The still life painting is a familiar and cherished genre of art, beloved across cultures and throughout history. These paintings communicate more than what meets the eye, as they are abundant with symbolism and allegories. Despite its long history, this genre continues to be embraced by contemporary artists. Through their work, these artists illuminate the meaning of life in the modern world.
A Brief History of the Still Life Painting
Although each still life is a unique composition, they all share several commonalities. In general, a still life is composed of a variety of animate and inanimate objects arranged in a unique presentation. These paintings grant artists freedom to choose the objects within the composition, as well as the color palette and ambience of the painting. Still life paintings fall into four broad categories: flowers, banquet or breakfast, animal, or symbolic. Within symbolic still life paintings are pieces that are rich with emblematic objects, such as the popular Vanitas tradition. Vanitas paintings often include skulls, watches, or hourglasses to symbolize passage of time and certainty of death.
Although there are many famous contemporary still life paintings, the genre dates back to ancient times. For example, the walls of the Herculaneum and the villas of Pompeii are adorned with still life frescos. These pieces express the upper-class indulgence in life’s daily joys, reflecting the lavishness of the ancient homeowners. These pieces are far more decorative than those of ancient Egyptian tombs, which depicted bowls of food to honor the deceased’s life and provide them with sustenance in the afterlife.
During the Renaissance, the still life tradition was primarily seen in religious art as a symbolic and stylistic element. Soon, social change would engender a new significance for still life painting. In 1588, Dutch independence from Spain led to the establishment of the Dutch Republic. In the Dutch Golden Age of the 16th century, still life became an official genre in the Low Countries of Europe, formalized by their Academy of Arts. As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe, religious art fell out of favor and still life painting gained popularity.
As each revolutionary era of art emerged, still life remained a common genre, while continuously evolving. The still life tradition remained a popular artform into the 19th century with the rise of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Vincent Van Gogh’s floral still lifes and Paul Cézanne’s still lifes with fruit are both examples of still life being integrated into a new style. During the height of the Cubist movement, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque reimagined still life as an abstract and fragmented work.
Contemporary artists continue to reconceptualize the still life painting, and its place within modern contexts. The evolution of technology and consumerism makes this genre a perfect platform to explore these themes. Here are five artists who are redefining and pushing the boundaries of this timeless artform.
Michael Craig-Martin is recognized for his vibrant and minimalist still life compositions. Using bold but simplified forms, he examines the relationships between objects and popular culture. His paintings are far from the realist compositions of the Dutch Golden Age, yet his focus on ordinary, mass-produced objects illuminates the relationship between form and purpose. In his work, an unassuming coffee cup is transformed from a common object into a bold expression of everyday life.
Raqib Shaw's intricate and detailed still life paintings draw inspiration from both Western and Eastern art traditions. His work is opulent and meticulous, all fused within the artist’s imaginary paradise. His 2012 work Still Life with Bush Baby I is complemented by glitter, rhinestones, and enamel. The work features lavish florals intertwined with glistening snakes and, of course, a wide-eyed bush baby.
Nikki Maloof’s work is vibrant, yet angsty, confined, and messy. She draws upon the Dutch vanitas tradition and includes the remnants of seafood in her table scenes, illustrating the chaos at the conclusion of the meticulous process of table setting and food preparation. Warped perspectives and bold patterns culminate in an eccentric take on the still life genre.
Daniel Gordon’s work experiments with dimension and digital space. His pieces transcend definition—blending photography, sculpture, and collage techniques. This unique juxtaposition of mediums reflects the endless possibilities within the still life genre’s evolution. Some objects in the compositions are flat, others are three dimensional, and others are fragmented, creating whimsical pieces that evoke a variety of emotions.
Consumerism permeates many aspects of contemporary life. Amy Nelder’s work is a reflection of this accumulation of objects. Nelder utilizes imagery from our consumerist lifestyles, from commercial cereal boxes to action figures in her still life paintings. She simultaneously glorifies and ridicules these aspects of our daily life, playing with absurdity to mirror our current world. In Nelder’s work, the joys and ironies of our lives are celebrated.
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