Best Still Life Painters
The Vanities of Human Life (1645)
World's Best Still Life Painters
Introduction to Still Life
The term "still life" is used to describe a picture of inanimate subject matter, traditionally comprising commonplace items, collected and arranged in a specific manner. These items may be natural (eg. food, flowers, plants, insects, game, dead animals, rocks, skulls) or artificial (eg. domestic utensils, hour-glasses, vases, jewellery, objets d'art, drinking glasses, books, pipes). Linguistically, still life painting derives from the Dutch word 'Stilleven', which was used to describe paintings previously known simply as 'Fruit' or 'Flower Pieces', or 'Ontbijt' (Breakfast Piece), Bancket (banquet) or Pronkstilleven pieces. Still life art may be divided into four types: (1) flower pieces, (2) breakfast or banquet pieces, (3) animal pieces, (4) symbolic still lifes. The fourth category includes any composition with a symbolic message, although it mostly concerns a style of still life known as Vanitas painting (from the Book of Ecclesiastes 12:8 "Vanity of vanities saith the preacher, all is vanity"). These religious paintings contain symbolic images emphasizing the transience and triviality of mortal life.
Still Life (1960) Giorgio Morandi
Still life art blossomed in Holland during the 17th century, largely as a result of the influence of the Protestant Dutch Reformed Church, which declined to patronize religious art - till then the staple form of commissions for both painters and sculptors. Fortunately, the growth of middle-class prosperity led to the emergence of a totally new patron - the affluent bourgeois trader or professional, who sought to decorate his home with small-scale portable artworks (portraits, still lifes, landscapes) which reflected his new found status in the community. This in turn led directly to the emergence of the Dutch Realist schools of Utrecht, Leyden and Delft, whose masterpieces had a huge affect on the future history of art, in areas such as composition, tonal values, linear perspective, and varnish, as well as symbolism and narrative.
Still life painting was ranked bottom of the hierarchy of the genres (types of picture) by the great European academies of fine art, as annunciated in 1669 by Andre Felibien, Secretary to the French Academy.
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The other genres (in order of importance) were History, Portraiture, Genre-Works, and Landscape. The low ranking bestowed on still lifes stemmed from their supposed lesser "narrative" content (that is, moral message). To overcome this, many still life artists (notably Vanitas painters) included a variety of symbolic imagery in order to infuse their pictures with a specific moral or religious message. In this sense, "vanitas" still lifes were one of the few common types of Christian art seen in Protestant Holland. The inclusion of certain types of flowers was especially revealing. Many common flowers had specific symbolic meanings: lily (virginity, purity of mind); rose (Virgin Mary, love); tulip (ostentation, nobility); sunflower (fidelity, devotion); violet (modesty, humility).
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The Top 10 Still Life Painters
This list of famous still life artists has been compiled by our Editor Neil Collins MA LLB. It represents his personal view of the ten best exponents of still-life painting. Naturally, like any such compilation, it reveals more about the personal tastes of the compiler than the still life painters being ranked. (See also our educational essays for students/teachers: Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art, and How to Appreciate Paintings.)
No 10. Conor Walton (b.1970)
This outstanding classical painter from Ireland is included in our list of Top 10 Still Life Artists because of his raw talent, rather than his historical reputation. His contribution to still life art can be seen in his masterpieces: "Veiled: Oranges and Lemons" (2008) and "Still Life With Large Orchid" (2004), both of which combine breathtaking realism and precise tonal control, with an extraordinary use of light to bring out the different surface textures. In addition to these exemplary studies of fruit, Conor Walton has also produced a number of modern vanitas still lifes - a style which he has used to demonstrate his creative arrangements and updated narratives, as well as the precision of his draughtsmanship. (See also: James English)
Still Life Paintings by Conor Walton
No 9. Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Rachel Ruysch was the most famous Dutch still-life flower painter of her day. Born in Haarlem, and (like all women) finding herself barred from life-drawing classes, trained in still life under the flower artist Willem van Aelst. She was also influenced by her father Frederik Ruysch, a botanist and amateur painter, and by the earlier baroque-style flower pieces of Jan Davidsz de Heem. Like other still life flower painters, Ruysch's compositions contain a good deal of symbolism, and convey a variety of religious and moral messages. Her signature style of art is characterized by dark backgrounds, meticulous detail, delicate colouring, together with added elements of interest such as insects, birds and reptiles. Ruysch was also renowned for her highly realistic pictures of crystal vases. In addition to her practice in Amsterdam, she also worked in Dusseldorf (1708-16) as the court painter to the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm. She was married to Juriaen Pool (1666-1745), a portrait painter, with whom she had 10 children.
Famous Paintings by Rachel Ruysch
No 8. Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56)
Harmen van Steenwyck was a Dutch Realist artist and the greatest exponent of vanitas still life painting, a speciality of the Leiden school. In vanitas art, objects are portrayed as mere transient symbols representing the vanity of earthly life. Motifs such as skulls, snuffed candles and watches are often included to reinforce the message. Steenwyck was in fact a pupil of his uncle, the Leiden portraitist David Baillie (1584-1657), who is credited (on very little evidence) with the invention of the vanitas idiom. In any event, one of the greatest masterpieces of vanitas still life painting is Steenwyck's "Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life", which is no less than a sermon on the impermanence of earthly materialism. In this work, a shaft of sunlight highlights the central object - a human skull reminding us of our mortality. A shell (symbol of worldly wealth), a sword and a book remind us that neither money, nor power nor knowledge can prevent death. On an antique urn, the faint image of a Roman Emperor reminds us that even the most rich and powerful are called to account. All of this is depicted with impressive veracity and realism. Steenwyck's painting technique of employing small brushes to build up the picture with ultra-thin glazes of oil paint allows him to capture the differing textures of the individual items: the sheerness of the silk, the translucence of bone, and the reflective quality of the steel. The picture also exemplifies Steenwyck's mastery in the use of subdued colours to provide pictorial unity, and to enhance the effect of the sunlight.
Famous Paintings by Harmen Steenwyck
No 7. Paul Cezanne (1839-1906)
Although famous for his landscapes, portraits and genre-works, Cezanne's greatest contribution to a specific genre is his still life painting, for which he is righly regarded as one of the great modern masters. After a brief association with Impressionism, which he found lacked sufficient structure, Cezanne turned his attention to still lifes because he wanted to create something "solid and durable, like the art of the museums". To this end he began exploring the depiction of fruit and other natural objects through what he believed to be their most common underlying shapes: the cylinder, sphere and cone. He also experimented with various types of disjunction in the painting plane, in order to convey more than one viewpoint of the picture. Finally, instead of creating space and perspective in his still lifes by normal drawing methods, he used planes of colour. All three of these lines of enquiry were further explored by Picasso and Braque, in their formulation of analytical Cubism. Naturally, however, there is a price to pay for all this intellectualism: none of Cezanne's fruits have any sensual appeal, and bear no resemblance to the realistic items painted by the Dutch Realist still life artists, let alone to the colourful vegetables of Provence. Perhaps this is just as well since Cezanne's method of working was so incredibly slow that most of the fruit he painted had rotted well before the picture was finished! He also preferred to paint the same objects over and over again, all in pursuit of his goal of creating something "permanent".
Famous Paintings by Paul Cezanne
No 6. Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-84)
A pupil of David Bailly, and one of the best still life painters of the Dutch Realist school, Jan Davidsz de Heem combined excellent draughtsmanship with an outstanding feel for colour. He was renowned for his magnificent flower pieces, heavily laden tables, arrangements of tropical fruits, lobsters and oysters, bottles and tankards, snails and sea shells, butterflies, beetles and moths. His compositions varied from traditional still-life displays to Madonnas surrounded by garlands of fruit or flowers. Such was his reputation and popularity in both Fanders and Holland that he could barely keep up with demand. His family included several other artists, such as his sons Cornelius de Heem (1631-95), Jan Jansz de Heem (1650-1700) and his grandson David de Heem (1663-1701). His other pupils and followers included Alexander Coseman, Thomas de Klerck, Abraham Mignon, Senaerd Rougghe and Michiel Verstylen.
Famous Paintings by Jan Davidsz de Heem
No 5. Willem Kalf (1622-1693)
Willem Kalf was one of the greatest Dutch masters of the "pronkstilleven" style of still life painting, which featured ostentatious arrays of material possessions, such as gold and silverware, Venetian glass, Chinese porcelain, mother-of-pearl vessels, and Turkish carpets. The son of a wealthy Rotterdam cloth merchant, Kalf trained in Holland before spending 4 years in Paris (1642-6) where he painted still lifes of brass and copper vessels, which later proved influential on Jean Chardin and other French artists. From 1651, Kalf settled in Amsterdam, where he produced the sumptuous pronkstilleven still lifes for which he is famous. He was also an art dealer and was able to include a number of fine objets d'art into his works. For example a blue and white Ming bowl appears in 16 of his still lifes, an Augsberg goldsmith's chalice in 13! These later works are classified as belonging to the heroic or classic phase of Dutch Realism of the 17th century. For the leading exponents of the vanitas genre known as "breakfast pieces" (ontbijt or ontbijtjes), which frowned upon human gluttony and sensual indulgence, see: Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680) and Pieter Claesz (1597-1660).
Famous Paintings by Willem Kalf
No 4. Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)
The son of a master carpenter, from whom no doubt he acquired his sense of diligence and order, Jean Chardin was the greatest still life painter of the 18th century. His small-scale paintings reflected the best qualities of the Age of Reason - truth, harmony, sober colour and calm - attributes quite different from the prevailing style of Rococo, with its loud forms and ostentatious swirls. As a member of the prestigious Royal Academy in Paris, he was often criticised for his "unambitious" art, but Chardin stuck to what he knew best, notably the close observation of life. From him we discover the hidden character of the charred surface of an ancient coffee pot, or the brilliant whiteness of a bulb of garlic. He sought constantly to achieve harmony of tone, colour and form. He would balance contrasting geometric forms, and arrange subtle contrasts - transparent with opaque, shiny with matt, warm with cold - and modulate his backgrounds to produce a perfect balance of tonal values. Even symbolism was discarded in order to achieve the goal of complete harmony and order.
Famous Paintings by Jean-Simeon Chardin
No 3. Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
One of the early Dutch Old Masters, Frans Snyders was the undisputed master of Baroque still life painting and animal subjects in Northern Europe. Hugely prolific, his ability to depict a wide range of textures like skin, fur, glass and metal was unsurpassed. He was also an outstanding animalier (animal painter), and often included dead animals, like game, to his still lifes. Also, in his compositions there is often a hint of action - a sniffing dog, a cat, a person picking a grape. These features add an element of tension and excitement to the picture. Snyders also painted still lifes for other artists: for example, sometimes he would add a still life component to a work being painted by Peter Paul Rubens. In later life, Snyders became official painter to the Archduke Albert of Austria, and executed some of his best works for this patron. He remains one of the greatest exponents of still life in the history of art.
Famous Paintings by Frans Snyders
No 2. Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964)
Dubbed "il monaco" (the monk) because of his reclusive lifestyle, the Italian still life painter Giorgio Morandi is arguably the greatest master of Natura Morta (still life) of the 20th century. Influenced by both classical and modern artists, including Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Jean Chardin, and notably Carlo Carra - see The Drunken Gentleman (1916) - Morandi's still life compositions clearly allude to his visual heritage. He deliberately selects unremarkable dusty bottles, jars, jugs and vases that would have been everyday sights in his home. Then he depersonalises them in order to explore their abstract qualities and visual relationships. In their use of light, his still lifes have been compared by some experts to the "Haystacks" series of paintings by Claude Monet. And like Paul Cezanne, Morandi had a painstaking contemplative style of working, often taking weeks to decide the exact layout of his compositions, whose aim above all is to communicate a sense of tranquility and privacy.
Famous Paintings by Giorgio Morandi
No 1. Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
Zurbaran is perhaps better known for his austere religious painting of dead saints and live monks, but he was also one of the greatest still life artists. Although few in number and painted strictly in the Spanish tradition, his still life paintings have a timeless quality and a flawless simplicity. Typically, they feature three or four objects in a row, which stand out strongly before a darkened background. Most of the items are chosen for their symbolic value: Zurbaran's pictures tend to contain subtle religious symbolism relating (eg) to the Virgin Mary, the Passion of Christ and other Biblical references. Studying the objects he painted, one might say they have an almost religious quality, as if they were objects of veneration. Totally exquisite.
Famous Paintings by Zurbaran
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