The Simple Still Life

There really is no such thing as a simple still life. The set up can be simple yes, but the execution of the painting is an awesome event requiring as much intensity as any other form of painting. The still life was once considered the lowliest of genres mainly because they did not depict the human figure. Over the years this genre of painting has evolved into the many forms.

The earliest known still life paintings were created by the Egyptians in the 15th century. Paintings of food, crops, fish, and meats have been discovered in ancient burial sites. Ancient Greeks and Romans also painted pictures of inanimate objects. The form was represented in mosaics and frescoes. I was fortunate to see examples of beautiful still life paintings on the walls of homes in Pompeii, surviving the volcanic eruption.

‘Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases’ (63-79 AD) first century wall painting at Pompeii

A still life sometimes referred to in French as “nature morte“. The painting features inanimate objects as its subject matter. Frequently posed on a table and often include fruit, flowers, vegetables, glassware and textiles. The term “still life” comes from the Dutch word stilleven, which was very popular in the 16th century. During this time the still life was recognized as an elevated “genre”. Contemporary painters of still lifes encompass a wide variety of subject matter. It can be basically “anything that does not move or is dead ” according to the Tate Gallery.

There are many other examples of still life. Some of the most beautiful paintings were created in the 17th c. during the Golden Age of Dutch painting. This stunning painting can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. I am astounded every time I see it. It is amazing to me how much he says with such an understated palette of warm beige and tans and cool steely grays.

Willem Claesz Heda, Dutch, 1593/1594 – 1680, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635, oil on canvas,

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball (1628) – Pieter Claesz

Pieter Claesz, is another still life master during the Dutch Golden Age. He is noted for painting a very particular kind of still life called “vanitas“. The objects in a vanitas painting usually include symbols which suggest the inevitability of death and the transience of achievements and earthly pleasures. There is a moral message in these paintings which reminds the viewer to repent for their sins and love of worldly pleasures and that no one can escape death. These Vanitas still lifes were the only religious art approved of in Protestant Holland. The skull is an obvious reference to death. The overturned glass which is now empty alludes to the brevity of life and its pleasures. There is a pocket watch which is a reference to time. The violin situated in the center references pleasure. The glass ball which is fragile like a soap bubble which is another symbol of brevity seen in vanitas paintings. I love that we can see Claesz’ reflection in the glass ball.

Detail : little self-portrait showing Claesz at his easel

A beautiful example of the modern still life by the “Father of Modern Art “, Paul Cezanne illustrates another aspect of still life painting. Cézanne was intrigued by painting the same objects over and over again. This familiarity enabled him to develop a new way of capturing his visual sensations. He was not interested in reproducing what he saw as the Dutch painters did. “Cézanne himself stressed that he painted from nature and according to his sensations, seeking to realize a “harmony parallel to nature.”

Now that the weather is much colder and I am not able to get outside to paint I have decided to do a series of still lifes. The first few studies are somewhat “typical” in that a few items such as a piece of fruit are placed at eye level and painted almost directly.

“Three Red Onions” Oil on linen panel (8×10)

“Three Red Onions”. (8×10. oil on linen board

I enjoyed painting these red onions.I decided to give it another try using a slightly different set up. More time was spent on the “underpainting”. I often will use a “grisaille”. to address the drawing and compositional elements before rendering in full color. I especially was enamored by the delicate folds in the white cloth against the rich color of the onions.

The Underpainting is finished and time to add color
“Red Onions and Crock on a White Cloth”. oil on linen panel (10×12)

This next still life proved to be a real challenge. I have always enjoyed using a master painting as part of the still life in this case I chose to insert a book of Dutch & Flemish Seventeenth-century paintings. I had many books to choose from but once I saw this cover I felt the image would work nicely with the motif of the still life. there were many similarities in color and the form of the small stein and floral tablecloth complimented the image on the cover.

“Stein with Dutch Painting” (11×14). oil on linen board

I needed a little pick me up today to finish this painting I started several days ago. My new Rosemary brushes did the trick. They are really incredible. Hold the paint, pack a punch with a stroke and can “pull a line”. a phrase my husband Carl used to say all the time when we were house painting…. pull the line. It is enticing to order more brushes especially when they include chocolate!

“Crock and tomatoes with Vermeer book”.


  1. Really appreciated the background information about still life painting and the examples you chose. (So glad I got that degree in art history!) What I loved was your demonstration of the process you used in developing your painting “Stein with Dutch Painting.” Thanks for sharing your talent!


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