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Life Lives Within Still Life Paintings

Life Lives Within Still Life Paintings
“Eterne” by American contemporary artist Joe Anna Arnett. (Photograph by Barrett Randell/Used by permission)

Alexandra York By Friday, 19 January 2024 09:41 AM EST Current | Bio | Archive

Subject matter in still life paintings typically consists of mostly inanimate objects, often of common household usage, and has existed in one form or another since ancient times.

Egyptians depicted foodstuffs on the walls within burial sites as offerings to the gods or to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife, and the Greeks decorated vases, mosaics, and wall paintings with ornamental or symbolic objects as well. Later, during Roman times, the artistic practice was used in mosaics of still life subjects like glass bowls with fruit, proof of which has been unearthed in cities like Pompei and Herculaneum; these are conjectured to have been displayed in wealthy Roman’s homes as signs of opulence or hospitality.

During medieval and early renaissance periods, still life objects were often included in religious painting and frescoes as well as decorating illuminated manuscripts, but they had no “star power” so were used for background interest rather than as serious objects of primary interest. (Sidebar: It is noteworthy, however, that — no surprise! — the great humanist Leonardo da Vinci broke from the religious tradition and painted a watercolor study of fruit in (it is estimated) 1495.

The art form finally came into its own as a unique genre in the 16th-century — Caravaggio is often cited as the first authentic still life painter with his now-famous “Basket of Fruit,” done in 1597.

And it is fully accepted in art history annals that the form actually came into its own, flourishing grandly in the Netherlands during the 17th-century when the emergence of the bourgeoisie (middle class) achieved lifestyles that included lavish possessions and the funds to celebrate the “fruits” of those lifestyles in art forms that gave them what today we would term “bragging rights” to glamorize their possessions in paintings to decorate their homes.

Hence, we see pictorial compositions from that period consisting of silver and gold goblets, epergnes, pitchers, etc., exquisite glass and porcelain ware, meat, fish and fowl, fruits and flowers, and all manner of expensive items for gracious living and prideful display.

The genre actually became so popular during this heyday period that artists would set up stalls and sell non-commisioned paintings to ordinary folks who did not own any real treasures but felt that owning a painting of such luscious objects carried prestige all by itself.

Symbolism communicated by objects was in play during virtually every period that still life paintings were executed. Fruit and flowers, in particular, were full of connotations that worked to remind living people that they, too, may ripen and blossom to lushness and beauty but will wither and die just like the objects in the painting. Lighter meanings also were well known and more pleasurable to contemplate such as the rose representing the Virgin Mary, the lily glorifying purity, and the sunflower bespeaking peace and grace.

These symbols were not always beautiful and inspiring (if a little unsettling) like the fruit and flowers. Some were horrific and others warmly familiar: Skeletons, skulls, and dead animals; books, pots, and wine bottles; and all sorts of seemingly odd objects were well understood metaphorically by the art-loving public of their own time.

But the compositional and painterly challenges of the still life art form from object arrangements to color tonalities and textures, to renderings of translucent glass and glinting metals intrigued countless painters long after the 17th-century rage and include such unexpected names as Van Gogh and Cezanne.

Today, contemporary painters still find challenges in the art form, all artists now with modern sensibilities but different with authentic creative talent or lack thereof. Some commercial” artists just paint simplistic “pretty pictures” depicting object arrangements as mere colorful abstract shapes that carry no further meaning.

Others of great artistic merit and personal intellect create seriously contemplative works that by thoughtful selection and provocative combination of objects imbue their work with inner contextual meaning that stimulates a thoughtful viewer’s curiosity and inspires investigation into the deeper meanings lying within the objects: “Why is that pomegranate (symbol — from Greek mythology — of Persephone’s eating the fruit’s seeds, an act that forced her to live with Hades in the underworld for half the year) placed right there next to a seashell?” (See above still-life painting “Eterne” by American contemporary artist Joe Anna Arnett.  Photograph by Barrett Randell.)

In summary, we can endlessly explore this long enduring and eternally fascinating — and often underrated — art form that retains its beauty and mystery from an ancient inception to a future tomorrow.

Every epoch of this art form’s existence bespeaks the aura of each era’s underlying premises and preoccupations; thus, living inside every still-life is the real-life heartbeat and mindset of the painters and the viewing inhabitants of every historical period, projecting and preserving their own particular contemporary and unique experiences, concerns, and pleasures.

Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader's Digest" and The New York Times. She is the author of "Crosspoints A Novel of Choice." Her most recent book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York — Go Here Now.

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Every epoch of this art form’s existence bespeaks the aura of each era’s underlying premises and preoccupations; thus, living inside every still-life is the real-life heartbeat and mindset of the painters and the viewing inhabitants of every historical period ...
paintings, still life
Friday, 19 January 2024 09:41 AM
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