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The still life is an artistic practice that typically features an arrangement of inanimate objects, such as fruit and flowers, or domestic objects, such as candlesticks and glassware. Due to the lack of human form, this genre historically did not rank highly within the hierarchy of art genres. Yet, despite this, this genre has stood the test of time.
The simple subject matter and essential nature of still life art has lent the genre to exciting experimentations of colour, space and form, arguably reasserting its place within the art world.
Andrew McNeile Jones’ expertly finished still life paintings hark back to the Dutch tradition in their contrasting tonality. Bacchus and Ariadne (2018) hints at Roman culture through simple objects and rich colour that subtly reference the Roman god of wine. Additionally, Jones’ use of light and shadow creates striking images whereby the dark background illuminates the foreground objects, elevating their beauty and intensifying his use of colour.
Viacheslav Rogin opts for the traditional subject matter of fruits and household items. While his compositions are simple, his treatment of light and space elevates these items to be something of intrigue and beauty. His use of contrasting colours and rough application of paint accentuates the surface texture of the canvas in Mediterranean Evening (2017), cloaking the painting in a soft hue and allowing one to imagine a hot day fading into a cool Mediterranean evening.
Dawn Beckles’ vibrant paintings play with the relationship between an object, its environment and its owner. In After We Sat (2019), Beckles’ beautifully detailed interior is absent of human life, yet the popping colour and personal objects allow the viewer to imagine the room full of life and history. Beckles draws on her Barbadian background by opting for bright colours and depicting exotic flowers and birds.
The earliest example of still life painting can be dated back to the 15th century BCE, where paintings of food and crops were found on the walls of ancient Egyptian burial sites. This subject matter reflects funerary practices, where the dead were buried with items intended as an offering to the Gods and to sustain the deceased in the afterlife.
Paintings of inanimate objects can also be found throughout the Ancient Greek and Roman periods, predominantly as decoration for vases, mosaics or frescoes. It wasn’t until the 16th century that this subject matter was considered an art form in its own right. Many historians consider Jacopo de Barbari’s wall painting of a dead partridge and a pair of iron gloves, completed in 1504, to be the first European still life.
The genre became particularly popular with the Dutch, as Northern European artists began to favour common scenes of everyday life over heavily religious and idealised imagery.
The term still life derives from the 16th century Dutch word stilleven. However, still life painting became most prominent throughout the 17th century, an era known as The Dutch Golden Age. At the beginning of the century, Dutch still lifes had a simple and nationalistic tone, featuring local products such as cheese. Yet as Dutch society became increasingly wealthy due to colonial ventures and international trading, we witness an influx of foreign goods into compositions. In turn, the modest and local spread flourished into a luxurious and exotic banquet that celebrated the country’s wealth.
While many art critics see this era as a celebration of decadence, some interpret a darker and morally symbolic side to the genre. The depiction of half eaten fruit or flowers in full bloom symbolise life. Yet these symbols of vitality are often juxtaposed with symbols of death. Clocks and hourglasses or burnt out candles suggest the fragility and fleeting nature of life. Additionally, a skull is often incorporated to further reinforce the symbolic meaning of the painting as a memento mori, a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you must die’.
Still life painting continued throughout the modern era, where experimentations in colour and space manipulated the staple subject matter. Painting inanimate objects allowed artists to develop their style as they had control over the composition and lighting. Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque played with the familiarity of everyday objects by fragmenting their shape in a move towards abstraction.
The familiarity and availability of mundane items allowed this genre to continuously reappear in different artistic styles. The Dada movement bridged the gap between still life painting and sculpture by creating compositions of found objects, pre-empting the postmodern era by closing the gap between art and daily life.
Commercial and popular culture lead to the rise of Pop Art, where artists exalted banal items and in doing so reformed the status of still life art. Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) can be considered as a modern reinterpretation of still life.