Still-life in art

Still-life – the painting of ordinary objects without any human presence – was long regarded in the Western world as a lowly art form on the grounds that it required only technical skill, not imagination. André Félibien, 17th century French chronicler of the arts and official court historian to Louis XIV of France, established the so-called hierarchy of genres in 1669, ranking paintings according to a system of importance and value. He placed History painting (including historical, religious and mythological scenes) at the top, followed by Portraiture, Genre and Landscape. Still-life came in last, at the very bottom of the painting pile. In spite of this, the painting of ordinary objects without any human presence has persevered through the years.

Though, if you see a snippet of a Roman fresco featuring fruit and other objects arranged in the manner of a still-life, then this would most likely have formed part of a larger painting. In this mural from Herculaneum c.50 BCE we see the sheen on a water vessel and some not-quite-ripe peaches. In the 17th century the still-life genre was often associated with themes of transience, decay and the vanity of earthly things. In this 1641 painting by the German still-life specialist Sebastien Stoskopff, a skull is included as a sign of death or memento mori.

Fruit is a popular subject, possibly symbolising fertility or plenty or simply posing a juicy challenge to paint. Here the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) produces a masterly study, bringing lemons into skin-dimpled life through careful observation and excellent technique. Slow-drying oil paint gives the painter lots of time to perfect textural detail: the glossy wicker weave versus the fuzzy bums of the peaches for instance.

The composition of this painting – called Old Models (1892) – by the American still-life painter William Michael Harnett evokes a feeling of refinement through leisure activities, especially music and reading. One useful thing about not having any living/ moving parts to contend with is that the artist can spend considerable time getting his arrangement just so.

In this intense image Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh depicts Two Cut Sunflowers (1887), one of the artist’s most enduring subjects. He’s able to bring about a palpable atmosphere: the driving parallel and cross-hatched brushstrokes and use of a limited earthy palette gives this a definite mood.

By early 20th century Felibien’s hierarchy had lost its significance and already from the late 19th century onwards the neutrality of the still-life genre was making it a powerful vehicle for artists engaged with issues of pure form. One such artist was Paul Cézanne who used exploratory brushstrokes and planes of colour to build up form. He also played around with multi-viewpoint perspective as in this still-life of a basket of overflowing fruit arranged on a table with white cloth and three different pots (1888-90).

Cézanne is said to have formed the bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism (both Matisse and Picasso are said to have remarked that Cézanne “is the father of us all”). The Cubist painter Georges Braque leaned heavily on Cézanne when he was working out his new style. In this later work, The Round Table (1929), that Cubist style is still evident but has been softened by Braque’s subtle use of colour.

For a more modern take on the still-life genre look no further than Daniel Spoerri (born 1930), a Swiss artist and writer born in Romania. He is best known for his “snare-pictures,” a type of assemblage or object art, in which he captures a group of objects, such as the remains of meals eaten by individuals, including the plates, silverware and glasses, all of which are fixed to the table or board, which is then displayed on a wall. In this work Prose Poems (1960) the intention might be to “snare” a moment in time.

And I love Tony Cragg’s New Stones – Newton’s Tones from 1978 for which he collected fragments of discarded plastic in a few hours in May 1978 in the area where he lived in Wuppertal, Germany before arranging them according to Isaac Newton’s spectrum of colour. Possibly Cragg uses found materials to comment on modern technology and urban waste. Cragg’s materials also show that discarded objects have beauty: from a distance this work seems to shimmer and dematerialise like a rainbow.

Animals in Art

Animals have long been part of the art story. They’ve been portrayed in religious rituals, as mythical creatures, incarnations of gods and goddesses, symbolically in Christian art or simply as pets. Some of the earliest images known are of animals brushed into being on the walls of caves more than 40,000 years ago. These two bison are rubbing haunches, but they may have been painted hundreds of years apart. We’re still not sure why prehistoric people covered cave walls with animal paintings.

This c. 1300 scene painted with ink and colour on silk and attributed to Liu Kuan-tao shows Kublai Khan, founder of the Mongol dynasty in China and his followers spotting their prey. The suspense is heightened by the fact that – cleverly – the prey is not revealed to the viewer.

Kublai khan

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was the preeminent master of the German Renaissance. He was inspired to make this 1515 woodcut after receiving a letter from a friend describing an Indian rhino. Dürer had never seen an animal like it and took his friend’s phrase “armour-plated” literally. Despite its inaccuracies, Dürer’s woodcut was well-known and popular in Europe, copied many times in the following three centuries. The spirit of the beast is spot-on.

Animals began to take centre stage in the 18th and 19th centuries as proud owners commissioned portraits of their well-bred livestock and pets. Some painters like George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) made a living specialising in racing scenes and horses. Whistlejacket (c. 1762), a thoroughbred product of recent knowledge on breeding, takes centre stage, near-enough life-size. Stubbs’s huge picture was painted for the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Whistlejacket’s owner and a patron of Stubbs. The neutral background isolates, celebrates and showcases the animal in a whole new way.

The French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix painted his horses with a wild vitality: flicking brushstrokes capture the animal’s fear and agony in the face of certain death in this pen and ink and watercolour work from 1826. For romantic painters like Delacroix, the energy and violence of such an attack – expressed with savage strokes to the horse’s mane and the inky shadows in the background – was a physical expression of the intense emotions Delacroix sought to bring to life on canvas.


Edwin Landseer (1802 – 1873) appealed to the Victorians for his sentimental humanising of animal subjects. His Monarch of the Glen (1851) is one of Scotland’s most recognised and reproduced paintings to the point that it had become a cliché by the mid-20th century. The Sunday Herald called it “the ultimate biscuit tin image of Scotland: a bulky stag set against the violet hills and watery skies of an isolated wilderness.” Still, it has sentimental appeal and is an icon: late last year drinks giant Diageo had planned to put the painting up for auction, expecting to fetch £8m. The company has now gifted half the value of the piece to National Galleries of Scotland in the hope it can raise the remaining £4m to put it in public hands for the first time.

The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc considered animals to be on a higher plane. “People with their lack of piety, especially men, never touched my true feelings,” he wrote in 1915, “… but animals with their virginal sense of life awakened all that was good in me.” Animals were the way that Marc expressed his spiritual ideals. Here in Little Yellow Horses from 1912, he uses simplified shapes and symbolic colour to express the animalness of his subject. In his personal system of colour symbolism yellow, a “gentle, cheerful and sensual” colour, symbolised femininity and joy.


Today, animal art is as popular as ever, even down to installations that put a contemporary spin on taxidermy. Damien Hirst’s most famous work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) famously floated a 13 foot tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde. His controversial and memorable study in death and display is surely one of our most recognisable art works.

I love Joe’s Black Dog by the contemporary American artist Marjorie Weiss. In this acrylic on canvas painting a giant dog dwarfs the landscape. Our low viewpoint makes the animal seem even larger. The clean, sinuous silhouette and raised hind leg fills the animal with energy and potential. We are left wondering: what has it spotted just out of the picture frame? Pure, perfect animal.

Brushstrokes and Texture

A sculpture is tactile as well as 3D: touching it (when no one is watching!) is as much a part of the experience as looking at it. Paintings have texture too: smooth and flat or ridged and lumpen depending on the kind of paint used and how thickly it has been applied.

Wayne Thiebaud Confections 1962

Fashions change as to whether an artist wants us to see brushstrokes in their work. In the 17th C the Dutch still-life painter Gerret Willemsz Heda favoured a high degree of finish: in Still Life with Ham his painstaking sleek technique conceals all traces of the working process:

A little over 200 years later French realist painter Antoine Vollon does it differently and relishes the act of revealing his manual movements in tracks of thickly slicked on oil (or is that butter?)

Some media are more forgiving than others: because egg tempera dries so rapidly, artists have to paint with tiny brushstrokes to create unified surface and the effect of light and shade. Just such tiny brushstrokes are visible to the eye in Botticelli’s 1478 portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici.

Oil paint by contrast, because it is slower to dry, enables artists to conceal their brushwork in a fluid blend on the canvas or panel. Invisible brushwork reached its peak popularity in the 19th C in traditional paintings like The Birth of Venus (1863):

Alexandre Cabanel was a leading light of French academic painting. His smooth and polished handling of oil paints makes the flesh in this painting blemish-free and sensual. It’s all about her flesh here in what is the (just about) acceptable face of female nudity posing as high art on the pretext of telling a classical myth.

Partly in reaction to the perfect smooth finish of academic works favoured by the Salon some artists in the 19th C were provoked into daubing paint on in a deliberately agitated manner. Oil paints give the artist the choice of whether to show or not show their brushwork. Some old masters including Velazquez and Rembrandt had also made their brush marks visible. This is a self-portrait by Rembrandt from 1669:

French Impressionists built on these precedents and began to use what we call broken brushwork. Their seeming slapdash approach was critiqued by contemporaries who thought their canvases looked unfinished. The fact that you could see their brushstrokes was just not the done thing at the time. In fact their apparent sketchiness was a deliberate attempt by Impressionists to convey the flickering effects of light reflected from water, clouds or plants:

In The Gust of Wind (c. 1872) Renoir blurred one shape into another, using long brushes to create feathery strokes of varying size and direction. The rapid brushstrokes convey the impression of scudding clouds and windblown grass. The invention of tube paints in the late 19th C made it easier for artists to use thick, undiluted paint. If you look at a painting like Vincent van Gogh’s Garden at Arles (1888) from the side, you can see how thick the paint is:

Vincent van Gogh is known for working at feverish speed and laying on thick slabs of paint but in fact the brushwork is careful and considered. The thick marks sit side by side in series of lines with differently coloured dots with the canvas often visible between.

British expressionist painter Leon Kossoff’s work is often characterised by craggy and dramatic impasto (the term for thickly applied opaque paint) with heavy black outlines such as in this portrait of his father from the 1970s. At the other end of the texture spectrum sits photorealist Ralph Goings whose seamless oil on canvas such as in this 1995 still-life has the viewer rubbing their eyes in utter disbelief.


How Artists use Colour

Colour is often one of the most exciting components of a painting. In both figurative and abstract painting, colour can be used for its decorative beauty, to create mood and to express or arouse an emotion. In nature and in art, colour has a profound effect on the viewer. Artists can choose and use colour naturalistically: in his version of Hove Beach (1824) the English Romantic landscape painter John Constable recreates colours he has seen at the scene:

By convention, grass is green and water is blue but on closer look they may be made up of many different colours and artists do not have to imitate the colours they see in the physical world. Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is the man credited with revolutionising attitudes towards colour in art. He famously said: “When I put down green it doesn’t mean grass, and when I put down blue it doesn’t mean sky.”

Before Matisse there was Monet who began to question descriptive colours. Monet was fascinated by the ever-changing shimmer of light on water and used colour theory to recreate the mobile and shifting effects of what he saw. He was influenced by a French chemist called Michel-Eugène Chevreul who altered understanding and use of colour in the 19th C. When working as director of dyeing at a tapestry workshop near Paris, Chevreul realised that colours appear brighter or duller depending on the colours they are placed next to.

To show how colours affect and modify each other the created a colour wheel which shows the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) and various versions of secondary colours which are made by mixing two primaries. Chevreul’s theories underpinned the Impressionists’ use of colour in the late 19th Century.

Here Monet uses Chevreul’s discoveries. While colours that are close together on the wheel harmonise with each other when placed side by side in a painting, complementaries are energised and made visually demanding and vibrant through strategic pairing. In this scene orange-red boats and their reflections contrast with the bright green weeds. Likewise, the yellow highlights of the masts contrast with the complementary violet shadows. The Impressionists and many modern artists exploited the by-then-known visual impact of opposite colours, but painters had instinctively juxtaposed complementaries for centuries before the theory was made conscious. See for example the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo’s 1525 Deposition: his eye-catching high-key colour palette also (like Monet’s) pairs orange with green and yellow with violet.

Another way an artist can use colour is to create an illusion of space on a canvas. In real life distant objects appear progressively hazier, paler and bluer
and artists can apply this principle by using faint blues and greys to give depth to landscapes. This is how Raphael is able to house his figures in a convincingly reaching countryside in his 1511 Alba Madonna. We call this technique aerial or atmospheric perspective.



Aerial perspective also works to imply distance in a more confined spaced. Here French NeoImpressionist painter Paul Cézanne makes the fruit stand out by using warm colours that instantly catch the eye. Visually, he pushes the cloth and bowls in the background away by making them bluish, to accentuate their distance from the warm fruits in the foreground.

Colour can also be used to express or engender emotion. Expressions such as “feeling blue” and “seeing red” have come about because colour has an emotional effect independent of its subject matter. The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) was one of the most significant figures in the development of abstract art. He thought that artists should use form and colour to express emotion and arouse feelings in the viewer.

In Improvisation 19 from 1911, Kandinsky divides the composition so that the left side relates to wordly existence and the right to the spiritual. The right side is dominated by a “heavenly” and “restful” blue intended to awaken feelings of peace and spirituality. It is not just bright primaries and secondaries that create a mood; intermediary or tertiary colours such as brown mixed from primary and secondary colours also affect the viewer but have a more subtle effect.

The muted monochromatic palette limited to tones of brown, with contrast of black and white contributes to the stillness and serenity of this domestic scene from c.1900 by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi.

Quality of Light

Last time on Learning to Look we considered direction of light. Light is instrumental in contributing to the mood of a painting so as well as deciding what direction the light will come from, the artist also has to decide what kind of light it will be.

Painted light can be soft and gentle or harsh and sharp. It can cast a glare or glow. Like all aspects of looking at a work of art, light doesn’t work in isolation but blends with colour, style and technique to create an overall effect.

Dim lighting subdues a painting, narrowing the range of tones. In this Winter Landscape (c. 1811) by the German Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, there are neither highlights nor noticeable shadows.

In the foreground a crippled man sits against a rock with hands raised in prayer before a crucifix. He has discarded his crutches. Though snow and sky create soft sources of light, fog envelops the landscape and diffuses the light, leaving only subtle tonal variations from light to dark in the painting. The diffused lighting is an apt choice for a painting that explores the idea of hope for salvation through Christian faith. The scene is full of symbols, such as the rocks and evergreens as emblems of faith and the Gothic cathedral coming from the gloaming standing for the promise of life after death.

Coloured lighting creates a definite mood: it affects the painting as a whole just as a tinted filter suffuses a photograph. If the light is coloured, the shadows are too. In Pissarro’s picture of Apple Picking at Eragny-sur-Epte (1888) a sense of the midday sun fills the scene with golden light and creates a radiant and warm feeling.

Bright strong light creates sharp tonal contrasts with brilliant highlights and dark shadows and throws detail into sharper focus. This kind of lighting works best when it comes from an angled source to emphasise the play of opposite ends of the tonal range.

The Italian word chiaroscuro (meaning light-dark) is sometimes used to describe how artists distribute light and shade to depict form. In the Incredulity of St Thomas (1602-3) Caravaggio’s strong lighting creates dramatic tonal contrasts and focuses the eye on the most important part of the story, i.e. Thomas’s contact with Christ’s wounds. Caravaggio’s unflinching realism is heightened through the use of chiaroscuro.

Caravaggio has a sense of cinema about him in his use of light to orchestrate our looking at a scene. Another dramatic way to light a painting is to focus a beam of light on one area. As on a stage, this focusses your attention on the spot-lit section, which is thrown into dramatic relief by the surrounding deep shadow. This approach is used in this painting (1791) by Anne-Louis Girodet:


Here light symbolises the Roman moon goddess Diana and draws attention to the beautiful form and face of Endymion (with whom she fell in love and had 50 daughters…) sent to sleep for ever in return for perpetual youth.

Highlights are used by artists to suggest pinpricks of light. They can make a surface look shiny or show movements on water. Because highlights are the highest tones in a picture they catch the eye. In oil painting artists tend to work from dark to light and add highlights last.

Here is an Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618) and Velazquez has made a humble earthenware pot sparkle with just a dash of bright white paint.

Direction of Light

After a brief break we’re back and going to look at some lovely light this week. Like perspective (which we’ve looked at here on Learning to Look) light is a tool that painters can use to make a painting look realistic.

When looking at an artist’s use of light, the first point to consider is its source. The easiest way to figure this out is to look at the direction of the shadows and see where the highlights fall. Screwing up your eyes makes it more clear as to where the main areas of light and dark in a painting are.

Here’s the French painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) giving us unflinching front lighting. Lady Jane Grey was 16 years old and Queen of England for 9 days in 1553 until she was driven from the throne and sent to the Tower of London to be executed. A Protestant, she’d been crowned to keep Catholicism in check but the plan didn’t work and she was ousted by her half-sister Mary.

Delaroche illuminates the scene from the front, forcing our eyes to fix onto the foreground action. The shadows are cast backwards. The light comes in from the top centre (slight) left of the canvas, throwing Jane in her white dress into sharp relief. Poignantly the front lighting also catches the face of the Jane’s anguished lady-in-waiting who has slumped against a pillar in the middle ground. No wonder this work caused a sensation at the 1834 Paris Salon. Front lighting is used to similar dramatic and electrifying effect by the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman Hunt in this painting depicting A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Priest from the Persecution of the Druids (1850).

Side lighting is loved by painters of portraits and still-lives because it helps create an even balance of light and shade. Here the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) uses side lighting to show full tonal range on the girl’s face.

This helps define her face and therefore makes her look solid and real. Vermeer has the side light coming in at a slight angle to highlight the brilliant red hat. In this self-portrait painted at the age of 20, Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) sits himself in some super side lighting. The balance of light and shade across his face makes a meal of his unerring gaze out of the canvas. The side lighting also flags up Wilkie’s fashionable dress and the fact that he’s holding not the traditional tools of his trade (brushes, paints or charcoal) but rather a pen.

Backlighting can be put to brilliant use in landscape painting. If the artist makes the horizon line flare and glow he’s sure to deliver our eye into the distance. In this Seaport by Claude (1639) there is a sunny glow low over the horizon that casts long shadows reaching towards the viewer.


The small backlit figures look less distinct than if they’d been spotlighted but they do get a little spark of light to them. The German-American artist Emanuel Leutze (1816-68) takes the symbolic potential of backlighting to another level in his iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) which, at more than 12 feet tall and 21 feet wide is truly larger than life. Depicting Washington and his army crossing the icy river for a surprise dawn attack on the British at Trenton, New Jersey on December 25, 1776, Leutze uses every imaginable device to heighten the drama. Chief among these tricks is to set the heroic Washington against a blast of backlight, thereby emphasising and silhouetting his noble and erect posture right at the centre of the scene.


The Spanish Baroque painter Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627) is a master of our next light direction. His Still-Life with Dead Birds, Fruit and Vegetables (1602) reveals how effective three-quarter lighting (in this case coming from near the top left corner of the canvas) can be for indoor subject matter.

The shadows in this still-life point diagonally down to the right, casting the things into really sharp relief and thrusting them forwards into our space.

And lastly a bit of light from within. Sometimes a painting has no external light source since the light comes from inside the painted scene and radiates outwards. Here to show us how this is done is the Italian Renaissance painter Antonio Correggio (1489-1534).

In this Nativity scene from c. 1530 the light effect is helps us experience the birth as a moment of revelation just as the shepherd (in the foreground) does. The light radiating from the baby leads the eye out in all directions and is reflected in Mary’s face. This sort of inner light creates an intimate feel and is useful for religious scenes as the light is seen to emanate from a holy being.


I’ve been working on a course on British art for Year 10 at school and this painting has caught my eye for it’s fleshy, pushy viewpoint. British artist Jenny Saville (b. 1970) is best known for her large-scale nudes and “Branded” (1992) is among the most memorable. It’s a self-portrait showing the artist with scratched, scrawled words like ‘decorative’ and ‘support’ across her front.

This picture punches above its weight: she’s looking at us, daring us to judge, grabbing a fistful of flesh, not bowing down to body consciousness. In real life Saville is close to average size: she’s exaggerating to confront. Viewpoint here is key to creating a feeling of face-off with the viewer. Saville slants the perspective of the painting and adopts a low, close-up viewpoint. This makes us feel small and makes her look massive, rising above us, exposing everything, cropped at the hips and demanding our attention.

We’re looking at viewpoint this week, which is about how we relate to what we’re seeing. It’s natural to step up close to a detailed picture. You automatically stand further away from a large picture, to take it all in. You need some distance to let loose brushwork work its magic.

In the Renaissance most artists took a single viewpoint. They stood in one place and simply painted what they saw from that spot. Or what they imagined they saw. This is Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican Stanze in Rome.

When it comes to portraits, viewpoint (whether the painter is looking up or down at their sitter) really affects the psychological impact of the picture. Here’s Raphael again, this time painting his mega patron Pope Julius II.

The format that Raphael adopted here, with the subject sitting at close quarters, cropped at the knee, impacted subsequent papal portraiture. What’s interesting is that we are brought in level with the Pope: Julius was an impressive and forceful ruler, reasserting his power over the Papal States by military action, patronising the arts and ordering the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome. Despite all of this he’s not lording it over us now, he’s seated in a moment of introspection and our equal-footing viewpoint creates a surprising sense of intimacy.

By contrast, if the artist and therefore the viewer looks up, the subject appears powerful and dominant. Despite his youth, the young Italian nobleman in this painting by Jacopo Pontormo from c. 1528 looks haughty and imperious because the artist was looking up at him and therefore gave him the psychological advantage.

On the other hand, by looking down at himself and bringing his face right to the foreground, the Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner emphasises his frailty in his Self-portrait as an Invalid (1917-20).

Now it’s our turn to feel in a position of strength and the subject starts to look more vulnerable. Here the exaggerated perspective which makes the bedstead too large in relation to the window heightens the effect of our overseeing (controlling?) eye.

In landscape painting the horizon line equates to the painter’s eye level. If the artist wants lots of land, he/ she takes a mountain top viewpoint and looks down over lower ground. By contrast in Dutch Landscape with Skaters (17th century), Salomon van Ruysdael takes a low viewpoint that emphasises the expanse of the sky.

The Dutch made an absolute virtue of their flat country, creating a national tradition of landscape painting with lots of lovely low horizon lines. Ruysdael has added a building on the left which shunts in a sense of containment, but on the right it feels like our eye could follow the landscape endlessly.


In Rocks at l’Estaque (1879-82) Postimpressionist painter Paul Cézanne is up a little higher than his Dutch mate as he’s looking down at a lot of landscape.

Here though Cézanne has opened a can of worms because he’s started playing with multiple viewpoints: there is a sense of shifting viewpoint over these rocks, the feeling that we are seeing things from more than one angle simultaneously. By the 20th century, artists were deliberately breaking many rules around how to convey depth and reality and they’d started toying with the single consistent viewpoint too. Which leads us to the fractured forms of Cubism. We’ve started and finished with fleshy ladies.