Still Life, 1919
© Giorgio Morandi
What is a still life to you? A lot of fruits and a wine bottle on canvas? A Tablecloth, silverware and luxuries might come across your mind when you think of a still life. Or disparate skulls can be one of those things in your imaginary still life painting.
As its name states, a still life is a painting that draws both man-made and inanimate objects in nature. Until the Renaissance, delivering details of the object was the focal point in still life painting. However, a still life had become a distinct genre, putting an emphasis on conveying the spirit of the time in the 17 century, especially in the Netherlands.
As the country’s reformation was followed by the surge of Calvinist-centered Protestantism, it had made traditional religious paintings that had represented the old church obsolete. And newly emerged aristocrats who accumulated wealth through intermediate trades and colony buildings, wanted artwork which was different from the past but at the same time could show their wealth and fulfill their intellectual vanity. In this atmosphere, still life paintings which depict luxurious, exotic objects such as flowers, vases, silverware, carpets, and musical instruments, were by far the most popular.
Vanitas means ‘vanity’ in Latin word. It was one of the most popular genres at that time, based on the religious belief that life is a mere preparation of the afterlife. The 1663’s oil painting: Vanitas - Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull by Edward Collier, a Dutch painter, is one of Vanitas paintings. It consists of various symbolic objects that show the vanity of life with a metaphor.
Vanitas - Still Life with Books and Manuscripts and a Skull, 1663
Oil on panel
56.5 x 70 cm (22.2 x 27.6 in.)
National Museum of Western Art Collection, Tokyo
At first glance, you can see a skull on the table covered with a green silky tablecloth that symbolizes ‘life and death’ and ‘the vanity after the glory.’ Then your gaze will move onto other objects around the skull and find a gold watch(time), an empty vase(worthless), a sandglass(time), and a bunch of books and papers(uselessness of knowledge); what is inscribed on a paper is a phrase of Psalm 26 of The Books of Psalms. Then if you have a keen sense, you can easily find smoke ascending from the incense burner, which is visible only for the short time being, but soon disappears. By mingling the materiality and ephemerality and spontaneously hiding it behind the physicality of objects, this painting shows the truth of our life: “Memento Mori,” which means ‘Remember you must die’ in Latin.
For the impressionists who had examined light and its changing qualities in the painting, the world was not an object of representation. Rather it was a thing that constantly changes in relation to other natural/artificial elements. Therefore, in painting, they focused more on reinterpreting the essence of an object, examining how it existed in relation to other elements, instead of focusing on details of objects per se.
The Basket of Apples, c. 1893
Oil on canvas
65 × 80 cm (25 7/16 × 31 1/2 in.)
Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection / Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
Let’s have a look on Paul Cézanne’s celebrated 1893 oil painting, The Basket of Apples. If you are familiar with exquisitely painted still life but didn’t know that this was from Cézanne, you might mistakenly believe it is work from an unnamed amateur painter. It is because of obvious errors in the painting. Let’s have a look at the table. Can you see its right part, towering up above its left? And how about cookies on the plate on the right-upper side of the table? Two on the top layer seem as if they were viewed from above, but others stacked under that layer look viewed from side. And there are “the apples.” Cézanne had experimented with the color and form of apples and tried to paint how they were seen in different points of view in different conditions.
He believed the painting was not an imitation of the real, but a representation of the painter’s point of view. That is why these skewed objects in his painting are more real and accurate to him since it reflects his own true experience. Paul Cézanne once said, “I will astonish Paris with an apple.” And as well all know, not only Paris but the entire art world was amazed by his work, and his apples has opened a new chapter for contemporary art.
Scenes of Everyday Life
Oil on Canvas
19th Century Art
17th Century Art
Soft and Meticulous Brushstrokes