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  • Jake Kendall

Reformation, Revolution, and Resistance: A Brief History of Still Life Painting

This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.

Still life painting is often perceived as dull or flat, frequently overlooked in favor of more “exciting” subjects. Jake Kendall reclaims and reexamines this surprising and often provocative genre.

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, still life painting
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Painting: Caravaggio

The world’s largest oil painting hangs in the Doge’s Palace, Venice. Titled Il Paradiso, it was painted by Tintoretto at the dizzying height of the Venetian Republic. Christ and the Virgin occupy the central space. Fanning out in all directions, the full celestial cast are displayed – over five hundred figures in total. Additionally, the background positively teems with cherubs, like some sort of hellish ball-pit composed entirely of disembodied baby-faces.

The painting is faintly ridiculous in scope and scale. A preposterous manifesto of Venetian self-worth and Catholic exuberance. Photographs do not do it justice. It is best to simply sit beneath it and take it all in.

Il Paradiso is typical of a certain type of Catholic bombast. Excess and melodrama had been written into the DNA of the Roman Catholic aesthetic at least since Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is an aesthetic built on immersion and sensory overload, an emotive visual language with no word for understatement. In this context, the Reformation begins to make sense; it was a reset of sorts. When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door of Wittenberg, he began the greatest schism in the history of Christianity. The artists that fell on either side became foot soldiers in an ideological war, their art an essential expression of the old ways or the new.

Catholic art entered the period we now call the Baroque. It was a magnification of the Renaissance: greater compositional dynamism, more emotion conveyed, the art ever-larger in scope. The Churches and Cathedrals of Northern Europe, by stark contrast, were remodeled into pure and austere spaces, designed for personal thought and prayer. The stripping away of visual iconography deprived the artists of these countries of their traditional patrons, forcing them to adapt and to change.

Despite the ban on religious art in churches and cathedrals, artists of Protestant nations were not prevented from making religious paintings for private display and ownership. However, the culture around the arts was very different from the culture we know today. We treat the modern painter as the genius, their output an indulgence of vision. For the most part, the artists of the past were craftsmen. They worked within a consumer-led market. This meant that a new social class of wealthy merchants were able to become tastemakers, their money creating something new in Europe, a predominantly secular art market. The result was a great surge in the popularity of portraiture, and genre paintings depicting scenes of everyday life. Two new genres also emerged from the period: landscape painting and still life.

Still life is essentially a portrait of an inanimate object. You will have passed them in galleries: vases of flowers, bowls of fruit or vegetables. Encountered en-mass, they seem as if they might just be the dullest branch of the visual arts. Indeed, the genre evokes thoughts of enthusiastic amateurs, learning the craft by sketching out whatever objects they find in their own homes and kitchen. Easy subjects that do not move, complain of boredom, or take offence at the results. And yet the history of still life painting demonstrates that appearances can be deceptive, and that great intrigues can lay beyond even the most seemingly prosaic of surfaces.

Still life emerges as a distinct genre during the Dutch Golden age. At that time, Holland provided the perfect conditions for the development of a new artistic culture. The state had freed itself from Spanish occupation after a bitter war for independence and established itself as a Protestant nation. The Netherlands had a fine pedigree of artistic accomplishment and culture to draw upon too – oil painting itself originated from the Netherlands in the fifteenth century. Jan van Eyck achieved expressive brilliance working with this new material. His rendering of textures and material were unparalleled at the time – so much so that van Eyck was even accused of witchcraft by some. The continental legacy of van Eyck was the permanent break with tempera paints. On a more localised level, he inspired a culture of virtuosity.

The greatness of Dutch still life paintings is sometimes lost to a modern audience. We perhaps value a dramatic scene and the unique vision of the artist. Yet, understood as exercises in sheer painterly technique, and a collective pursuit of perfect representation, the work is often astonishing. Through the skill of artists both male and female, the textures of metal, feathers, glass, petals, rind, fur, and fish scales, were brought vividly to life through oil and canvas. The audiences of the day bought them in droves, for they did not take for granted the sheer skill and craft of painting.

At times these works also conveyed messages. The flesh of ripe fruit often bulged and curved invitingly. A somewhat subtle metaphor for the fleetingness of youth, of the ephemeral nature of beauty, and the vitality of young love. Holland was also an early pioneer of international trade and colonisation. This adventurous nation had the means to bring together flowers, fruit, vegetables and animals from different continents and place them together on a table in the Netherlands. For the Dutch, still life painting often served as a proud declaration of curiosity, of cosmopolitan tastes, and of growing wealth and influence.

The genre was, however, slow to catch on beyond the Netherlands. Among the grand declarations of religious identity in Italy, very few painters felt compelled to tackle still life painting. Ever the contrarian, Caravaggio painted a Basket of Fruit in return for the hospitality of an early patron, the perhaps appropriately named, Cardinal del Monte. The technical brilliance of the painting saw it attributed to an unknown Dutch painter, before the resurgence of interest in Caravaggio in the Twentieth Century. Written records discovered later not only detail Caravaggio’s painting of the work, but also the reaction of his host, the Cardinal, reportedly weeping at the sight of it. To modern eyes, privileged enough to have Caravaggio’s life and work dragged from obscurity and curated for us, his presence is undeniable in this image. His leaves are wilting, his fruit rotten, there are maggots in the apples. If the Dutch had used the process of ripening as a bittersweet allegory of age, Caravaggio’s use seems closer in effect to the traditional vanitas. He has painted not so much a portrait of a fruit basket, but a portrait of impermanence itself, of the inevitable triumph of death.

Caravaggio might have only dipped a talented toe into the water of still life painting, but Italy did produce one true specialist. Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an eccentric figure who revelled in using inanimate objects to form human faces. His creations are ontological oddities, composed from fruit, from kitchenware, sea creatures and other such things. Sometimes these images were linked – his Four Seasons were a popular series reproduced and purchased by several European monarchs of the day. Other times there might be a hint of social commentary to the work; his Librarian is believed to serve as a satire on the practice of book-hoarding by owners with little intention of reading. Mainly though, Arcimboldo was probably doing something quite modern, an early pioneer of pursuing a unique vision for commercial success. He later became a cult figure to Surrealist painters such as Dali and Ernst – his appeal to them clear and obvious.

The art world changed once again during the eighteenth century. Grand artistic institutions flourished and grew in stature. Institutions such as the Royal Academy in London, and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris taught the correct way to paint and to think about the arts. They established canon, and set out a clear hierarchy of the worthiness of each genre. Historical, religious and mythological subjects were not only the most complex compositions, but were a celebration of Western thought, culture and achievement, and, thence forth, the obvious pinnacle. Human portraiture was ranked second. Landscape painting was ranked third, the natural world at least receiving a podium finish. At the very bottom of the pile, lowly still life painting was little more than a disdained footnote.

In France, style began to surpass representation as the primary concern of the painter. A mellifluous aesthetic called Rococo developed. Rococo was soft and frilly. A rich and decadent idyll. It was European art so full of itself that its characters could do nought but lounge in languid self-satisfaction beneath wilting canopies and flights of precious cherubs, adorning all with flower garlands. One story has the painter Francois Boucher exhibiting at the Salon des Paris. The image is typical Rococo: a woman sits upon a cow, tweaking the clothing of a nearby cherub. Around her, her companions display no urgency and little concern. Boucher was asked what this painting depicted. “The rape of Europa,” he replied. Even his contemporaries are reported to have laughed at this revelation, as if finally realising that there can be no variation in flavour if an artist works only with sugar.

Against this context, the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin seems radical and subversive in its simplicity. Largely self-taught, Chardin did not participate in the grand pomposity of Rococo, choosing instead to focus on realist depictions of the everyday. Engravings of his work were widely circulated, and Chardin gained an audience for his work, both in the working classes and the aristocracy. His still life paintings now hang in the Louvre as minor masterpieces of French art. They were perhaps the first slight tremors of the incoming earthquake that would hit with full force during the nineteenth century.

If secular art had been born in post-reformation Holland, modern art was created in post-revolutionary France. Modern art was a clear break from the past, a reaction to the Rococo fired by the revolutionary spirit. As a rule, modern art had no intention of promoting any type of religious belief. Chardin’s influence was clear on realist provocateurs such as Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet. In turn, they inspired a younger generation of artists based in and around the French capital.

Profound change made Paris something of a liminal space around the late nineteenth century. While a grand, old European capital, complete with some of the largest monuments to the classical past, Paris was also becoming a somewhat-reluctant beacon of modernity, full of exciting ideas and experimentation, a place where intellectual and artistic freedom were becoming ever more permissible.

Change was met with resistance. Paris did not greet the advent of modernity with universal enthusiasm. It hosted a generation of ground-breaking talents, though deprived their exhibitions of legitimacy. A new gallery was opened for them, a space that became known as the Salon des Refusals. The critics and audiences of the day openly derided and ridiculed the first public sightings of Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, and Sisley. Their collective name, the Impressionists, was famously given to them from the title of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. Yet there was also a double meaning, a mocking insinuation that these deluded painters were only capable of producing an impression of painting, almost like children left unattended with crayons.

Nevertheless, brave collectors in Europe and the United States kept the artists in work during those crucial early years. Within a generation, the new modernist style became accepted and hugely popular. As secular painters, the Impressionists found themselves returning to the same genres established by the Dutch. Through Impressionism, both landscape and still life painting became a manifesto of the modern, an exciting exploration of a radical new style. The painters of the past strove to be good waiters, blending seamlessly into perfect illusion and complete image. The Impressionists did not. Instead, they flooded their canvases with mood and feeling. They embraced colour and a rapid technique, painting quickly through short, stabbing, brushstrokes. Between them, they broke the barriers beyond repair. Painting would never look the same again.

Arguably the most well-known painter of still life paintings was Vincent van Gogh. That is a statement that feels perhaps doubtful. After all, van Gogh is not particularly remembered as a specialist in still life painting, and we might consider his oeuvre as equally defined by his landscapes and portraits. Yet van Gogh has never relied on melodrama to move an audience. His Sunflowers are easily the most famous still life paintings in the world. They are not alone either; irises, crabs, bowls of lemons, and many other objects were depicted with so much feeling and charm by van Gogh that his hand seems almost as if it can give life to inanimate matter. His was a fundamentally empathetic vision. One in which even a pair of old working boots have their charm: their wear symptomatic of industry, evidence that a life was lived, a tiny, yet honest, story about the human experience. It is quite fitting that a genre with its origins in Holland’s golden age should be brought so majestically into modernity by a Dutchman.

Paul Cézanne was another pioneering figure living and working in the south of France at the time. Despite exhibiting at the first Impressionist display in Paris, Cézanne’s greatest works were later developed alone, away from the noise and pressure of the capital. Cézanne was said to be obsessive and reclusive, working towards a vision in which objects were broken down into their basic geometric components. Cézanne also began to explore perspective. His Still Life with Plaster Cupid is a fantastic example of Cézanne’s experimentation. In the foreground, the Cupid acts as our anchor. It enables us to accept the image. Yet the background makes little representational sense. The line of the table is broken and does not correspond as it should. On the right-hand side, the table curves impossibly upwards, creating a visual contradiction that playfully engages with the problem of space within two dimensions.

Cézanne was declared the father of modern painting by both Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. His influence on them is clear. While the Impressionists and their immediate followers had pushed forward style, it was style within the (ever-loosening) confines of the realist tradition. Matisse left realism back in the nineteenth century, his paintings a pure celebration with colour and mood. He became the nominal leader of the Fauvist movement, the “Wild Beasts” of European art, who painted the world in bright and unnatural colours. For example, grass could be bright red or deep blue if the composition called for it. Behind the Fauvist endeavour was more than just aesthetics. Matisse lived and worked in Europe during the early twentieth century. In the context of fascism and two catastrophic wars, we can even see a political edge to his work. A refusal to let the fascists paint the world exclusively in black, white, and grey. Fauvism was everything the fascists hated: it was imaginative and light; it made joy and happiness an act of defiance.

Cézanne’s playful experiments with perspective were also a clear precursor to the creation of another radical style. Cubism, developed by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, was a challenging engagement with the nature of representation. Picasso applied his characteristic curiosity and endless imagination to everyday items, taking objects apart and reassembling them as visual riddles and abstracted details. Cubism could almost be described as a depiction of things at a quantum level, a chaotic and contradictory jumble of information which appears to be simultaneously true and false, a heterogenous depiction of unity.

We often think of time as a progression, a process of evolution. In this way, the story of still life painting concludes here, with Picasso. Cubism had pushed representational painting as far as it could go. Beyond the boundaries established by Picasso and Braque lay only abstract art.

Artists will always return to still life, however. The genre has survived periods of disdain and neglect. It has outlasted the Baroque, the Rococo, and the disdain of the academies. It enjoys a rich and varied history. In the hands of great artists, this unassuming genre has found itself repeatedly on the cutting edge of personal expression and stylistic innovation. It has also served as a much-needed grounding point for European art whenever it has tilted towards ridiculousness, and proved a deceptively sharp thorn in the side of pomposity. ▲

Jake Kendall fell in love with art history while working at the Ashmolean Museum in his hometown of Oxford. He is currently studying his MSc in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh. You can follow his work and shameless self-promotion @jakendallox if you like.

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