Still life paintings: the revolution from the 1800s through the present
In this article we will explore how, from the 19th century onward, still life paintings have undergone unexpected yet dynamic changes.
A piece of bread, a flower, a ripe fruit, a dusty bottle or a fork slightly off-center on a marble table: simple objects, items that make up everyday life. Things that seem to come to life, revealing the paradox behind the the term, “still life”.
Man, his relationship with things, and the way in which art has changed his way of looking at things. In this article, we will try to understand how, from the 19th century onward, still life paintings have undergone unexpected yet dynamic changes.
The question is still very much a timely one, because still lifes depict objects, which have not changed dramatically in our daily lives. Today, we use glasses very similar to those used by the subjects in Chardin’s paintings. Nonetheless, still lifes have always been underrated and painters of this genre were considered of a lesser stature.
There have always been objects in paintings. Every portrait, landscape, sketch or historical representation contains these little details, though for a long time they were simply marginal elements.
However, all of this changed in 1543, when Copernicus’ discovery changed the world, putting man and his view of reality at the center. Suddenly, the universe became boundless. The effects of this discovery were felt even on painters’ canvases, as they were finally allowed to broaden their scope to include everything they saw around them.
In the 1500s, Raphael and Titian were the first to herald these changes, but it was the masterpieces of Caravaggio and other naturalists in the 1600s who offered the most beautiful depictions of the many items that go along with ordinary life.
One of the primary themes in still lifes is vanitas, which signifies the transience of the world and our lives in it, through the use of skulls, wilted flowers, a rotten piece of fruit. A shell, on the other hand, symbolizes feminine sexuality, while glass represents the fragility of life.
The modern age saw still lifes gain new prominence in the scholarly hierarchy. Because its focus is inanimate objects, the genre was largely ignored by the important critics, but it became a sort of banner for realists at the end of the 19th century, who were convinced that one day these objects would be seen as revolutionary.
One of the first to understand this was Edouard Manet, with whom all of the “isms” of the modern age began: Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism. Furthermore, still lifes were well suited to the revolution in perspective. Cezanne was the first to realize its avant-garde possibilities, and proposed interesting changes, interpreting still lifes with a course style using thick brushstrokes and subjecting the items to a more meticulous scrutiny, which included deconstructing them and turning them into geometric solids.
Cubism, influenced by Cezanne, chose the representation of objects as the ideal method for its pictorial experimentation. In fact, this style lent itself to studies of space and volume because, as Braque noted, still lifes offer a “tactile” space, a reality that can be manipulated. There are few objects in a Cubist still life, usually pipes, bottles, sheets of music, newspapers, or musical instruments, items chosen for their metaphorical value and reflecting the bohemian lifestyle of the artist.
Futurism, the exciting Italian alternative to Cubism, offered another type of decomposition of the image. Here, reality was broken down into its dynamic components rather than the more static elements explored in Cubism.
An overview of artistic styles in the post-World War II era must include the blending of figurative and non-figurative trends. The former is best illustrated in the work of Giorgio Morandi, who chose to explore the area between the representation of real objects and symbolic moments. Morandi said, “I am not a painter of things, because things are really nothing, I am an abstract painter”. Morandi worked to diminish reality, in fact, in his works, reality is overshadowed by the void; elements depicted on the canvas disappear into this void and it is as if only the painting itself remains.
Beginning in the 1950s, there was a trend toward integration. The genres, normally more delineated, for example, a nude portrait versus a still life, came together. During the economic boom, Andy Warhol was inspired by the boundless supply of mass media images, transforming stylistic elements with which the artist had always used to represent objects.
Pop Art, Actionism, and Arte Povera redefined the possibilities of still lifes, filtering references to the past through technical experimentation that was often extreme and unequivocally attested to the fact that still life, in modern and contemporary art, may have experienced major transformations, but was anything but dead.