Still Life or Nature Morte (dead nature) in French, is a tradition in which a group of objects are copied as realistically as possible. The objects used are inanimate, so that they wont run away or eat your art supplies. Usually still life drawings tend to be made up of fruit, flowers, dead animals and nice things like that. The point is, that the artist is able to arrange a number of objects and spend a nice amount of time studying them in order to render their picture as accurately and realistically as required. This way an artist can study fine details – light, shadow and all manner of things. This is all very well and good, but my question is, why fruit bowls?
Now before I continue I must admit – I hate fruit bowl art. My humble opinion is that it is very boring. So I want to know why so many people bother with it, and why I’m made to admire it in galleries. Obviously this is my own very personal opinion.
It turns out that still life – and specifically, still fruit, dates back all the way to ancient Egypt. Here, we can already start to answer to my question ‘why fruit’. These very basic images were drawn on walls and in tombs. These objects were drawn as offerings to the gods and would go with the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. These offerings, included jewellery, meat and of course, fruit. From what I can tell these pictures weren’t intended to look real, just to be generally recognizable. For more realistically rendered objects we can look to ancient Roman art. Many frescos have been uncovered in the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, both of which were destroyed very dramatically by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
If you are interested we can find a outstanding, historically accurate recount of the destruction of Pompeii in a Doctor Who Episode, appropriately titled The Fires of Pompeii.
The still life pictures found here boast far greater detail and lifelike shading than those of the Egyptian illustrations. The Romans were obviously experimenting with new ways to visualise the objects in front of them. The picture below was uncovered at Herculaneum and is the earliest example of a still life work which attempts to describe the three dimensional nature of the source materials.
As we can see from the example above (the peaches, not the Doctor), the artists of ancient Rome demonstrated a much deeper understanding of the objects, detailing the way they’re affected by light and by depicting them from different angles. Obviously, at this time Leonardo Da Vinci hadn’t shown us all how awesome linear perspective could be, and these paintings still look two dimensional in this manner.
I’m not sure exactly why they decided to draw fruit bowls in Herculaneum, but I think it was to do with the types of objects and foods that were available to the upper-classes. In this way, certain fruits may have been a sign of wealth, so fruit and other objects would have been an important part of society and thus, an interesting subject for painters.
After this, still life painting seems to have taken a backseat in Europe while painters focused much more on illustrating biblical scenes. Many still life ideas and motifs still existed (such as the accursed fruit bowl images) but they were put into larger images with wider contexts. The objects used also were selected for their spiritual or biblical connotations.
In the 1600’s still life took off again, especially in the Netherlands. Now I find this interesting, because this revival of still life showed a shift in the social consciousness of Flemish society from religious concerns to a more domestic way of thinking. Suddenly, as culture increased in Flemish society, people became more concerned with everyday life, which explains why seemingly mundane objects (fruit) became the subject of this art. These still life paintings still carried deeper meanings and ideas in them, but the religious content and symbolism was lowered to a more tolerable level.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?
This passage comes from Ecclesiastes Chapter One (verses 1 – 3); look it up in the King James Edition.
Basically, it’s saying that we all love stuff. But we can’t take stuff with us when we die, or as old Ecclesiastes puts it:
There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
Even though Vanitas art was very meaningful and slightly morbid, still life was still not considered as important as the religious art at the time. This was the case until a certain Paul Cézanne entered the scene. Cézanne (1839-1906) was a Frenchman and according to his website can be seen as the “bridge between late 19th century Impressionism and the early 20th century’s new line of artistic enquiry, Cubism.” Picasso once cited him as the father of modern art. So, pretty important really.
You can see his entire works on this website, and through them you’ll see that he’s a wonderful artist. There are biblical scenes, naked women, abductions, murders and more fruit than one can conceivably ingest. But why the fruit? It’s very pretty, but why? I can only presume he was following the legacy of still life before him, as well as simply using as a subject to perfect his art.
And there we have it. Still life continues on and unfortunately so does fruit bowl art. But with a little bit of background I can appreciate where all this fruit bowl stuff comes from, why it was important to certain people at certain times. I can also appreciate skill of course. I think Cézanne’s drawings are masterful and very beautiful, but I still find them dull in terms of content. Perhaps the problem for me is that I prefer art depicting living things. People, landscapes etc, things in motion.
Nature Vivante rather than Nature Morte.