Still lifes aren’t garbage

This week we feature a guest post from Connor Breed of Potomac, Maryland Arlington, Virginia. In this post he responds to a scorching hot take recently posted in our friend-group’s Slack channel: “Still lifes are garbage.”

When a friend of mine recently declared that still life paintings were a dull and meaningless waste of his time, I considered it essential that I compose a defense on their behalf. Essentially, the argument hoisted by my Pittsburgher physics major buddy consisted of the following: Who really cares about flowers or a skull sitting on a desk? Couldn’t I just snap a photo of some trash on my iPhone and achieve the same effect? I can understand where he’s coming from, what with Pennsylvanians being all too familiar with garbage, but for his edification I will do my best to uphold the virtues of the Still Life genre.

To give some quick historical background, the gallery audiences of the 17th-19th centuries undoubtedly considered the Still Life genre a “minor art” as opposed to the depictions of historical or Biblical scenes which always occupied the most coveted positions at the salons. However, there was nevertheless a fascination and wide-spread appreciation for the quotidian subject matter of the still life genre, rendering it one of the most popular art forms for centuries. These works tended to be both relatively small in size and affordable, thus enabling members of the middle class to purchase them for their homes.

On the surface, it is understandable that one could fail to appreciate these small-scale works which merely represent the mundane, the unremarkable, and the familiar. I can walk into the kitchen and see apples or lemons on my counter any time, after all. Upon reflection, however, by focusing so intently upon commonplace items, these works can open a window in our minds, transforming our outlook on the world around us. They can produce a newfound appreciation for the latent beauty perpetually surrounding us which we so frequently fail to notice in both the malaise of the everyday and the bustle of our hectic modern existence. The apples on my counter which I generally fail to notice are indeed rather beautiful objects, if only I would take the time to appreciate them. A still life captures these bright colors and textures permanently; these objects defy the otherwise inevitable decay of time and persevere in their crisp freshness through the years.

Art and Liturgy - Willem Kalf - Still Life with Drinking Horn of Saint Sebastian
Still Life with Drinking Horn of Saint Sebastian, Willem Kalf, c. 1653. The drinking-horn in this still life was made of a single buffalo horn set into a silver mount which features Saint Sebastian, patron saint of archers, who was bound to a tree as a target for two Roman soldiers. It dates from 1565 and is kept today in the Amsterdam Historisch Museum. The horn suggests that the painting was probably commissioned by a member of the Amsterdam archers’ guild. The artist has chosen the objects shown for their magnificent colour and texture. The sparkle of the lobster, the gleam of the lemon, the subtle texture of the carpet, all demonstrate the play of light over different surfaces. A contemporary viewer would have recognised the objects as expensive luxury items that only the wealthy would have been able to afford. (National Gallery, London).

Still life artists, those of the Dutch 17th century Golden Age in particular, produced these works with supreme skill and depicted their subjects with breathtakingly lifelike accuracy. The glimmer of light in a glass of wine, the intricate silverwork decorating the drinking-horn, the complex folds of the rug atop the table and the naturalistic reflection of the lobster in the silver plate beneath it reveal the expertise of this artist, Willem Kalf. In fact, the meticulously accurate portrayals of fruits and vegetables have even enabled scientists to determine how they have evolved over time. But still—couldn’t I simply arrange such objects harmoniously on a table and snap a photo? Sure I could. But the effect produced simply would not compare to the masterpiece. There is a certain wonder that supreme human talent, skill and ability imparts upon us that artificial means can never emulate. Simone Biles flipping all over a gymnastics mat is much more impressive than a computer simulation of the same moves, and the real-life Lionel Messi scoring a goal is infinitely more entrancing than his likeness accomplishing the same feat in a video game. The fruits of human creativity and human skill captivate us in a way that synthetic substitutes never can. To steal the words of the renowned German playwright Goethe (in fact, used in reference to another painting by Kalf),

one must see this picture in order to understand in what sense art is superior to nature and what the spirit of man imparts to objects. For me, at least, there is no question that should I have the choice of the golden vessels or the picture I would choose the picture.

The supreme prowess and mastery of the artist infuses the work with an alluring quality and sparks a sense of awe in the viewer; a photograph of the same objects (or even the original item itself) simply cannot stir up the same emotional response.

Vanitas still life, by Harmen Steenwijck
Vanitas (An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life), Harmen Steenwijck, c. 1640. This type of painting is called a ‘vanitas’, after the biblical quotation from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:2): ‘Vanitas vanitatum… et omnia vanitas’, translated ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. The books symbolise human knowledge, the musical instruments (a recorder, part of a shawm, a lute) the pleasures of the senses. The Japanese sword and the shell, both collectors’ rarities, symbolise wealth. The chronometer and expiring lamp allude to the transience and frailty of human life. All are dominated by the skull, the symbol of death. (National Gallery, London)

Still life paintings also possess a special power in their ability to evoke the theme of Memento Mori, a Latin phrase meaning “Remember Death,” I know it sounds dark, but recalling our mortality can be a highly fruitful exercise. By depicting objects such as skulls, hourglasses, smoke, or bubbles, these works remind us of the brevity of our human existence. These reminders of our frailty are intended to inspire us to live as best we can in the short time that we have here upon this earth—to cherish and pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true surrounding us while we still can. It is also interesting to note that objects commonly represented in these works held deep symbolic significance to the typical contemporary viewer. The lily stood for purity, and coins were often understood to be a reference to Judas or to betrayal. Peeled lemons are frequently depicted in these works, and their bright exteriors and acidic interiors were understood as a metaphor for human existence; in appearance it is oftentimes attractive, yet all too frequently bitter as well.

These are not collections of items haphazardly arranged by the painter, but rather carefully constructed ensembles that recount a story, or even provide a window into a culture of the past. What messages or morals did they consider essential, and what values were they attempting to promote to the viewer? While still lifes might not initially catch the eye like a breathtaking landscape by Bierstadt, they can be fascinating if we give them a second glance.

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