What is a still life The History of Still Life | allsaxmusic

Still life painting and drawing are art genres dedicated to the representation of inanimate objects.

Still life has been a popular art subject since the early days of oil painting in the 14th century, with Dutch painters particularly known for their skillful interpretation of objects in a scene.

The genre is also considered one of the most accessible forms of painting, due to its flexibility and lack of models or expensive props.

What is a still life?

A still life is a painting or other visual representation of inanimate objects, such as food, flowers, or household items, in a staged setting.

The objects are often displayed in a still life setting, with an emphasis on the arrangement, color, texture and lighting of the items. Painting, sketching, photography, and sculpture are all valid methods for executing a still life.

The beauty and peacefulness of everyday objects, the fleeting nature of existence, and the finality of death are just some of the themes and emotions that can be explored through realistic or abstract depictions of these concepts.

For generations, still lifes have been a source of inspiration and intrigue for visual artists and viewers. They provide artists with a way to experiment with composition, color, texture and lighting to produce works of aesthetic or symbolic significance.

The history of still life art

The history of still life art goes all the way back to ancient times and is quite extensive. Still lifes were often used to show food, drink and other items that the deceased would need in the afterlife in ancient Egyptian tomb paintings.

It is worth noting that still lifes of food, wine and other household things were common in ancient Greek and Roman art. In medieval religious art, still lifes often include items with ties to saints or biblical situations.

A still life can be composed of religious symbols such as a book, cross and candle. But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that still lifes were recognized as their own subgenre of art.

Still lifes were incorporated into artwork by Italian artists such as Giorgio Vasari and Caravaggio to increase the realism and depth of their compositions.

Throughout Northern Europe, Flemish artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens became known for their intricate still lifes of flowers, fruit and other products. Still lifes flourished in the Netherlands throughout the 17th century, when they were used to celebrate the country’s growing wealth.

Artistic prowess was often displayed in Dutch still lifes by arranging expensive objects such as silverware, glassware, and exotic fruits and flowers in elaborate compositions. Still life art developed and adapted to new trends and styles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Some of the most influential painters in art history have used still lifes as a starting point for their works; this includes impressionists such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as well as modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. This is especially true for contemporary artists, who continue to paint, draw, photograph, sculpt and create digital artworks based on still lifes.

Why is it called a still life?

The Dutch word « stilleven », which means « still life » in English, is where we get the term « still life ». The Dutch coined the word in the 17th century to denote still life images of inanimate things on a table or other flat surfaces.

The term « still life » is used to describe artworks in which the subjects are not moving, while the term « still life » is used to describe artworks in which the subjects are drawn or painted in a way that suggests they once lived or had some symbolic meaning.

In the 17th century, the popularity of still lifes as a subject for artists grew. Artists could experiment with form, color, texture and light to produce works of symbolic or aesthetic significance. The concept of death and the transience of life is said to be reflected in still life paintings, hence the symbolic meaning of the term.

Last but not least, the practice of creating a still life is often compared to meditation. It is quite relaxing and calm for artists as they can take their time for each work.

What are the different types of still lifes?

Still lifes can take many different forms, including portraits, floral scenes, and more abstract compositions. These are the different types of still lifes:

Portrait still lifes

A portrait still life is a type of painting or drawing that focuses on a person and captures their likeness to objects arranged around them. These works can often be found in galleries and museums, although they can also be commissioned for private individuals.

Flower still lifes

These are works of art that focus on flowers and other elements of nature, such as plants, leaves and branches. Most flower still lifes are traditionally composed with the object in the center of the frame, but artists can also be creative with their compositions to create something unique.

Abstract still lifes

Abstract still life art is a form of expressionism that takes the traditional elements of still life and imaginatively distorts them. The goal is to create a composition that challenges viewers to look at the artwork from different angles, engaging their imagination and interpretation.

Photorealistic still lifes

This type of still life is an incredibly detailed piece of art that captures the realistic look of everyday objects.

Vanity still lifes

Known as vanitas, this style gained popularity in the early modern period and is easily identified by its inclusion of morbid imagery, such as skulls, hourglasses, and withered flowers.

Pop art still lifes

Pop art still life is a type of art that depicts everyday objects such as food packaging, billboards, and household items in a vibrant and eye-catching arrangement. Consumerism and mass-produced goods are the subjects of this style.

Surreal still lifes

It is common for surreal still lifes to feature impossible or improbable arrangements of objects. The aim is to instill a sense of mystery and explore the inner workings of the mind.

Sculptural still lifes

Sculptural still lifes are works of art that incorporate sculpted objects into a composition. These sculptures can range from life-sized figures to miniature pieces, and artists may also use different materials, such as clay, metal, or wood.

Still lifes with inanimate objects

Still lifes with inanimate objects are works of art that focus on items that do not move, such as cups, vases, bottles, and other items. These pieces can be arranged in an interesting way to create an aesthetically pleasing composition.

Architectural still lifes

These are still lifes that capture the beauty of architecture. These can be images of buildings, bridges, monuments or other structures from around the world.


Artists have used still lifes for generations to delve into complex ideas and feelings. Artists can create important and aesthetically pleasing works of art by focusing on the shape, color, texture, and lighting of inanimate objects.

Still lifes can be used to express joy at the richness of life, sadness at its fleeting nature, or any number of other emotions and symbolic connotations. Artists can play with composition, color and form to create works that are visually beautiful and intellectually appealing.

Ultimately, still lifes show how an artist’s perspective can transform even the most mundane objects into something beautiful and inspiring.

By Liam