Still Life with Fish represents a compositional cornerstone in Francis Newton Souza’s oeuvre. It is one of Souza’s finest examples of the genre of still life. At first glance the highly structured domestic setting appears secular and mundane. However, the religious symbolism encoded within reflects Souza’s strict Catholic upbringing in Portuguese Goa and the influence of the Church on his psyche. “The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services." (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 42) In his seminal book, Words and Lines published in 1959, Souza fondly describes dining at a priest’s home in Goa, even including an illustration from the same year as this painting depicting the pontiff at his table. Souza writes, “Sunday evenings, the vicar invited me to dine with him […] A laundered tablecloth was spread only when he [the Vicar] had guests, a luxury he permitted himself with touching simplicity.” (F. N. Souza, 'Nirvana of a Maggot', 1955, F. N. Souza: Words and Lines, London, 1959, pp. 17-18) This setting and sentiment is encapsulated in Still Life with Fish.
Painted in 1961, shortly after Souza returned from a scholarship funded trip to Rome, it is no surprise that the visual culture of Catholicism was at the heart of the artist’s practice. The fish at the center of the composition overtly references the Biblical miracle in which Jesus Christ feeds a multitude of five thousand followers with five loaves of bread and two fish. The complementary colossal chalices atop the table further suggest the liturgy of the holy sacrament of Communion. The towering vessels, rendered with Souza's signature geometric and elliptic detailing, glow with blues and greens referencing the palette of stained glass church windows, while the rich reds of the patterned tablecloth allude to the tunics and vestments of the clergy of the church often seen in Souza’s portraits from this seminal period.
Souza also follows the tradition of vanitas painting, a genre that flourished in the Netherlands during the 17th Century and depicts collections of objects symbolic of the inevitability of death and the transience of earthly pursuits and pleasures. These symbols of mortality or momento mori are evident here in the depiction of the lifeless fish in the center of the composition.
The thick back outlines of the foregrounded forms are in stark contrast to the delicate floral detailing in the blue backdrop, suggesting an open window or opulent brocade. This reveals Souza’s ability as a painter and draughtsman to transcend traditional genres. Through symbolism and juxtaposition, Souza uses the genre of still life to express the dichotomies of good and evil, light and dark, the human and the divine.