A Meditation on Still Lifes

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:

Monet, Peaches, 1883

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:

Willem Claesz Heda, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635

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:

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, c.1890

or Gauguin’s “Still Life with Cherries.”  Don’t you want to be welcomed at one of these tables?

Paul Gauguin, Still Life with Cherries, 1886

And although I don’t find it particularly welcoming, I can’t resist this one:

Sebastien Stoskopff, Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box, c. 1630

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!

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8 thoughts on “A Meditation on Still Lifes

  1. Hi, discovered you through LinkedIn’s Blog Zone.

    I really like the peaches painting. I, too, have been kind of bored by the haystacks.

    I like to look for bugs in some of the old still lifes. That’s one way we got our kids interested!

    • Great! Looking for bugs is a such a good idea — and/or sending them on a scavenger hunt, if you know the pieces you’ll be seeing or can look them up online beforehand. I’ll for sure be looking for bugs next time — thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Great post. I really like your perspective. Still-life paintings can be quite intriguing especially if you are familiar with the symbolism but after reading your post I think everyone can have their personal experience.

    This also reminded me of an exhibit LACMA had back in 2010, EATLACMA. where they had one small room wallpapered with a fruit design in which they hung still-lifes from their collection, all different periods in art history. It was very thought provoking and engaging contemplating how different cultures perceive food.
    They also had the Baldessari exhibit at the time and he did a special interactive still-life in conjunction with this exhibit that I have on my blog http://www.sedefscorner.com/search/label/Baldessari. I think it would go really well with your blogpost.

    Lately, I am fascinated with Sanchez Cotan’s still lifes. Any thoughts on those?

    • Thanks, Sedef! I’m intrigued by the symbolism, too, but I also love that still lifes are accessible and meaningful on so many levels. Wish I could have seen that LACMA exhibit, and what a great idea to post the audio tour for the Baldessari show with your blog post! And that map project — I’m going to learn more about that. Wow. The interactive still life is very much like the one that I posted from the National Gallery — fun! If anyone wants to try another one, check out Sedef’s blog post — link above!

      Sanchez Cotan: I didn’t know about these — thanks for introducing me to them. I love how the setting (windows, ledges) for them is so minimal, but so evocative. And I’m guessing that the objects are symbolic(?), but the fact that they’re hanging on strings makes them domestic, as well, in a really lovely way, and kept them from rotting, as I read, which is genius. Clearly I’m fascinated, too! What are your thoughts on them?

  3. Interestingly enough, there is not much direct information on the symbolism of Cotan’s objects except that he painted them before he entered the monastery. But evocative they are. His realism is breathtaking but I think I am more drawn to the ambiguity of time and space…

  4. Seductively gorgeous.

    I adore the textures on the metal and the shell in that last one. And I remember being in the rijksmuseum and being entranced by the lemons in two of the still life paintings. I wonder why they’re a common element.

    I’m also a fan of Cotan, I found his still life paintings a breath of fresh air after all the (beautifully done) but so often flamboyant and overbearing religious paintings of the same place and time.

    (I’m confessing that I still like the waterlilies…)

    • Thanks for your comment! A little bit about lemons (besides the fact that they’re delicious): A whole lemon can symbolize faithfulness, the Virgin Mary, and luxury because they were difficult to get, at least in certain times and places. A half-peeled lemon can symbolize “casual excess, and so serve as a call for moderation.” () In addition to moderation, I wonder if the fact that they’re both sweet and sour could say something about balance. And since they help keep other fruits from discoloration, is there some meaning in that, too? This is the beautiful thing — once you start on this path, it’s hard to stop! Agreed about Cotan — their simplicity is really appealing.

      Maybe it’s time to give the waterlilies another look . . .:)

  5. Pingback: Odilon Redon, quickly (What a lovely, musical name!) | I've got some art stuck in my eye

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