith

=> another still life depicting precious objects of value.


Vanitas (latin) = emptiness

The iconography in the Vanitas theme contained some standard elements: symbols of arts and sciences (books, maps, and musical instruments), wealth and power (purses, jewellery, gold objects), and earthly pleasures (goblets, pipes, and playing cards); symbols of death or transience (skulls, clocks, burning candles, soap bubbles, and flowers); and, sometimes, symbols of resurrection and eternal life (usually ears of corn or sprigs of ivy or laurel). The earliest vanitas pictures were sombre, somewhat monochromatic compositions of great power, containing only a few objects (usually books and a skull) executed with elegance and precision. (Britannica, 2015)

Pieter Claesz (1596/97–1660) ‘Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill‘, 1628
Medium: Oil on wood (24.1 x 35.9 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Working Title/Artist: Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill Department: European Paintings Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1628 photography by mma 1979, transparency #3c scanned and retouched by film and media (jn) 8_7_03

=> This painting is a simple vanitas picture with its symbolic meaning of objects of vanitas (ephemeral life): skull, an overturned glass roemer and its reflections, an expired lamp with its last smoke. The attributes of a writer (book, pen, ink) may indicate the knowledge of vanitas as such.


Still-life and Flower paintings:

Flower paintings mover from a rather symbolic and mystical meaning in early times towards the allegorical and moral narrative in the 17th century. Later the loaded still life were demystified and demoralised with focus on wealth (18th) and common use (20th).
Ambrosius Boschaert (1573 – 1621) ‘Bouquet in a niche‘, 1618
Oil on panel (63.8 x 46 cm)
[online image] Available from: [accessed 04 May 2016]

Ambrosius Boschaert_Bouquet in a niche_1618
=> An assemblage of cut flowers, not wild, quite anti-pastoral,  and showing the result of cultural work (horticulture labor) not nature (xenia 2). Not one flower more fits into the vase (abundance). The origins of the flowers are from all over the world. Rarities and objects of value are depicted and to create a piece of high value for collectors.

Amendment: Just found out that a copy with real flowers of one of the flower paintings by Boschaert is on show @national_gallery:

Overall the still life paintings in the Netherlands in the 17th century were more than a mastery depiction of precious natural or man-made objects. The art itself was valuable and to own those showed a high degree of wealth and status. As the painting from Caravaggio it was the artists craftsmanship that transformed tribal objects (rhapography) towards a higher level of a fictitious reality.

Symbolic meaning of nature objects

Some examples from the book Impelluso (2004) ‘Nature and its symbols’:

Flower = cut flowers reminding of futility of earthly possessions as well as of beauty / also as birth of the fruit

Poppy = symbol for death and mourning

Iris = the grief of the Virgin Mary over the death of Christ

Apples = symbol of  Original sin

Thistle = image of the Passion of Christ

Lemon = symbol for Virgin Mary / amorous fidelity

Quince = symbol of the Resurrection / also  of redemption

Strawberries = symbol for Paradise

Fly / Lizard = symbol of evil

Birds = symbol of soul and Christ

Butterfly = symbol of good / symbol of the Resurrection and salvation

Goldfinch = symbol of the soul

Monkey = symbol for painting as imitating nature / allegory for humour

Painting technique

In the 17th century the artists applied mostly a five step-by-step approach (available from: – accessed 05 May 2016)

  1. Choice and Preparation of the Support
  2. Dead-Coloring (underpainting)
  3. Inventing (drawing) 
  4. Working-Up and Retouching (body painting and finishing) 
  5. Glazing

I found an article about a postgraduate project in 1990 to reconstruct a flower painting of Jan van Os (1744 – 1808). (Hamilton, 2014)

  1. Preparation:
    The support (mahogany panel) was prepared with animal glue size and three layers of chalk in glue. After drying the surface was sanded to remove brushstrokes. Than a oil ground made of equal volumes of lead white and chalk in cold-pressed linseed oil was applied in two layers (thinned with oil and turpentine).
  2. Underdrawing:
    Jan van Os planned the composition detailed in pencil and a preparatory drawing from him was copied and transferred by pencil. Jan van Os made drawing from life or from studies
  3. Underpainting:
    On the underdrawing, broad flat areas were blocked-out in pale oil paint to obtain an approximate context. Each object (fruit, flower) was painted in a technique adequate to its visual characteristics. Some objects (roses) were painted in a single layer without a need of a thorough preparatory work or finishing. In most areas (like white grapes) the initial blocked-out layer was important to the final effect. => a.First layer with varying thickness and of the same hue. b. Glazing with darker paint (for shadows) or lighter paint (for bloom) and finished with highlights (reflections). This methodical approach also accommodated the lighting of individual elements. E.g. the black grapes in shadow were painted over a light violet block of colour, but illuminated black grapes were painted over a bright opaque red that was allowed to shine through subsequent layers of transparent red, blue and black.
  4. Pigments used:
    Chalk (ground, for transparent layers) lead white (ground, for light opaque layers, highlights), natural pigments yellow, red and green earths, animal based pigments cochineal and kermis, plant based pigments yellow lakes and indigo, mineral based pigments ultramarine blue. Synthetic pigments colourless alum (which carried the lake dyestuffs) vermilion, red lead, lead-tin yellow and Prussian blue (the newest pigment on the palette)
  5. Medium used:
    Poppy oil for its less discolouring effect though slower drying time. Glue (ground), linseed oil (imprimatura). A mixed medium made from oil and aqueous medium (thixotropic emulsion) for impasto painting (white petals)


Contemporary interpretations:

Contemporary artists are looking at new way of interpretation of still-life. At times that take it literally as dead life (nature morte) (Cindy Wright).

WRIGHT, CINDY_Nature Morte 2_2010

WRIGHT, CINDY_Nature Morte 2_2010

Flowers today:

The subject matter returns to the metaphor of death and temporality of time quite in the context of the traditional still-life painting.

One the areas for flower paintings today is either to highlight the beauty and at times the sexual pleasure associated with a symbolic meaning of varieties of flowers (see Giorgia O’Keefe). Or to focus on the relationship of human presence and nature, and passing of time (e.g. Aidan McNeill, ‘ Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, North and South America to GB‘, 2010, C-Print – available from:–5890 ).

From conceptual perspective artists are using perishable objects and at times of ready-mades in the context of Marcel Duchamp (e.g Ugo Rondinone ‘‘, 2008 – available from: (Petry, 2013).

One aspect related to still life and a rather philosophical approach is addressed by Plato  428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) in his ‘The Republic‘. He argues that art is inferior to philosophy. He looks at a chair, the idea of it that came first, the physical transformation by a carpenter and the representational painting of a chair. This sequence he argues is a removal from reality of first and second order. Lucy Somers (Somers, 2016) places this in the context of contemporary art, sees the vanitas painting as a second order removal and the Cezanne approach as a first order removal. Could the initial idea be art already? Somers refers back to stil life installations (Louise Bourgeois ‘Red Room‘) that can be seen as direct transformations and unprocessed expression.


  • Still life can represent external reality or present a fictitious reality where the art itself is represented.
  • The process of painting a still life can be the idea of art itself (presentational).
  • Symbolic meaning and the use of metaphors are a typical feature of still life till today.
  • Still life can build on various levels of degree of realities: external (nature), internal (interior, cultural work related), fictitious (presenting on stage), and illusionistic (fictitious painting representing a virtual reality)
  • How one idea is translated dictates how close to reality it is (Plato’s idea of removal from reality through representation of ideas)
  • Temporal concepts are often illustrated with still life images.



  2 comments for “Project 2 – Research Point: Still life

  1. June 3, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    This is an erudite post Stefan. So many terms to grapple with – I had no idea. I feel more language and experience rich now for your writing. Thank you.

    • Stefan
      June 3, 2016 at 12:36 pm

      Thanks Lottie for leaving your comment 🙂 I didn’t have an idea either at the beginning. Than got absorbed after reading more. I feel that making art in conjunction with reading can bring up new ideas. Not sure where this will lead to – a making into the uncertainty.

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