The first examples of still life come from Greek and Roman frescoes where they are used to show some of the good things in life.
In Europe, the Middle Ages saw little still life painting as art was seen as there to glorify God not material possessions.
It was Caravaggio who painted the first still life of the Renaissance.
The diseased fruit and leaves hold a key theme of still life that of the passing of time, of death and decay and the impermanence of earthly possessions. This picture encompasses many of the traditions of western still life. The focus on impermanence, the light shining from the left, the modest items, the edge of the table and the undecorated background.
Another key development which allowed still life painting to flourish was the development of oil paint in the 15th century which allowed painters to create the depth of tones and highlights required to create realistic still life images.
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a wealthy, protestant merchant class turned to art to demonstrate their wealth and status. Religious imagery was seen as iconoclastic so artists turned to the beauty of flowers, polished plate and sparkling glass.
Still Life with a Gilt Cup by Willem Claesz Heda, 1635 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is an example of this type of still life. Heda produces astonishing detail and tonal variation in a piece which is predominantly shades of grey with yellow, green and gold. The gilt, pewter and ornamental glass objects are richly decorated with oysters and damask on the table.
Flowers were also a major still life theme. Floral Still Life 1639 by Hans Bollongier features tulips along with unseasonal flowers such as roses and carnations. The painting was made two years after the stock market crash which saw many who had invested in tulip bulbs go bankrupt. It may be less a celebration of wealth than a meditation on the transience of earthly possessions.
Religious images were frowned on, but those reflecting on mortality and the transience of life were seen as morality tales and featured skulls, shells, musical instruments and books. The painting Vanitas Still Life, 1648, Jan Jansz Trek features objects which reflect the transience of life and the futility of human ambition.
“They include a skull wreathed in straw, an hourglass, an extinguished pipe and tapers, musical instruments (a flute, a viol and bow), a black lacquer box and a Rhenish stoneware jug (both collectors’ items), a book of music and a drawing, a shell and a straw used for blowing bubbles, and a helmet. The title-page is of a play by Theodore Rodenburgh (about 1578 – 1644) which was published in Amsterdam in 1618; it can be translated into English as ‘Evil is its own reward’.” (from National Gallery, London website).
While art has traditionally been closed to women who were not allowed to paint nudes, or study formally, still life was an area where they could excel and several did, possibly contributing to still life’s continued position as the lowest status art form.
In the 17th century Italy, Giovanna Garzoni painted delicate still lifes of fruit, vegetables and flowers favouring egg tempura on vellum. She enjoyed considerable success. Still Life with Bowl of Citrons shows her characteristic acute observation and delicate handling of paint.
In France, Louise Moillon, was also painting still lifes. In Still Life with a Bowl of Curacao Oranges, 1634, the arrangement of fruit is in many ways strikingly similar to Garzoni’s arrangement but the stronger tonal contrasts ally Moillon’s work to Dutch painters of the time.
In 1669 the Royal Academy of Art in France announced a hierarchy of genres placing still life firmly at the bottom. Art theoretician Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy ranked the genres as follows. 1) Historical painting; 2) Portraiture; 3) Genre painting; 4) Landscapes: 5) Still Life.
In the 18th century Chardin was not deterred by this lowly status. He painted simple, everyday objects and showed they were beautiful. He also advanced the techniques of still life painting with several points of focus in his paintings, and a slight blur in other areas reflecting the way the human eye sees.
At the same time, Anne Vallayer Coster achieved the remarkable feat of joining the French Academy of Arts in 1770, one of only four women to do so before the French Revolution.
In Chardin’s blurring and focus we can see some of the value of the still life to an artist who wants to explore how we see. By focusing on a few simple objects, we can test what seeing is, like a controlled experiment in a laboratory. This is what Cezanne did in a major development for modern art which led to cubism and abstraction.
Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Painting was an excellent documentary from BBC4 no longer available on iplayer but can be found on vimeo https://vimeo.com/158081593