Past Gallery Exhibit – Still Life

Encountering the Everyday

Still Life: Encountering the Everyday

Still Life: Encountering the Everyday featured 19th and 20th century works from the Library’s permanent collection.

Still Life

Still life refers to a category of art in which inanimate subjects — either natural or man-made — are depicted. Common objects from nature include food, flowers, plants, shells, and animal cadavers. Manufactured items such as vases, drinking glasses, books, jewelry, and coins also frequently appear in still life paintings.

The still life genre has existed for at least two millennia. Wall paintings and mosaic floors featuring food, flowers, and household objects have been discovered inside ancient Greek and Roman houses. Other examples of still life have been unearthed in Egyptian tombs, and these are believed to have been intended for use by the deceased in the afterlife.

White Oleanders in Vase (1938)

White Oleanders in Vase (1938) – by
Grace Spaulding John, 1938 (gift of Patricia John Keightley)

The popularity of still life declined as religious paintings became the dominate genre in European art during the Middle Ages. Even then, however, still life worked its way into larger paintings or portraits, with objects placed around the main subject to convey an underlying message or meaning. During the 16th century, artists again began to treat still life as an independent and distinct genre. In northern Europe in particular, artists produced extremely realistic paintings of exotic flowers and foods which were highly sought after by wealthy patrons.

When the French Academy established its formal categories of art in 1669, still life was placed at the bottom of the hierarchy with history paintings and portraiture considered the most significant because of the portrayal of human subjects. Still life was viewed as an inferior, unimaginative genre as its primary objective was to produce a “copy” of an unmoving object.

Nonetheless, it can be argued that a great deal of artistic skill is required to execute these very detailed, lifelike renderings. While still life paintings may at first appear to be rather simple, artists often include subtle allegorical components. For example, skulls symbolize human mortality, while clocks and hour glasses are reminders of the passage of time. Similarly, different types of flowers and fruits are associated with different meanings. Lilies represent purity, while apples may represent temptation.

Still life is intended to provoke the senses and invite the viewer to examine the details of a work closely. Usually displayed in homes or other private settings, still life offers viewers a unique and intimate experience with art. Thus, it has long remained a favorite genre among collectors and museum visitors alike.