Images to keep
The content of a still life represents a desire of what we want to retain. It is an unappreciated and underrated painting genre, but it still lives among us in other ways.
Around 1596 Caravaggio painted what has come to be considered the first great still life in the history of art. It represents is a fruit basket that compositionally rests on the bottom edge of the canvas. In a way its perspective free composition is similar to the way children draw people and buildings. The image is flat, direct and one dimensional. Did Caravaggio just forget the Renaissance, and the work of Leon Battista Alberti? Caravaggio depicts an irregular composition, with a vine branch that breaks the right edge. This is radically different from traditional compositions in which the natural elements are harmoniously arranged and fill the allotted space. In Caravaggio’s painting some of the fruits are rotting and the yellow light coming from the left indicates twilight or dawn. It looks like the end of summer.
This work is considered revolutionary because the author introduces a banal theme, a still life. This work does not depict history, tragedy, religion, or mythology. It is almost without a subject. “Still life” in English or “Stilleven” in Dutch refers to images of non-animated and stationary things. “Bodegón” as these images are called in Spanish indicates something from the pantry.
Still life flourished as a genre in the Netherlands. After the independence from the Spanish crown and thanks to trade this country became one of the most prosperous in the world. Here it was not kings and nobles who commissioned artwork, but everyone who could afford it. The topics were abundance, desire, life… things that could be touched, but from a chaste Calvinist perspective. Still lifes featured humble and simple subject matter from the home and were presented for the sake of personal delight.
Dutch artists who had traveled to Italy knew of Caravaggio’s work. Their still lifes have a lot in common with the original fruit basket. However, over time, Dutch painters developed their own themes and featured items referentional to their own environments. In these paintings items like game and luxurious tableware began to appear. These were aspirational and desirable items which were well beyond the means of the artists painting them.
The demand for these paintings was large and the customers had to be satisfied. It is estimated that in the golden age of the 17th century, about 5 million still lifes were painted. However in baroque Catholic Europe, still life paintings would have less of a presence. Still examples were able to slip through the constraints of Catholicism. The previously mentioned “bodegón” imagery was the work of monastic painters, such as the Juan Sánchez Cotán. Baroque art is a propagandistic and generally depicts “important” things and not compositions of mundane items like fruit and crockery. Despite the great desirability and market for this imagery in the Netherlands, still lifes will ultimately to be of minor importance in the history of art. Pliny the Elder thought of it as a “low” genre, and until the 19th century the Academy had placed little value in it. Chauvinistically it was considered as being a topic suitable for women painters, as they were thought to be unable to deal with important topics.
If you search “still life” in Google you will find that often the light source in the paintings comes from the left, like in the Caravaggio fruit basket. This likely reflects that in the West we read from left to right. It’s quite plausible that the painters subconsciously designed these scenes to reflect this bias.
Still lifes of the 20th century has fewer organic things and more manufactured objects like newspapers, violins, glasses and bottles of wine. But still life is still alive today in the spirit in how we present things. It continues to influence product photography for advertising, how we compose gift baskets and what we display on our dining room tables. Pyramidal compositions with large objects behind smaller objects against a neutral background are designed to focus attention on the middle ground. This iconic visual model is repeated over and over. And personally when we take a photo of a dish with our smartphone we are memorializing a moment that we will never see again. Gift calendars from shops and vendors often choose still life paintings or photos. Similarly product calendars that are found in garages and machine shops add another layer of interest by featuring “sexy” women holding the desired object. These representations of items are kept alive for at least the useful life of the calendar.
My grandfather was an amateur painter. Even though he moved from the countryside to the city as a young man he continued to paint “rural” subject matter like grapes, partridges and hares. Now for the most part no one paints still lifes and they have no prestige in the art world but they are still with us.