“Still life” is what we call the kind of drawing or painting or even sculpture that depicts objects (not humans or animals) – usually arranged carefully in some way. Often they are of very ordinary, everyday things. Still life paintings allow us think about their purely visual or formal qualities – like their colour, their delicate tones, perhaps, or the light that falls on them.
Still life painting originally grew in popularity as some societies became wealthier and enjoyed greater material comforts. In 17th-century Holland, for example, still life painting began to flourish after the Spanish/Catholic control over Holland finally ended. The Protestantism that now prevailed, allowed for a much more worldly way of life. At about that time, fleets of Dutch ships began sailing to China and India, carrying traders and merchants looking for new goods to trade. They brought back beautiful things into Dutch households: silk cloths and delicate blue and white Chinese porcelain bowls – and helped make Holland very prosperous.
No longer just props in the background of a portrait, these highly valued objects themselves became the subjects of paintings. Dutch artists developed extraordinary skills in depicting the objects themselves and their beautiful textural details.
But these objects quickly became metaphors carrying other meanings for their audience, who would read sombre messages into them. Some objects often came to symbolise the briefness of life or the nearness of death: such as a skull, a candle blown out, a half-empty glass, a wilting flower. (These were called “memento mori”, or reminders of death.) Others – such as the lobster and the half-peeled lemon (an expensive fruit then) – stood for gluttony, riches, or greed.
Some more recent still life paintings
Many Dutch still lifes were brought by the early Dutch travellers who hung them in their new homes wherever they settled, including in the southern part of Africa. But South African painters were to eventually develop a very rich still life tradition of their own.
On this and the next few pages are still life paintings; look at them closely, and then discuss the questions on the next page.
Each artist approaches their subject matter in a very different way. Talk about these unique ways of seeing, and their very varied ways of using paint.
Talk About This
Look at all the still life paintings above. Just contemplate them quietly at first.
Discuss how each of the artists has chosen, and then arranged the objects. How have they arranged the colours? How have they placed different forms? How have they juxtaposed textures?
How have they used light and shadow (or tone)? How have they created and handled the spaces between objects?
Why do you think the artist in each case chose to paint those particular things? Are any of the objects visually surprising, intriguing or unusual? Are any of them inherently valuable or precious? Do any of them carry metaphorical or symbolic meaning? Are some of them ordinary, everyday things? Do you think the artists make everyday things seem special, out of the ordinary? If so, how? Do the artists seem to express a feeling about the objects? If so, what feeling?
In Gerard Sekoto’s painting, The Mine Boy, which was begun in 1946 and finished in 1947, we see the book titled “Mine Boy” by Peter Abrahams. This book tells the story of real life on the mines from the point of view of a mineworker. It was banned in South Africa six months after it was published in 1946 – the same year this painting was started.
Does this knowledge affect how we understand this painting? Or is it irrelevant to the way we see the painting?