Why Still Life?
Written by intern Alana Wolf
Pietro Paolini, Fruit and Flowers on a Ledge, 1620-30, oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 30 3/4 in., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund.
You probably already know that works of art depicting arrangements of inanimate objects fall collectively under the genre known as still life. A basket of fruit, a silver vase, a cluster of flowers—perhaps even a dead bird or two. So why is it called “still life” when the things that are represented seem anything but lively?
Although there are examples from ancient times of fruit and flowers being used in a decorative context, the genre of still life didn’t come into its own until the 17th century. In the Netherlands it was called stilleven, and in Germany it was called Stilleben—both terms that translate pretty much into our own “still life.” This designation makes at least a little sense: much of the composition of a still life uses objects that—at least at some point—were alive. But the artist has captured them. He or she has effectively frozen them in time and rendered them still.
Other countries had different ideas about what to name the genre. In France, for instance, the genre was known as vie coye, which in English means “silent life.” Now we’re getting somewhere, because if we go back to the German and Dutch words for “still,” what they’re referring to is a suspension not only of motion, but of sound. Of course, 17th-century paintings of fruit and flowers are not known for their ability to produce ear-shattering decibels. But take a few moments to stand in front of one, and you’ll begin to get a sense of just how “quiet” these images can be.
Meanwhile in Italy the genre was known as natura morta, a term that eventually caught on in France as nature morte. Although speakers of either of these languages would associate those phrases with still-life images, a literal translation into English would look like “nature” and “death.” You might think that goes a long way toward explaining why so many birds in these pieces look as if they won’t be making a winter migration anytime soon. Philosophers and poets, however, have long used the idea of death—both literally and metaphorically—as an intermediary point in time. Death is seen as an interruption of the senses before transitioning to the next phase of life. If we understand it in this way, we find ourselves circling once again back to that word “still.”
What are the ways you manage to stay centered and focused in the midst of the frenzy of everyday life? In the 17th and 18th centuries, artists such as Luis Egidio Meléndez believed their still-life works to be vehicles for deep contemplation. It’s possible to use still lives in the same way today. Silence—stillness—is frequently seen as a void to be filled with activity and noise, but we encourage you to visit Visual Feast and allow some of that stillness to seep into the cracks of your experience.
(1) The North Carolina Museum of Art has three works by Meléndez in its permanent collection, two of which can be seen along with other fine examples of still life paintings in the Governor and Mrs. Luther H. Hodges Gallery in the Museum’s West Building.