Still life is an art genre that spans thousands of years, starting with Ancient Egyptian frescoes carved and painted by anonymous artists, through to sixteenth-century Dutch artists who made still life painting a legitimate art form and the nineteenth-century French painters who started the Impressionist movement.
Still life was revived in the 1950s by artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and continued later on by artists such as Judy Chicago and Keith Haring.
Every person will view still life art through a different lens, some preferring traditional styles and others choosing more contemporary works. Our aim today is to share with you a range of still life artists and their works, spanning from the early pieces through to modern still life artists.
A Journey Through Time in Still Life
Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was an Italian painter born in Milan at the end of the sixteenth century. He is famous for painting some of the most critically appraised religious paintings of his time. He relied heavily on the use of the chiaroscuro technique, using very dark backgrounds and very clear and luminous shafts of light to illuminate the characters in his paintings.
Later known as tenebrism, Caravaggio's style had a significant influence on the following generation of artists, as seen in the works of Dutch artist, Rembrandt, even though Rembrandt never travelled to Italy to study Italian master painters.
Painted around 1599, Basket of Fruit stands out as one of only two still life paintings in Caravaggio's portfolio.
One of the tricks Caravaggio often used during his career was trompe l'oeil. In this painting, the quasi-photographic realism tricks our eyes and brain into thinking the fruits are almost popping out of the canvas.
With Still Life with Fruit on a Stone Ledge, Caravaggio started the Roman still life movement even though it would take some time for the movement to kick off.
Mid 1800s to Early 1900s
Claude Monet's Water Lilies Series
Claude Monet was one of the founders of the Impressionism movement that started in Paris in the 1860s. The name of the movement itself came from one of Monet's paintings, Impression, Sunrise, a title that was first used to mock the growing movement.
Throughout his career, Monet remained the main leader of the Impressionist movement and has been its most prolific artist. One of the ways Monet achieved the intended play on natural light was to paint the same scene at different times of the day or in different seasons.
Monet was a meticulous and very driven painter. He spent extended periods of his time studying the effect of smoke, steam, rain or fog on the refraction of light. This study led him to once again paint the same scene over and over to capture as many details as he could.
His Water Lilies series, with more than 250 paintings, includes some of his most famous artwork. Bassin Aux Nymphéas (English title: Water Lily Pond), sold in 2008 at an auction in Christie's, London, for US$80.5 million making it one of the most expensive European works of art ever sold at the time.
The Basket of Apples by Paul Cézanne
Paul Cezanne is probably one of the most influential artists of the 19th century. When the Impressionist movement emerged, he gladly joined Pisaro, Renoir and Monet in creating amazing Impressionist landscape paintings and portraits. For most of the 1870s, Cezanne stuck to the Impressionist style but even though his paintings were displayed in exhibitions alongside other artists of the movement, Cezanne's work was always not entirely Impressionist.
Cezanne did a lot of work, studying the relationship between naturally occurring geometrical shapes. He always desired to reduce any natural element to its purest geometrical form. Many critics of the time suggested that the rendering of Cezanne's compositions was due to impaired eyesight, but no evidence ever suggested such a thing.
For most of his career, he created a mix of life portraiture and still-lifes, including landscapes and nature morte.
Post-Impressionist movements, including the cubism movement, were somewhat influenced but, as a whole, Cezanne's legacy was to be one of the most revolutionary artists of his time and to alter the course of modern art development. He paved the way for the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Picasso and Gaughin.
The Basket of Apples features many elements that would be used to bridge the gap between Impressionism and Cubism, including:
- disjointed perspective
- unbalanced aspects of the picture coming all together to balance the whole composition
- simultaneous points of view.
Living Still Life by Salvador Dali
Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquess of Dalí de Púbol or simply Salvador Dali, was probably one of the most eccentric and extravagant artists of the twentieth century.
He was also an artistic genius and contributed artwork in many fields, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographies, writings, movies and even fashion.
Dali was fascinated by quantum physics and the work of Werner Heisenberg about the principle of uncertainty. This fascination translated into his work and many of his paintings included elements and symbols acknowledging the new science.
While greatly influenced by painters of the Renaissance, some of Dali's works also include cubist elements. Later on, he would develop his own interpretation of the Surrealism and Dadaism post-WWI movements.
Nature Morte Vivante or Living Still Life was painted by Dali in 1956. At the time, the painter was experimenting with a style he called Nuclear Mysticism in which he tried to draw the link between quantum physics and the human mind.
Composing this canvas, Dali intended to link elements of art, science and physics. He believed that despite the motionless nature of such a painting, the atoms that composed either the objects represented on the picture, or the painting itself, are always moving, in a constant, infinite motion.
Dali successfully took the century-old subject matter of still life and added his own unique touch to it while conveying what he really meant by Nuclear Mysticism.
1950s and Beyond
Andy Warhol's 32 Campbell's Soup Cans
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Slovak immigrants parents, who would have thought Andy Warhol would become the pop-culture leader of the booming 1960s?
As a sickly child, he was often bedridden and later in life described that time of collecting pictures of movie stars and listening to the radio with his mother as a period of great importance in the development of his personality, skill set and preferences.
Early in his career, Warhol worked as a commercial and advertising artist; he went on doing extensive work for the American shoe manufacturer, Israel Miller.
Warhol had been spotted by the art world for his unusual ink drawings of shoe ads. He started to exhibit his work in galleries in New York during the late 1950s and then in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Around the same time, he was also hired by RCA Records to design album covers and promotional materials for bands.
It is during the 1960s that Andy Warhol's artwork really became famous and his influence over American pop culture established itself. He mastered the art of printmaking, using both abstract and realist subjects, and capturing the essence of objects or celebrities.
During that decade, he produced paintings of iconic American everyday life objects, such as the Campbell's Soup Cans or Coca-Cola bottles. He also started painting personalities who fascinated him: actors, singers and influential people, such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor.
He started Factory, an art studio, that became a hub for artists, musicians, writers, journalists and actors, and underground celebrities.
Sadly, Andy Warhol was shot in 1968, suffering injuries that impacted him for the rest of his life. His popularity declined in the 1970s when he was perceived by the rest of the art world as more of an entrepreneur and businessman than an artist.
Despite the criticism, Warhol kept working on his art, often with wealthy patrons. In 1979, he co-founded the New York Academy of Art, a private graduate art school that continues to offer one of the most well-regarded Masters of Fine Arts in the United States.
The New York Academy of Art includes everything from still-life and life-drawing classes to demonstrations, exhibitions and galleries. Students at all levels can take drawing lessons and painting classes taught by professional artists.
Andy Warhol died in February 1987 from the complications of gallbladder surgery.
His impact on our modern culture continues to be seen everywhere. His artwork constitutes around one-sixth of all contemporary art sales, and his influence is evident in both classical modern art and pop culture.
His 32 Campbell's Soup Cans is probably the most famous still-life masterpiece of the modern era. With this work, Warhol linked classic techniques, such as painting and drawing, with advanced processes.
Each soup can outline was first drawn on the canvas using a projector. The can and label were hand-painted, with the lettering also projected before being painted. Finally, the fleur-de-lys logo was stamped using a recycled rubber eraser.
At the time he first displayed this series, in a one-man exhibition in Los Angeles, it caused great controversy, some critics questioning Warhol's artistic motive and denying that his work had any real value as art.
Today, his art is recognised as top examples of Pop Art and are amongst the most expensive Pop Art masterpieces.
Still Life Art in Australia
Since white settlement in Australia in 1788, art has been largely dominated by landscape painting. Although there was evidence of early-1800s still life works, such as Fish Catch and Dawes Point Sydney Harbour (c. 1813) by John William Lewin, the first free and professional artist of the settlement, it wasn't really until the 1930s that modernist and post-modernist influences from the European counterparts of Australian artists began to displace the landscape tradition.
Despite the European influence, however, Australian artists managed to maintain a distinctive Australian flavour in their works — almost a case of influence at a distance. Certainly, given the vast environmental differences, the subject matter was never going to be similar and artists such as Sidney Nolan and Imants Tillers cemented the uniqueness of Australian works with their use of strong distorting effects.
Here, we present a small, and varied, selection of a few of Australia's most influential still life artists.
1875-1963: Margaret Preston
One of Australia's most prominent still life artists, printmaker Margaret Preston focused primarily on this genre for the majority of her career. Not one to stay with one media, she experimented constantly and produced a variety of different art types, but all featuring her unwavering sense of colour and composition.
In the 1940s, Preston became a strong advocate for the introduction of a 'national art' in Australia, based on Aboriginal art. She moved for a while to creating landscapes in oil paint, restricting her colour palette to earth tones outlined in black. She was one of the first non-Indigenous Australian artists to use Aboriginal motifs in her works — a point of considerable contention in later years.
In most cases, the subject of Preston's prints were Australian — flowers, birds, animals and landscapes — all with the intense, but muted colour palette so distinctive of the Australian outback. The still life art of Margaret Preston is widely spread in galleries throughout Australia, however, the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, has assembled an impressive collection of her etchings, woodcuts, monotypes and stencils.
1892-1984: Grace Cossington Smith
The varied works of Grace Cossington Smith were a central part of the first wave of Australian responses to Post-Impressionism in Europe. Her subject matter came from the simplicity of her surroundings and her personal experiences and observations of city life in Sydney.
Initially entranced by the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne and van Gogh, you can see elements of their influence in her earlier works, including The Sock Knitter, which is seen as Australia's first Modernist artwork but, to Cossington Smith, it was simply a painting of her sister. She continued to develop a technique that was highly unique, featuring broken brushwork with unmixed colour, yet deceptively simple with one aim:
I have always wanted, and my aim had always been to express form in colour—colour within colour, vibrant with light.
1923-2011: Margaret Olley
Born near the sugarcane fields of Queensland, Margaret Olley is one of Australia's most famous still life drawing artists. Inspired by fruit, flowers and pottery, she would place each object carefully in the composition to balance light with dark, and precision with casualness.
Many of Olley's works focused on a restricted colour palette, such as her 1977 White Still Life; others were an explosion and celebration of colour. She was known for her ability to transform every subject, from the most mundane of household objects, into a thing of beauty and grace.
After holding the first of over 90 solo exhibitions in 1948, both the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased several of her pieces. She continued to paint and exhibit well into the early 2000s and, although she travelled widely, her subject matter remained, as always, focused on the small and favourite objects around her. She was, however, often greatly inspired by small pieces of art and mementos acquired during her travels.
Olley's home and studio in Paddington, Sydney, was said to be arranged like a still life itself. After her death, many of the hundreds of objects, each one a subject of her artwork at some point, were recorded and then recreated at the Tweed River Art Gallery, close to where Olley spent much of her childhood.
1939-1992: Brett Whiteley
Influenced by the works of Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse, Brett Whiteley's art was, nevertheless, always quintessentially Whiteley. He moved between different genre, including abstract expressionism, Pop Art and Surrealism but it is his still life art works, especially those painted during the mid-to-late 1970s, that represent the highpoint of his career.
One of Australia's most celebrated artists, Whiteley won the Art Gallery of NSW Archibald, Wynne and Sulman prizes multiple times and was well known not only in the land of his birth, but also internationally.
Whiteley incorporated Van Gogh's energetic brush technique to ensure each composition represented life and energy and was inspired by Matisse's use of colour to create a visually integrated composition and uplifting mood. With warm colour themes his central focus, Whiteley produced critically acclaimed works, including Still Life with Banana, The Orange Table and Table and Fruit.
Whiteley's life was tumultuous and his known drug addiction started to feature as the subject of many of his artworks in the later 1970s. Whiteley died of a methadone overdose in 1992. Today, his studio in Surrey Hills, where he lived and worked from 1988 until 1992, is managed by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a museum.
Murray Djeripi (Peter Mulcahy)
Aboriginal artist, Peter Mucahy's indigenous name means Sulphur Crested White Cockatoo and Free Flying Spirit. With the white cockatoo considered to be the storyteller and uniter of tribes, his name is fitting as it perfectly sums up his life's work. An accomplished artist, he is passionate about sharing the knowledge he has gained from Elders and spirits.
Murray Djeripi's subject matter is derived from the flora and fauna of his traditional lands and while he has not yet reached the recognition and publicity of other modern still life artists, or Aboriginal dot painters, this talented and passionate artist is a name to watch.
The Changing Works of Modern Still Life Artists
The enduring subject matter of the still life artist has always revolved around the simple things we find around us — our clothing, furniture, interior spaces and objects on our table or in our cupboard. Still life artists are master storytellers — weaving stories about who we are, society's values and where we come from through images and colour. Often, within a piece of still life art, the observant viewer can find clues about the day-to-day lives of the artist.
This much has not changed — however, the way in which modern still life artists present their works has.
Today, contemporary still life artists explore their surroundings and the world around them through digital media, abstract works, performances and crafts. Yet, despite the form and the medium, they continue to document modern daily life.
In fact, with 2020 being the year many around the world, and certainly in Australia, have experienced lockdown and enforced isolation, a great number of artists have been influenced by the current events and the emotions surrounding them. Some have even explored new styles, media or subject matter in their effort to explore the 'new normal'.
As far as isolation is concerned, it's the natural state of being an artist. Just think of Cezanne and Renoir who decided to leave the hurly burly of Paris and go and live in Provence, which at the time was artistically like no man's land. They went there for isolation. It's just the state of being an artist, I think — and just shows you how potentially sick we are.
A Few Tips for Emerging Still Life Drawing Artists
Have you been inspired by what you've read and seen in this article? Perhaps you've always loved drawing or painting and are thinking you'd like to try your hand at arranging some of your favourite objects on a table and reproducing them on paper or canvas, using paint, graphite pencil or oil pastel.
Producing something creative can be incredibly satisfying and fulfilling. The great still life masters practised their techniques and developed their composition knowledge over many, many years. However, you don't need to have quite that level of commitment to produce something you'd be proud to share.
The key lies in the power of observation. Observe shadows, shapes, light and colour. Notice where objects overlap and where they sit in respect to other items. Draw what you actually see — not what you think the object should look like.
Here are a few pointers, from professional artists, to get you started:
- Choose a subject that interests you, choose another that complements it and take care in their arrangement on the table.
- Sketch the outline of your objects lightly, as if you're drawing them as a wire frame.
- Erase unnecessary lines when you're finished your outlines, e.g. where objects overlap.
- Add details.
- Fill in the background with colour before you start on your objects.
- Notice where colours are darker and lighter and spend time on your shading.
Above all, take great joy in what you've produced.
And, if you've loved the process, you might even consider taking a drawing course or finding drawing lessons online.
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