Our latest exhibition with The Ingram Collection, 'Is there still life in Still Life?" explores the ongoing relevance of this humble genre with a centuries old tradition. But just what do we mean by Still Life, and is there any more to it than meets the eye? In this blog, we give you the rundown of its history.

In its simplest terms, Still Life refers to artworks that depict anything not moving, or dead. The name derives from the Dutch 'Stilleven', and first flourished as a genre in paintings from the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries by artists such as Abraham Mignon, Jan van Huysem and Jan Davidsz. de Heem.

Still Life with Fruit and Oysters, 1660 - 1679, Abraham Mignon © Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest), licensed under CC BY 2.0http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.9119

Paintings typically included tables with sumptuous arrangements of flowers, fruits, goblets of wine, shellfish, insects, common domestic items and personal effects such as books and timepieces. Artists carefully chose items to include in their arrangements for the secret meaning that each one symbolised, from material pleasures, religion, love, and the afterlife.

Vanits Still Life, c. 1640 - 1672, Aelbert Jansz. van der Schoor © Rijksmuseum licensed under CC BY 2.0http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.5422

Still Life paintings varied between artists celebrating such material pleasures, or warning of their fleeting ephemerality, with many more brooding artworks commenting on the passing of time and the brevity of human life. These morbid paintings with skulls, clocks, burnt out candles and rotting fruit, are called 'Vanitas' Still Life paintings (referring to the opening lines of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity’), or also 'Memento Mori', Latin for 'remember you must die'. 

Still Life with Flowers and a Watch, c. 1660 - c. 1679, Abraham Mignon © Rijksmuseum Dupper Wzn. Bequest, Dordrecht, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Paintings of flowers often showed arrangements that could never physically have existed together at the time - pairing flowers from different seasons that were never in bloom at the same time. So while the paintings were done in a realistic style, many of the bouquets you see before you never truly existed! The flowers were chosen for their religious symbolism: for example, the rose might signify  the Virgin Mary or love; the lily might signify virginity, purity of mind or justice; tulips showiness, or nobility; a sunflower faithfulness, divine love, devotion.

Still Life's popularity spread throughout Europe, being codified as the the lowest in the five of the ‘hierarchy of genres’ of art by the French Academy in the 17th century – the first four being history painting, portraiture, scenes of everyday life and landscapes. Despite its popularity, Still Life was still considered a lowly form of art for not featuring human subject matter.

James Hull (1921-1990) Still Life with Bottle, 1948 (c) The Estate of James Hull

Regardless of this derision, the genre has continued healthily throughout the centuries, while the more historical above it in the hierarchy have seen a decline. 20th century and Modern artists used it to experiment with form. Being such an instantly recognisable genre, artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne used it to experiment with stylistic approaches, incorporating bold, flat shapes, Cubism, and abstraction. 

Dena, Diet Coke, 2014 © The Artist

Contemporary artists continue to interpret the genre in more conceptual ways, with Still Life leaping out of the painting into three-dimensional sculptures. You can see examples of this in our current exhibition, such as the above use of a Diet Coke can as the contemporary version of an everyday item, perhaps equivalent to the 17th century Dutch goblets of wine. This is shown alongside Modern British examples of Still Life by artists such as Ruskin Spear, Sir Anthony Caro, Mark Gertler, Anne Redpath and Mary Fedden.

Now you know the history of Still Life, visit our exhibition to see how it continues to flourish in the 20th and 21st centuries. Is there still life in Still Life? The Ingram Collection is open till 1 October 2017. Entry with a £4.50 Day Pass or £7.50 Annual Pass, under 18s free.

More information

Banner image: Edward Le Bas (1904-1966) Still Life with Coffee Pot undated Oil on canvas © The Estate of Edward Le Bas