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Still Life Artists - A Brief History of Still Life and Still Life Artists

genre century american painters

Still life artists are artists who use painting and other media to depict inanimate objects that range from flowers to books to seashells.

Though still lifes appear in ancient Egyptian tombs and were developed by Middle Age artists dating as far back as Giotto di Bondone. Giotto was not a still life artist in the conventional sense of the word; rather, he was a religious painter who pioneered still life elements for use in his depictions of saints and scriptures. It was not until the seventeenth century that autonomous still life—that is, still life without accompanying figures—became a genre in and of itself.

From the seventeenth century on, still life painters were so numerous that their names and dates would be a book-length work. They came from many countries, most notably Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy. Among the earliest of still life artists was the Spanish artist Juan Sánchez Cotán, whose 1602 Still Life with Dead Birds, Fruit, and Vegetables depicted the inside of a cupboard with startling realism and intimacy. Cotán’s work continues to be referenced as a milestone in the establishment of still life as a respected genre of art.

Important to these and later artists was the technique “trompe-l’œil”, an attempt at depicting objects in such precise detail as to make them seem three dimensional (indeed, trompe-l’œil means “to deceive the eye” in its original French). Though not limited to still life entirely, its presence became a signature of many masters. Cornelis Nobertus Gysbrechts was one such still life artist whose attention to three-dimensional detail was nothing short of outstanding, as can be seen in such strikingly realistic works as Quodlibet (1675) and the playful The Reverse Side of a Painting (1670).

American still life was spearheaded in the nineteenth century by James Peale, a colonial artist from a family of well-known American painters. Peale’s famed Still Life (1825) was drawn at age seventy-six despite failing eyesight and features a porcelain bowl of delicious colored grapes and apples. Other American still life artists include his nephew Raphaelle Peale, John F. Francis, and Richard LaBarre Goodwin.

Though realism was once held as the perfected form of still life, some painters sought to reinvent the genre by applying more impressionistic flourishes. The widely known Vincent Van Gogh was one such still life artist; his many paintings of sunflowers in the late 1880s represent a movement toward a freer interpretation of still life elements amid nineteenth century still life artists. Paul Gauguin paid tribute to Van Gogh’s still lifes with his Still Life With Sunflowers (1901), continuing the bold experiment with an homage to his late peer.

Wilder experiments soon followed. Cubists like Pablo Picasso, Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, and other modern artists reinvented and re-reinvented the genre, playing with the centuries-old concept of still life the way fiction plays with history. Today, still life can be found in a variety of non-painted media, including photography and digital art.

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