…And What’s the Deal with Still Life Painting Anyway?

"Still Life with Red Pears" - oil painting by Scott Freeman, 24 x 30"Of course there are many approaches to still life painting out there, many of which seek to make the genre more interesting by choosing objects that are more engaging.

“Still Life with Red Pears” – oil painting by Scott Freeman, 24 x 30″
Of course there are many approaches to still life painting out there. Non-traditional approaches seek to make the genre more interesting by choosing objects that are more engaging, or even disturbing.

I once had a high school student come through my studio when I was working on a commissioned still life. He said, “What’s the deal? Why do artists like fruit so much?” It’s actually an interesting question. In art history there is a long tradition of still life painting, just as there is a long tradition of painting nudes, and landscapes. I’ll give you my take on it. But I’ll just say up front that it’s not because we artists get turned on by fruit. I’m pretty sure that none of my artist friends are up alone, late at night, secretly gratifying their lusts over pictures of fruit on the internet. However, I will make the minor point that on some very slight level, fruit is…kind of…sexy.

As a painter, I will admit that the still life is probably my least favorite of subjects to paint. Mostly I’ve painted them because my galleries have requested them. Here’s another observation: I’ve noticed that of the still lifes I’ve sold, the buyers of which I’m aware have all been in creative or design fields, or artists in some capacity. My understanding of still life painting will suggest a reason for this.

Regarding representational painters who paint from observation, my opinion is that the still life may be as close as we come to composing with pure form and color. Fruit shows up repeatedly because fruits are simple, sumptuous forms that carry saturated color, but carry little narrative or emotional content. In other words this genre of still life painting is not about the subject matter, but about form and color. I see parallels between music and painting. Still life painting could be compared to instrumental classical music in the sense that neither contains lyrics or narrative – both simply celebrate the orchestration of raw elements, either sound or color, into a unified composition. Still life objects – fruit, fabric, and vessels – are so timeless and elemental that they are essentially inconspicuous, allowing the composition to be about the harmonization of color and form.

This could explain why still life collectors may tend to be artists or art-sensitized people – they may be more appreciative of the art of a composition for its own sake, not necessarily needing an attention-grabbing subject to draw them in.

As for fruit being sexy, it is an interesting coincidence that both fruit and flowers, (flowers being another natural element that shows up in the still life tradition,) are the most visually alluring stages of the reproductive cycle of seed bearing plants. Both are short lived, fragile, and beautiful to look at; existing to attract for the purpose of propagating life. I wouldn’t make too much of this, as I think few people actually make the connection, but it is interesting. For example, it’s interesting that there is an enormous commercial industry built around the fact that lovers give each other flowers on Valentine’s Day. We also give them to our moms who bore us, on Mother’s Day. Hmmm.

On an even more arcane and quintessential level, I wonder about the three elemental still life objects mentioned above: fruit, fabric, and vessels. Could they represent the basic stuff of human civilization: food, clothing, and human industry? Beats me. This only occurs to me as I write. I’m curious to know if that thought resonates with anyone else reading this. However, when I realize that I should add a fourth essential element which happens to be non-material – namely, light – which I’ll assert represents Spiritual life, illuminating and enlivening the physical life, I begin to think I see a pretty cool metaphor in the still life. Maybe still life painting’s enduring appeal encompasses all of these things.

“Still Life with Metal Pitcher”- oil painting by the author.
The often nondescript names of paintings of this genre underscore the idea that the painting is not about uniqueness of subject matter. Rather it is about color, form and paint handling.


4 comments on “…And What’s the Deal with Still Life Painting Anyway?

  1. Thanks for every other magnificent post.
    Where else may anyone get that kind of info in such an ideal method of writing?
    I’ve a presentation next week, and I am at the look for such information.

  2. I thought your comparison of still life to classical music was interesting. However, while classical music contains no lyrics, and while I think your correct that most of it has no narrative, some of it was clearly created with a narrative in mind. In fact, some classical music tends to make me want to visualize a narrative, even if it’s a narrative of my own imagination and not of the composer’s intent. It’s kind of like seeing an old black and white photograph with interesting elements that allows one to to imagine his own narrative. In general, however, I think you’re correct about many still life paintings being more about the art and less about the subject.

  3. Yeah, it’s certainly not a perfect analogy, and may even be wrong, but it’s what I think about why this genre has persisted for centuries. I have seen a lot of contemporary still life painting where the artist very much makes the still life about interesting, clever, symbolic, or autobiographical objects. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but I think it makes the genre into something different, and, like pop vs classical music, probably appeals to a broader audience.

Please share your thoughts...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s