It has been a busy week and the posts have suffered a little but things should be picking up soon. In the mean time I’ve been thinking about still life painting.
My own personal attitude about still life has changed quite dramatically. At one point I think I had the same view as a lot of people that still life was just some stuff on a table. Now I’ve come to look at it as more than just a recording of what was in front of you but as a way to explore themes, styles, and meanings of life.
This still life is from the golden age of Spanish still life painting and is done in the Bodegon style. It comes from the Spanish word bodega, meaning tavern, because the subjects are usually objects that could be found in a kitchen or tavern such as fruit and vegetables, board games and dressed animals. Melendez actually didn’t want to explore great themes but concentrated on using ordinary things to make beautiful compositions. He was also a forerunner to Realism a painting movement that was controversial since it painted things and people as they were, and didn’t cover up or hide the faults of the world.
About a hundred years before Melendez the Dutch artists had a thriving still life market. Still lifes were painted for several reasons, one of which was as a kind of advertisement of skill so that people would know that they could paint different textures and lighting conditions well. They also were glorying in the success of the newly wealthy middle class who had become the main art buyers of the time since it was a largely Protestant area and the Catholic church was no longer the chief patron of art. But most also had a moral comment on life to remember that even with all of life’s pleasures, downfall was always present and death came for everyone. The theme was called Vanitas, coming from the word vanity as a reminder against becoming or being conceited, and was often represented by a skull, broken glass, or a peeled lemon since even something that looks sweet can be bitter.
Still lifes were also done simply to show off interesting objects, or to show exotic objects that only the wealthy could afford. But often by painting the objects the artist created another object more valuable than the original objects themselves.
Current still life painting seems to run the gamut from paintings with meaning to simply liking the way the object looks. This painting by Christopher Thornock seems to combine the ideas of painting an object he finds interesting but also as a means to explore lighting, composition, and paint handling.
As a whole, I think that still life painting is a good measuring stick of the art of its time. Right now I believe that the state of painting is approaching a period where all styles and themes will coexist and people will champion different camps, but that there will never again be a universal or semi-universal standard. And I believe that still life painting will still be there quietly acting as a reflection and anchor of our many paths.