Still Life's Journey Throughout History

Discover how this artform came to life through the vision of such artists as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, and its impact today.

To put it simply, still life is a work of art depicting an arrangement of inanimate objects. As the name implies, these objects do not move. However, through thoughtful composition, form, color, and texture, still life creators breathe life into ordinary objects we’d otherwise not pay much attention to.

Such objects represent much more than their simple compositional elements. They’re packed with symbolism—and decoding such symbols captures the imaginations of viewers who want to uncover an exciting world of hidden meanings.

Symbolism aside, still life is on an exciting journey. The art form now appears in photographs and digital artworks in addition to traditional paintings. To appreciate the evolution of this artistic medium, let’s go back to where it all began.

Ancient Still Life 

The earliest known examples trace to the Egyptians back in 15th century BCE. During this time, Egyptians believed objects represented on the inside of the tomb would accompany the dead in the afterlife. They also used still life paintings as offerings for the gods, including images of crops, fish, and meat.

The Tomb of Menna Project discovered and preserved the most famous example of ancient Egyptian still life works in the Tomb of Menna (pictured below), located in Thebes. Detailed depictions of everyday activities and objects adorned the walls of this tomb. 

Maler der Grabkammer des Menna
People have been painting objects for thousands of years. The earliest examples can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

Ancient Greeks and Romans 

The ancient Greeks and Romans advanced still life as an artform. For the most part, mosaics were the dominant form of still life. However, artists also employed them in frescoes, or paintings done on damp plaster before the plaster dries on the wall.

Many examples of still life frescoes were found in Pompeii, displaying more realistic depictions of inanimate objects with the incorporation of shading and coloring. 

Pompeii Still Life
The Greeks and Romans created more realistic depictions of still life, with an emphasis on coloring and shading. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

The Middle Ages 

Still life really took off during the 15th and 16th centuries, when Christian artists began employing it to serve a purpose. The Bible, and symbolic arrangements to depict religious scenes, were common subjects in still life paintings of this era.

This was particularly true in the works of Northern European artists, including the likes of painter Jan Van Eyck. He perfected the newly developed technique of oil painting, bringing his fascination with highly-detailed optical realism and symbolism to life in intricate still life masterpieces.

This period also welcomed the likes of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This Italian painter used his large-scale canvases to bring religious scenes to fruition (see below) with intense realism, invigorating still life painting across Italy.

Supper at Emmaus
During the 15th and 16th centuries, still life paintings displayed symbolic objects to convey a biblical or Christian message. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

The Renaissance Era 

Still life flourished during the 17th century, particularly in the Netherlands, thanks to Northern Renaissance artists who invigorated the genre with vibrant, colorful flower paintings. Such paintings rose to prominence in the early 17th century. Their success in turn encouraged other Northern Renaissance artists to create more realistic studies of everyday items. 

Still Life of Flowers and Fruit
Floral still lifes were especially prominent in the early 1600s. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

The Dutch Golden Age 

Enter the Dutch Golden Age, which welcomed a tremendous outpouring of still life paintings and developed a sub-genre called vanitas. The latter was inspired by a cultural phenomenon present in early modern Europe known as memento mori, Latin for “remember that you have to die.”

These paintings, often depicting human skulls and freshly cut flowers, serve as a reminder that life’s pleasures are fleeting in the face of our mortal existence.

Vanitas Still Life
Vanitas is defined as a still life artwork that includes various symbolic objects designed to remind the viewer of their mortality. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

Modern Art

By the 19th century, artists became less concerned with producing hyperrealist still life paintings. Instead, they turned to experimentation with color, shapes, and textures.

Still life made its major modern art debut during the post-impressionist period when Van Gogh produced a series of famous still life paintings—Sunflowers. He forwent realism in favor of bold color, large, dynamic, thick brush strokes to recreate the three-dimensional textures of the sunflowers he was painting. This technique creates a visible texture on the surface of the canvas called impasto.

Still life was also a major preoccupation for Cezanne during the 1890s, who painted the same objects time and time again from multiple perspectives—the way, he believed, we see the world.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers
Van Gogh’s vision was in favor of bold color and large, dynamic—often dreamy—brush strokes. Image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain.

Contemporary Art

Today, many artists put their own contemporary spin on producing still life works. It’s no longer an art reserved for paintings—still life can fall into any medium. Creators are constantly pushing the bar as they further explore visual art techniques and ideas, whether it’s in still life photography, graphic illustrations, or 3D renders.

Advancing technologies in design and photography have paved the way to a world of new opportunities in the still life genre. Images depicting modern-day objects and food also serve as a nod to the timelessness of still life—a 1,000-year-old practice.

A few more history lessons just for you:

Cover image via Hermann Viria.

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