I’m just going to rip this band-aid off: I think still life paintings are boring. Always have. Even the genre name incites an image of somebody sadly throwing up their arms, disappointed in another day, and moaning, “Still. Life.” But these paintings of fruits and flowers can’t be ignored. All the greats have done a still life at some point, and I figured maybe I just didn’t know enough about them. My mom used to quote Lincoln at us all the time: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better!” So I thought maybe the same rang true for still lifes.
A while back somebody gave me some notecards with Van Gogh’s sunflowers on them. I still have them. I suppose I could send one out with my electrical bill or something- but they aren’t appropriate to send to a friend for any occasion at all. Despite the yellow, which is usually so cheery, VVG manages to make them sad:
|This was basically how I felt when it rained all day Monday.|
The yellow he used was a brand new pigment at the time, and to say Van Gogh was a fan is an understatement. He went nuts for the yellow! And his buddy Gaugin was nuts for the paintings. VVG gave him a couple as a gift (not on notecards), and Gaugin tried to claim another one as payment for some work he left with VVG. That ruffled some feathers, but they seemed to move past it eventually.
Here is another still life I sort of like. Not as much as his painting of John the Baptist’s beheading, but that just says more about me as a person than anything else. I give you, Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit:
At first I wasn’t exactly sure why I liked this better than other still lifes, but I’ve got it now. It’s the light background. Part of my problem with other still life paintings is that they’re often so dark I can hardly make out what’s what. Leave it to Caravaggio to do something cool with light. Also, in true Caravaggio fashion, his fruit is beginning to spoil. There is some conversation about whether he was just using whatever fruit was available, or intentionally used bad fruit. I set up camp in the latter group.
This next one gets a place on my list of good still lifes because there is so much to look at! For a still life, it is really entertaining.
|You might have to zoom in on this to get the full effect.|
For one thing, there aren’t any fruits or flowers! Already very different. Pieter Claesz was famous for his still lifes, or (here’s a new word for me) vanitas, still life paintings that include symbols of life and death. See? Interesting! He adds a twist to this vanita by capturing a self-portrait of himself at the easel. Look in the crystal ball- there’s Claesz! I love it when artists hide little surprises. I also appreciate that he lightened the whole painting up with the violin.
Tom Wessellmann was a more contemporary still life painter. Maybe I like his still lifes because they’re more relatable? Or because they’re brighter? Whatever the reason, I think all 3 million of them are a blast (just kidding about the 3 million number, but he did paint a lot of them.)
|Don’t you just want to sneak one of those Cokes right off the canvas?|
Okay, okay, I’m warming up to still life paintings a little bit! I may always prefer a portrait or landscape painting over a bowl of fruit, but it turns out many still lifes have a lot to offer! Agree? Disagree? Do you have a favorite still life painting?