Flowers, fruit, flasks and coffee pots: 10 still lifes that move us
From 17th-century paintings of quinces and roses with a moral message to contemporary meditations on domesticity and autobiography, here are 10 still lifes that redefined the genre. Illustrated with works coming to auction at Christie’s
Fede Galizia, A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces and a grasshopper, circa 1600
The invention of the genre of still-life paintings of fruit has traditionally been attributed to Caravaggio (1571-1610), who created his famous Basket of Fruit at some point between 1597 and 1600. Yet within a matter of years, or possibly even months, of that painting’s completion, another Milanese artist, Fede Galizia (1578-1630), began a series of oils on the same theme that rivalled Caravaggio’s work.
A glass compote with peaches, jasmine flowers, quinces and a grasshopper, made in the first years of the 1600s, highlights Galizia’s mastery of the new genre in her use of precise observation and modulations of light and shadow to bring the flora and fauna to vivid life. Her work, like Caravaggio’s, contains a moralising message: the grasshopper, symbolic of the passage of time, is placed next to a sliced-open quince that represents fertility. Together, these motifs invite the viewer to ponder the fragility of life.
In 1630, in her early fifties, Galizia succumbed to the plague. Like most women artists of her time, she was denied her place in the art-historical cannon, and her pioneering still lifes were attributed to her male contemporaries.
Rachel Ruysch, Tulips, rose, honeysuckle, apple blossom, poppies and other flowers in a glass vase, with a butterfly, on a marble ledge, early 1690s
Horticulture was all the rage in 17th-century Holland. During the 1630s, the market for the most coveted flower bulbs reached such dizzying heights that it resulted in a period of so-called ‘tulip mania’.
In the context of this obsession, painters like Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) and Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621) began to produce the first pictures exclusively of flowers. But it would be the daughter of a professor at Amsterdam’s botanical gardens that would take the genre to a new level of sophistication.
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) was lauded during her lifetime for her whimsical, asymmetric compositions and the incredible detail with which she painstakingly painted every minute leaf and petal. She rose through the male-dominated ranks to become court painter to Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine, and sold her flower pictures for impressive sums — up to 1,200 guilders each. When she died, a volume of poems was published in her honour, with the authors declaring her an ‘art goddess’ whose still lifes would endure for eternity.
Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, A Dead Rabbit and a Satchel, circa 1720s
In 1728, Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) presented two paintings for admittance to the Paris Academy. One was The Ray, depicting a dark table covered in bloody seafood and kitchen utensils; the other was The Buffet, which shows a shadowy pyramid of fruit. What made this submission unusual, however, was that it came at a time when Rococo art, with its pastel colours and amorous themes, was the height of fashion in France.
Ignoring the prevailing taste, Chardin instead looked back to Dutch and Flemish masters such as Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Frans Snyders (1579-1657), with their focus on realism and the meditative qualities of still lifes. This bold move won him admirers — notably Louis XV (1710-1774), who appointed him King’s Painter and rewarded him with a hefty state pension and an apartment in the Louvre.
A century later, Chardin’s stripped-back compositions and emphasis on colour over line helped shape Impressionism (with A Dead Rabbit and a Satchel most obviously influencing Manet’s 1886 work Rabbit ), as well as 20th-century still lifes by painters such as Georges Braque (1882-1963)and Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964).
Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (Kettle and Fruits), 1880-1890
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was a master of the still-life painting. The range of compositional strategies he used was unprecedented in the Western tradition. As the art critic and painter Roger Fry (1866–1934) wrote in 1926, Cézanne’s paintings were not about apples and pears but shapes: spheres, cones and cylinders. By relentlessly scrutinising space, colour and line, he created the purest form of figurative art and reframed the still life for good.
However, the godfather of modern art was not without emotion. With his repertoire of fruits, coffee pots and cutlery, he also built up an intimate picture of 19th-century domesticity. Bouilloire et fruits (1880-1890), sold at Christie’s in 2019 from the S.I. Newhouse collection, offers a profound aesthetic experience of Provençal life.
Samuel John Peploe, Tulips and a Coffee Pot, circa 1905
The daring Modernist Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935) devoted his career to painting the perfect still life, writing in 1929 that ‘there is so much in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what not — colours, forms, relation — I can never see the mystery coming to an end’.
Having spent the 1890s studying and travelling in France, where he had discovered the work of the French Impressionists, Peploe returned to Edinburgh invigorated by the idea of developing a Scottish Modernism. Taking his inspiration from the cold, blue northern light, Peploe embarked on a series of still-life paintings that brought a crystalline clarity to the surface of domestic objects.
Tulips and a Coffee Pot, circa 1905, is similar in style and subject matter to The Coffee Pot, painted around the same time, which was sold at Christie’s in 2011 for £937,250, a record price for the artist.
Vanessa Bell, Autumn Bouquet, 1912
Autumn Bouquet is one of the few early still-life paintings by Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) that survived the bombing of her studio during the Second World War. It is thought that the painting was made in September 1912, during a cold snap that forced the Bloomsbury artist and her lover, Duncan Grant, to paint indoors.
The picture is a symphony of colour. Two years earlier, Bell had attended an exhibition of French Post-Impressionist paintings in London, which inspired her to employ bolder colours and pursue abstraction.
Like the artists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt before her, Bell recognised that the domestic interior could be a place of radical experimentation. Charleston, her house in Sussex, became a canvas on which to try out innovations in painting and design. Using a variety of styles and techniques, she painted the walls and furniture, transforming the interior into a place of total artistic immersion.
Juan Gris, Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux (Still Life with Checked Tablecloth), 1915
The still life underwent a radical transformation in the 20th century, as modern artists rejected the quiet domesticity of the home in favour of public spaces. Cubist artists such as Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris (1887-1927) found inspiration in restaurants and bars, echoing Charles Baudelaire’s famous assertion that modern painters were men of the crowd, who cursed the hours spent indoors away from the task of recording ‘the landscapes of the great city’.
Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, now held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, features everyday items found in a café: wine bottles and glasses, a checked tablecloth, a newspaper, a guitar. Forms and textures echo and reverberate throughout the composition, creating a poetic dialogue between the objects. The painting was sold at Christie’s in February 2014 for £34,802,500, the highest price that had ever been paid for a work by the artist.
Man Ray, L’Etoile de mer (The Starfish), 1928
When Surrealism emerged in the bohemian Paris of the 1920s, it was a revolutionary philosophy based on the idea that the mind had a limitless capacity to imagine, dream and invent.
The American photographer Man Ray (1890-1976) was a key exponent of the concept and created still-life images that transformed everyday items into magical, almost sacred objects. L’Etoile de mer is a good example of the artist’s ‘pure’ Surrealism, in which he orchestrated meetings between disparate objects.
The uncanny introduction of a starfish into a domestic still life upsets the prosaic nature of the scene, and suggests that each object Man Ray has chosen is imbued with a hidden meaning.
Patrick Caulfield, Arita Flask: Black, 1989
In the 1960s, Pop art celebrated mass consumer culture with deadpan paintings of soup cans and cereal boxes in bright colours. The works of Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), with their impersonal depictions of domestic items, are often described as Pop art, but the British artist actually hated the term and was not interested in the artistic trends coming out of London and New York. He took his inspiration from French Modernism, and in particular the Cubist still-life paintings of Juan Gris.
Caulfield’s flat depictions of wine glasses, rudimentary vases and cork-board restaurant interiors are, he once explained, a way of reducing the radical experimentations that happened in painting in the early 20th century to ‘a kind of shorthand’. He absorbed the banalities of modern life and reproduced them in still life as uncanny objects laden with atmosphere and mood.
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Jonas Wood, Large Shelf Still Life, 2017
The artist Jonas Wood (b. 1977) uses still life to explore his autobiography. As he once said, ‘I’m not going to paint something that doesn’t have anything to do with me.’
In his paintings of house plants and other domestic objects, he references his childhood and the things he grew up with, as well as alluding to the great artworks that have inspired him, among them Henri Matisse’s cut-outs and Alexander Calder’s mobiles.
Wood's flat, dense aesthetic also recalls Cubist collages by Picasso and Braque, and Surrealist photography. With their bold, graphic style, the artist’s paintings can appear simple, but they are in fact complex and dynamic investigations of scale, texture, pattern and colour.