Still Life

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Still Life
Coastal Floral I still life artwork by Danhui Nai

Coastal Floral I

Known Names Still Life
Influencers Abraham van Beyeren
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder
Jacob Vosmaer
Jacob Breughel the Elder

(Top Image: “Three Pears” by Terri Hill)

Still-life painting has had a memorable history as a genre and is the depiction of common inanimate objects, whose arrangement and portrayal carry symbolic meaning beyond the objects themselves. First thriving in the 1600s, it has never gone out of style.

Still Life

In the early 1600s, still-life painting came into its own as a genre with the work of a group of artists including Abraham van Beyeren and Jacob Breughel the Elder, who transformed a tradition that had been considered by some critics as one of the lowest rungs in the artistic ladder. These painters accomplished this through masterly execution and through choices of subject matter that enriched the objects with new meaning and let viewers see common things like flowers, food items, and kitchenware afresh. Works such as Willem Kalf’s Still Life with Fruit, Glassware and a Wan-li Bowl and Abraham van Beyeren’s Still Life with Lobster and Fruit portrayed food as an almost heavenly luxury. Through the dissonant placement of objects that symbolized extravagance, the Wan-li bowl or the lobster, and the use of shadows and rich colors, common objects such as fruits were perceived in a new light. Other works such as Jacob Vosmaer’s A Vase with Flowers and Jan Weenix’s Falconer’s Bag anointed the subject matter with grand importance through highly-refined execution. Pieces of this time exerted tremendous influence on the work of countless southern European painters in the decades which followed. The importance, almost sacredness, granted to everyday food items can be seen on the precise and elegant depictions by painters such as the Flemish Abraham Breughel in his Pomegranates and Other Fruit in a Landscape and the Spanish Luis Edigio Melendez’s The Afternoon Meal (La Merienda). The genre continued to develop afterward, and few major artists of the following artistic periods did not at least try their hand at it, some making it a central part of their oeuvre and producing masterpieces, including Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. Van Gogh’s Irises was until recently the most expensive work bought at an auction, and Picasso’s series of still lifes with guitars was recently the subject of an entire exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.


  • Bouquet, by Jan Breughel the Elder, 1603
  • Vanitas Still Life,by Jacques de Gheyn the Elder, 1603
  • Still Life with a Curtain, by Paul Cezanne, 1895
  • Still Life with Melon and Peaches, by Edouard Manet, 1880
  • Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Fun Facts

  • Although not famous for it, Leonardo da Vinci painted hundreds of still lifes in water color.
  • Live animals often appear in still lifes, sometimes in the background observing and sometimes, such as in Franz Snyders’s Two Monkeys Stealing Fruit from a Basket, in very active roles.
  • The American photographer Joann Verburg decided to play on the theme of decay and death often prevalent in the genre after bringing home a bouquet of flowers that was wrapped in a newspaper with a picture of Charles Manson. Her piece, Still Life with Serial Killers was featured at the MOMA.

Related Articles

  • Robert Campin
  • Petrus Christus
  • Frans Hals
  • George Rustchev
  • Irving Penn


Some Examples of Still Life Artwork

Vase with Oleanders and Books c. 1888 still life artwork by Vincent van Gogh

Vase with Oleanders and Books c. 1888

Still Life with Sunflowers II artwork by August Macke

Still Life with Sunflowers II

Le Chateau still life artwork by Marilyn Hageman

Le Chateau