Still Life Essay

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History


Still Life with Flowers, a Snail, and Insects


Vanitas Still Life


A Vase with Flowers


Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill


Still Life with a Nautilus, Panther Shell, and Chip-Wood Box


Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza, and Glassware


Still Life


Still Life with Lobster and Fruit


A Partridge and Small Game Birds


Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl


A Bouquet of Flowers in a Crystal Vase


Still Life: A Banqueting Scene


A Basket of Flowers




Gamepiece with a Dead Heron ("Falconer's Bag")


A Vase of Flowers


© 2000–2018 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What is this painting about? Well, let's take a closer look. There are four objects in the painting: a toy duck, a candy in a clear plastic wrapper, a Tootsie Pop, and a shiny marble. What do they have in common? Well, the most obvious shared trait, also echoed in the title of the piece, are the predominating colors of yellow and orange. These are a variety of different objects that all share a similar color scheme, so they work well together visually.

Is that all they have in common? Let's examine their function - what are they used for in everyday life? Two pieces of candy and two toys... Hmm, these objects signify childlike fun! The candies give great pleasure, and the toys bring great joy... when they are used, that is. In this painting, they are a collection of objects sitting still against a stark white background. They symbolize the potential for future fun, as well as conjure up memories of past fun. In the present, they are just simply there. Simply being.

And what about that stark white background... what does it mean? Well, ask yourself: what does the white background cause my eyes and mind to do? Basically, the white background forces you to focus your direct attention on the objects. They are almost, but not quite, floating in space - they still have subtle shadows, which define their place in space. In my view, the white background helps these items become more iconic. That is, they represent stereotypical emblems of childhood. They are timeless and unattached to a specific location. They could be anywhere. They could even be drifting in the white cloud of your imagination.

This is one way of interpreting the painting. There is more that I could say about it, but for now, this will suffice. Remember that this is just one interpretation though. You could say that it is the interpretation; that since I am the artist, my word is the final word, case closed. Not true, however. Art is meant to be shared. It is a form of communication, and as such, the story doesn't end when the brush leaves the canvas. It is only just beginning.

When a viewer looks at a work of art, they are bringing with them all of their life experiences, all of their unique memories, all of their knowledge and understanding of the universe thus far. Their mind interacts with the artwork as their eyes travel over the piece. What I experience when I look at a certain artwork will not be exactly the same as what someone else experiences when looking at the same piece. Therefore, what I create will not always be interpreted by others in the same way as I intended. There is always a mysterious gap between intention and interpretation, and such is the beauty of communication.

Read More

Learn why artist Giorgio Morandi is Italy's most famous 20th century still life painter! See Giorgio Morandi still life paintings, whose timeless quality captivates art enthusiasts. 

Learn how to paint flowers with amazing classical realist artist, Delmus Phelps! Read an in-depth interview and view his breathtaking flower paintings of roses, daffodils, magnolias and more.

If you want to learn how to paint realistic still lifes in oils in the style of the Classical Realists (like the one on the left), check out this review of Delmus' ebook on how to oil paint.

Ready to draw your own still life? Check out this photorealistic art lesson and learn how to draw a marble in colored pencil!

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