I rediscovered Monet through a still life. The artist who I thought of as an impressionist, who painted changes in light, who painted out of doors, and who was interested in giving the impression of an object or a scene rather than a detailed likeness, also painted the most amazing peaches. Take a look:
I was at a Monet exhibit, prepared to be annoyed by the same old same old (haystacks. waterlilies. ho hum.), when I came across these peaches toward the beginning of the exhibit. It was unexpected, and beautiful, and luscious. And when I got to the haystacks and the waterlilies, I felt like I was seeing them differently. I’d take a closer look at anything by the painter of those magical peaches. (Read more on Monet’s still lifes.)
I first started falling in love with still lifes when I worked at an art gallery in a small tourist town one summer during college. I’m not a born salesperson, and I hated that job. But there was one painting, of plums, by a local artist. It, too, was luscious. I’d ponder that painting every day during my short stint as an art salesperson. It probably kept me sane. And it began my attraction to, and fascination with, still lifes.
I’m fascinated by all that goes into a still life — what it can tell us about the time, the place, the artist and/or patron, and how we can relate to it now. Take this one, for example:
At first glance this appeared to me to be a painting of a banquet enjoyed, with delicious food half-eaten. As I look at it more closely, though, I think of dinner parties, when we were having so much fun that we left it all on the table to deal with the next day. The lemon, half-peeled so intentionally, the still open ewer, the candlestick (I think) that’s fallen over. And that white cloth, bunched up, that adds so much texture and interest to the painting, but also seems to me to indicate a raucous, or at least lively, dinner party. So we have two levels, three if you want to talk about the composition, the colors, and the textures. And the National Gallery’s website gives us a fourth: ” . . . platters and knives teeter precariously over the table’s edge, while goblets and compotes already have toppled. Perishable or expended items symbolize life’s transience: a snuffed–out candle, spilled olives, half–eaten minced pie, and a lemon, only half–peeled.” Symbolism. What was important at the time. Don’t you love it?
I heard somewhere that still lifes go back to ancient Greece, when hosts would welcome their guests with fresh food. It was all about hospitality. And that, I think, is what appeals to me, like this one by Cezanne:
or Gauguin’s “Still Life with Cherries.” Don’t you want to be welcomed at one of these tables?
And although I don’t find it particularly welcoming, I can’t resist this one:
The light on the wood and the shells against the black background, the candied fruit just peeking out of the box, the costliness and sumptuousness of the shells, next to the equally beautiful, but human-made, box, the calm, stable composition, all work together to create a timeless still life, but also one that was indicative of it’s time. (Read more from the Met.)
In French, still life is “nature morte,” that is, “dead nature.” I’m sure that this is one of those expressions that we use without really thinking about what the words mean, but if you do think about it, it can completely change how you see still lifes. Take Monet’s peaches. They’re a still life, fruit on the table that’s not moving. Or they’re a nature morte. They’ve been plucked from the tree and they’re dead. Both are accurate descriptions and both describe the same thing, but I’m intrigued by these language differences, how the words and construction of our native language must shape our life-view.
Mull it all over as you try creating your own still life at the National Gallery of Art website. (If you don’t have the plug in, it just takes a minute to download. And it’s worth it.) I’m warning you, it can be addictive. Have fun!