Research: Thinking about still lifes

Juan Sánchez Cotán, 1560–1627

Juan Sanchez Cotan, Quince, Cabbage, Melson and Cucumber

ca. 1602

Size: 27 1/8 in. x 33 1/4 in. (68.9 cm x 84.5 cm)

Gift of Anne R. and Amy Putnam, 1945:43

Oil on canvas

Still-life painting was virtually nonexistent in European art before the 1590s, and Sánchez Cotán is considered not only among the first practitioners of the genre, but also arguably the greatest. This work, moreover, is universally acclaimed as his masterpiece.

Brilliantly executed, the painting is unflinching in its naturalism and simplicity. The mysterious serenity of the composition, in which the objects are positioned in a perfect curve against the deep black background, has led many to question the meaning or function of the image. For some, the work is an exercise in pure painting, the straightforward depiction of vegetables in a cold cellar. Others, however, believe that the picture may have religious overtones, and that it should be understood as a celebration of God’s most humble creations. In support of the latter reading, it is often noted that Sánchez Cotán gave up his possessions and entered a Carthusian monastery soon after painting this canvas.


Michiel SimonsSimons, Michiel, 17th century

Still Life with Fruit, a Lobster and Game, ate 17th century, oil

On a stone table, partially draped with a dark cloth, stands a roemer filled with white wine and a large porcelain bowl filled with peaches, apricots, pears and grapes whose long vines arch over the glass. In front of the glass, a pewter plate holds almonds and a partially peeled lemon whose curling rind unfurls over the table ledge, while on the table itself are a lobster (crayfish?), a loaf of bread, red grapes, a pomegranate, more peaches, plums and pears and five little birds. Michiel Simons is documented in Utrecht in 1669 and 1671 and died there 1673. Dated still lifes by his hand range from 1648-1657 although his recorded production is rare. In addition to fruit and flowers he pained game still lifes. Despite a certain Antwerp influence, Utrecht appears to dominate, particularly the influence of Ambrosius Bosschaert in the case of his fruit and flower paintings. 231-1879 is compositionally indebted to Jan Heem while the palette recalls work by still life specialists in Utrecht such as Bosscahert. The roemer with white wine and the peeled lemon are common props in Dutch still life, and they are entirely natural companions, since in the seventeenth century it was customary to season wine with lemon. These two objects offered painters a wonderful opportunity to showcase their ability to render disparate surfaces, they would juxtapose the transparent, reflective glass and the delicate colour of the drink with the coarse and shiny skin of the citrus fruit and its glassy interior. Similarly, this artist has carefully described how flecks of light fall on the blackberry knops on the stem of the glass. The birds on the far right should be considered within the tradition of ‘game pieces’ representing animals, either dead or alive, the hunting of which was the privilege of the highest-ranking members of society. While southern artists would often represent the larger game animals hunted in the enormous woodlands in the south, northern artists would often depict the smaller game animals who lived in the dunes and marshes of the Netherlands, including the many species of bird who passed through along their migratory route.

Benjamin Blake

Blake, Benjamin, 1823

Still Life 1823

Historical Significance: This painting, in which is depicted a variety of dead game and a cabbage, reflects Blake’s contact with the Dutch still life genre, which he is known to have successfully copied as part of his career. Still life, although already present in Classical art, reached the peak of its popularity in the seventeenth-century, most specifically in the Netherlands. The term, derived from the Dutch ‘stilleven’, conventionally refers to the depiction of an arrangement of inanimate objects, including fruit, flowers, musical instruments and artefacts. Often infused with symbolic meaning, working as memento mori or vanitas, reminders of human mortality, later still life paintings also come to reflect the growing wealth and prosperity of cities such as Amsterdam and Haarlem. Frans Snyders’ (1579-1657) market and kitchen scenes, into which are built elaborate still life motifs, with an abundance of dead game and fish, exemplifies this new-found affluence and the development of still life featuring food in Flanders and the Netherlands. Already popular within the new bourgeois market of its day, Dutch master paintings were still greatly sought after in the nineteenth-century; a market to which Blake catered for in his copying of old Dutch paintings, which no doubt greatly influenced his depiction of still life in this painting in the V&A collection.

Blake’s depiction of domestic interiors, with a window from which light is seen to filter though and tables onto which are displayed a variety of dead game and vegetables, is a recurrent motif which he also makes use of in his Still life of game in an outhouse (sold at Christie’s, London, 8th June 1995) and Cottage Interior with game (sold at Bonhams & Brooks Knightsbridge, 1st Nov 2001). Although, unlike his Interior with figures and still life (P.6-1910), also in the V&A collection, the present painting does not depict figures, his rendition of a rustic interior reflects the renewed interest in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries of depictions of low-life, as a peaceful, if not idealized, vision of rural existence, harkening back to the tradition of Dutch genre painting of the seventeenth-century.

Juan Gris (1887–1927)


Still Life with Checked Tablecloth, 1915.

Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/8 in. (116.5 x 89.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, Purchase, Leonard A. Lauder Gift, 2014 (2014.463)

In the midst of wartime chaos and personal uncertainty, Gris created an orderly, measured space. We can identify coffee cups, wineglasses, a bottle of ale and one of Beaujolais, a compote of fruit, and the shadowy outlines of a guitar. Our identifications are confirmed by the historic descriptive title. The objects are arranged in an unusual triangular form. But why? Take another look. Seen from a different perspective, that mass of café clutter comes together to represent a bull’s head. The coffee cup at lower center doubles as the animal’s snout, a black-and-white concentric circle at left is a “bull’s eye,” the bottle of ale is an ear, and the sinuous edge of the guitar a horn. In finding the bull, we share a brief bond with the artist. We recognize his humor, his wink of approval, and realize that he has laid bare a universal truth, namely that things are rarely what they first seem.

Rebecca Rabinow

Gris, Violin and Playing Cards, 1913

Violin and Playing Cards, 1913
Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887–1927)
Oil on canvas; 39 3/8 x 25 3/4 in. (100 x 65.4 cm)
Bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn, 1995 (1996.403.14)

Although the painting is neither signed nor dated, stylistically it belongs to the group of still lifes Gris composed while in Céret, a small town in the Pyrenees, from August to October 1913. It was a most productive period for the artist. By then he had developed a colorful Cubist style of broad, angular, overlapping planes, a style that within a year would evolve into a fully formed Synthetic Cubism, influenced by Picasso’s and Braque’s papiers collées.

On the simulated wood-grain table rest three playing cards—heart, diamond, and club—a violin, and the newspaper Le Journal. The violin is indicated by different shaded passages of wood-graining, as also by the instrument’s purple, green, and black “shadows.” Black, sky blue, and purple angular planes enrich the composition, which is set against a deep rust-red diamond-patterned background emulating the wallpaper


Picasso, Bottle..Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table, 1912
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Charcoal, ink, cut and pasted newspaper, and graphite on paper; 24 5/8 x 18 3/4 in. (62.5 x 47.6 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949 (49.70.33)

Following Picasso’s first U.S. exhibition, at gallery 291 in 1911, his work was once again shown at that gallery in the winter of 1914–15 in a joint exhibition with fellow Cubist Georges Braque. Considering this collage to be one of Picasso’s best to represent the “complete ‘abstraction’ of the modern movement,” Alfred Stieglitz purchased this work from the show for his personal collection. The image is one for which Picasso did a number of variations in Paris during the autumn–winter of 1912; in each version, a tall bottle and goblet are set out on a small round table. Here, the still-life objects are outlined without any pretense at three-dimensional form, and depicted from various angles so that head-on and aerial views are presented simultaneously. The full silhouette of the goblet (glass, stem, and foot), for instance, is clearly outlined at center right, but so too is its circular rim, which could only have been seen from above. Like Man with a Hat Holding a Violin (1999.363.64), another collage of the same year, this composition includes a clipping from the Parisian newspaper Le Journal of December 3, 1912 (placed along the side of the bottle). The article’s headline, which reads “M. Millerand, Ministre de la guerre, fletrit l’antimilitarisme” (Mr. Millerand, Minister of War, denounces antimilitarism”), seems to indicate Picasso’s awareness of the gathering tensions leading to World War I. However, rather than directly addressing these concerns through a military subject, he subtly contrasts the political reality of the times against the carefree bohemian lifestyle of Parisian cafés. Picasso’s use of collaged newspaper also sets up a dichotomy between his artistic interpretation of objective reality and reality itself, making the lines between art and life even more ambiguous.

Giorgio Morandi

Giorgio Morandi, 1916

Still Life, 1916


Braque, The Bowl of Grapes (Le compotier de raisin)

The Bowl of Grapes (Le compotier de raisin) 1926

After his return from military service in 1917 Georges Braque, working independently of Pablo Picasso, developed the subjects and style of his prewar period. His use of collage in the 1910s provided formal innovations in paintings of the twenties. In still lifes such as the present example, he constructed objects with broad, frontal planes that remain discrete and are often vividly colored or decoratively patterned.

In subject matter, The Bowl of Grapes belongs to Braque’s gueridon (round pedestal table) and mantelpiece series of about 1918 to 1929. It displays a rigorous and complex organization of shape and line combined with the sensuous appeal of rich color (three greens contrasted with chalky white and tan) and a masterful handling of paint. The structuring grid is softened by broad curves and clusters of circular forms, and in peripheral areas enriched by the textural variation provided by the addition of sand to pigment.

Formal rather than illusionistic needs govern the treatment of objects. The white drapery does not cascade down from the tabletop in foreshortened, shadowed folds, but rigidly asserts itself parallel to the picture plane. The distinction between lit and shadowed sides of the pitcher is artificially sharp. Reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s still lifes are the heavy contours and voluminous presence of the objects, the tilted planes, inconsistent perspective, and discontinuous background lines.

Lucy Flint


Still Life with Cezanne, Apples and a Pot of Primroses

Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, ca. 1890
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906)
Oil on canvas; 28 3/4 x 36 3/8 in. (73 x 92.4 cm)
Bequest of Sam A. Lewisohn, 1951 (51.112.1)

Cézanne rarely painted flowering plants or fresh-cut bouquets, which were susceptible to wilting; purportedly, he preferred artificial flowers that could withstand his protracted painting sessions. All told, he included potted plants in only three still lifes, two views of the conservatory at Jas de Bouffan, and about a dozen exquisite watercolors made over the course of two decades (from about 1878 to 1906). Cézanne seems to have reserved this particular table, with its scalloped apron and distinctive bowed legs, for three of his finest still lifes of the 1890s.

This view of Chinese primroses was once owned by the ardent gardener Claude Monet.

Cezanne, Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples

Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples, ca. 1877
Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906)
Oil on canvas; 23 7/8 x 29 in. (60.6 x 73.7 cm)
H.O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H.O. Havemeyer, 1929 (29.100.66)

The still-life genre was central to Cézanne’s art in the 1870s. The distinctive patterned wallpaper in this work marks a departure from the artist’s typical neutral backgrounds, and the V shapes of the wallpaper’s design are mirrored in the white cloth napkin draped over the edge of the chest. The napkin has been interpreted as an inverted reference to Mont Sainte-Victoire, one of Cézanne’s favorite landscape motifs, with the mountain’s ridges and valleys evoked by the deep folds in the cloth. Such formal analogies reveal the deliberate structure underlying his still-life compositions, which he often used for formal and technical experimentation. Cézanne’s application of paint in discrete touches possibly reflects his assimilation of the Impressionist technique.

Van Gogh

Oleanders, 1988, Vincent Van Gogh

Oleanders, 1888
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890)
Oil on canvas

23 3/4 x 29 in. (60.3 x 73.7 cm)
Inscribed: (on cover of book) EMILE ZOLA / LA joie de / VIVRE; (on spine of book) Lajoie de / vivre / Emile / Zola
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John L. Loeb, 1962 (62.24)

For Van Gogh, oleanders were joyous, life-affirming flowers that bloomed “inexhaustibly” and were always “putting out strong new shoots.” In this painting of August 1888 the flowers fill a majolica jug that the artist used for other still lifes made in Arles. They are symbolically juxtaposed with Émile Zola’s La joie de vivre, a novel that Van Gogh had placed in contrast to an open Bible in a Nuenen still life of 1885.

…On a side note Oleanders are about life.

Tom Wesselmann 

Wesselmann, Still life 30, 1963

Still Life #30 1963
(American, 1931–2004)

Oil, enamel and synthetic polymer paint on composition board with collage of printed advertisements, plastic flowers, refrigerator door, plastic replicas of 7-up bottles, glazed and framed color reproduction, and stamped metal, 48 1/2 x 66 x 4″ (122 x 167.5 x 10 cm)

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 2.39.00 PM

The predominance of pink in this work might be a reference to the kitchen as a stereotypically feminine space. At the time this work was made, American women were traditionally viewed as mothers and wives, and domestic spaces their primary domain.

Still Life #30 is a modern take on traditional still life painting, a genre that often featured tables laden with fresh food. However, in Wesselmann’s post-World War II American kitchen, the table overflows with images of both fresh and processed foods–Rice Krispies and Dole Hawaiian pineapple, for example–which the artist culled from supermarket advertisements, posters, and billboards.

In this and other paintings in the Still Life series, Wesselmann makes reference to great modern painters. The yellow, red, and blue panels evoke the primary colors and geometric forms of early abstract paintings.

Through the window, we see the distant vista of New York City, suggesting that this home is at the outskirts of the bustling metropolis.

Wesselmann included fake plastic flowers that appear to grow from a pot on the windowsill. The artist once said, “One thing I like about collage is that you can use anything, which gives you that kind of variety; it sets up reverberations in a picture from one kind of reality to another.”

Wesselmann’s collage combines art with popular culture. Hanging above the refrigerator and alongside bottles of 7Up is a framed reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s Seated Woman (1927), a painting in MoMA’s collection. What connections might Wesselmann be making between Picasso’s painting and the brand name products?

Gabriel Sierra

Gabriel Sierra, Hang it All, 2006, Guggenheim

Hang It All 2006
b. 1975, San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolivar, Colombia


Alluding to Charles and Ray Eames’s Hang-It-All coatrack (1953), an iconic work of design distinguished by an arrangement of colorful spheres that echoes models of molecular structures, Gabriel Sierra has stuck various pieces of fruit onto the prongs of a wall-mounted coatrack, thus replacing perfect geometric form with irregular organic matter. The result is a functionless object that references an inventive do-it-yourself culture in which salvaging and repurposing are commonplace.

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