Life art is the depiction of humans, man and women, children and adults, any artwork that represents the human shape could be classified in the life art category.

In opposition, still-life represents just about everything else. Objects, landscapes or food depiction could be classified as still-life art. Still-lifes have long been mainly focused on every-day objects and food items, but as art evolved so did still-life.

However, the skills required to paint either life or still-life have proven with time to be very similar. The rendering of textures, contrast and shading, the use of natural light and shadow and the compositional drawing skills necessary to either compose a painting of a tabletop with a bowl of fruit are the same you would need to paint a nude model during life drawing classes.

Today still-life art can be done through most media such as drawing, painting, sculpting, photography or video and yourself are taking still-life photos every time you Snapchat a landscape or sunrise over the horizon.

This article will go back in time, slightly, to uncover the roots of modern still-life art and how we went from Impressionism to Surrealism and Pop Art.

The Premise of Modern Still Life: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

After the Dutch master painters made still-lifes a popular subject matter and a legitimate art form, still-life experienced a decrease in popularity.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the French Academy (Académie française), hugely influential art institution at that time,  had declared that the subject matter of a painting was more important than the painting techniques and colour harmony used.

The human form was considered the most important and difficult to depict and so still-life was put at the end of the Hierarchy of Subject Matter. It was not until the end of the 19th century that this point of view declined and the Impressionism movement emerged.

Danish still life impressionist painting.
Sunset on a day in January in Skagen was painted by Danish poet and dramatist Holger Drachmann and is exhibited in the Skagens Museum Denmark by (Jean Louis Maziere)

The movement originated in Paris during the 1860's, under the influence of one group composed of four young artists: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. They had all met while studying for the same master painter but decided to follow the earlier influence of painters such as J.M.W. Turner or Eugene Delacroix.

Their style put freely brushed colours before well-defined contours and line, emphasised the play on natural lights while boldly painting shadows and paying a close attention to the reflection of light and colours from object to object.

They also used the wet paint into wait paint technique, rather than waiting for the first layer of paint to dry, which resulted in softer contours and overlapping of colours.

While they did not invent any of the painting or drawing techniques that they used, they were the first to use all of them together, giving their work a unique and original look.

The Post-Impressionism movement, mainly led by Paul Cezanne, was an extension and continuation of the Impressionism movement but it rejected its limitations. Post-impressionist artists such as Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Gaughin, still used vivid colours, thick brush strokes and real-life subjects but accentuated the geometric forms, often distorting their subject to convey a message and using subjective colours.

It is from Post-Impressionism that cubism and fauvism, two other painting movement, emerged

Post-Impressionism painting by Pierre August Renoir.
"Still With Fruits" - This painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir, one of the leading figure of Post-Impressionism was painted in 1881. It is part of the permanent exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Still Life Art, When Everything Changed

After World War I, the Western world was on its knees. Europe had faced the horrors of a four years tench-war and soldiers who survived the atrocities of the conflict returned home, marked for life, and a constant reminder for the rest of the population that everything had changed.

In response to that, the Dada movement emerged as an anti-establishment, criticising the modern capitalistic society and rejecting the esthetic and logical approach that was dominant in the art world at the time.

Though the movement was short-lived, spanning from around 1915 to the mid-1920's when it slowly began to decline, the Dada movement was essential for the emergence of major art styles, Surrealism and Pop Art.

Surrealism And The Exploration Of The Unconscious

The Surrealist movement emerged from the Dada movement around the beginning of the 1920's. It was only officially created in 1924 when Andre Breton, leader of the movement and co-founder of the Surrealist magazine Littérature, published his Surrealist Manifesto in 1924.

Sharing the same contempt for logic and realism with the Dada movement, Surrealists artists were also influenced by the psychoanalytic work of Freud, Jung and Nietzsche. Their main aim was to enhance their creativity by unlocking their unconscious mind.

“Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”
― Salvador Dalí, Spanish artist

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Dali.
One of the most famous painting by Salvador Dali, the "Metamorphosis of Narcissus" was painted in 1937 in the purest of surrealist style. It is now part of the permanent exhibition of the Tate Modern in London. ( by profzucker)

As each artist heavily relied on their own dreams to find inspiration, it was common to observe recurring themes through their works. Salvador Dali often included ants and eggs in his paintings and Max Ernst shows a clear obsession with birds.

Surrealist artists such as Dali often used hyper-realism to depict objects in a very detailed manner and emphasised their three-dimensionality to submerge the viewers into the dream-like scenes they were facing.

Other techniques such as collage, doodlings, sketches or sculptures were also used but every Surrealist artwork shared a bizarre sometimes grotesque aspect meant to disturb and baffle the audience.

American And The Abstract Expressionism

On the verge of World War II, many artists belonging to the Surrealism movement decided to emigrate to the United States to survive the rule of Nazi Germany. The Surrealist movement being tied to the left political wing of European governments, most artists were left with no choice but to cross the Atlantic.

After WWII, Paris and France being in ruin, the artistic capital title was transferred to New York. Even though the US had largely contributed to the Allies victory in 1945, American territories had suffered almost no damage.

“I try to apply colours like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music. ”
― Joan Miró, Spanish painter, sculptor, and ceramicist

The Abstract Expressionism movement was the first American artistic movement to achieve worldwide recognition.

New York City art world, under the influence of European art teachers such as Hans Hoffman and John D. Graham, combined elements of Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism and saw the emergence of soon-to-be-world-famous artists such as Jackson Pollock or Lee Krasner.

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The Pop Art Movement

With the advance of technology and the advent of the Abstract art movement, still-life artwork followed many parallel roads.

In the early 1950's the proto-Pop Art movement, followed soon after by the Pop Art movement would redefine the meaning of still life art.

Artists such as Andy Warhol, used prints on canvass as a media stuck between painting and photography.

His 32 Campbell's Soup Cans is probably the most famous still-life masterpiece of the modern era. With this work, Warhol linked both classic techniques such as painting and drawing, with advanced processes.

Each of the 32 Soup Can's outline was first drawn on the canvas using a projector, then the can and label were hand painted, and the lettering was also projected before being painted, and finally, the fleur-de-lys logo was stamped using a recycled rubber eraser.

At the time he first displayed this series, in a one-man exhibition in Los Angeles, it caused great controversies, some critics questioning Warhol's artistic motive and denying that his work had any real value as art.

Today his art is recognised as some great examples of Pop Art and are amongst the most expensive Pop Art masterpieces. One of his Small Torn Campbell Soup Can sold for  $11,776,000 in 2006 and was the highest price of any of the Campbell Soup Series.

Still Life artwork by Andy Warhol.
the 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, was produced in 1962 by Andy Warhol. It consists of thirty-two canvases, each measuring 51 cm in height × 41 cm in width and each consisting of a painting of a Campbell's Soup can—one of each of the canned soup varieties the company offered at the time.

“I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether in friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.”
― Mark Rothko, American painter 

Some contemporary artist took still-life art one step further in exhibiting massive artwork installations. Such a setup was created by epic feminist artist Judy Chicago in 1979. Titled The Dinner Partythe masterpiece consisted of a triangular table of nearly 15 meters on each side. Each side was laid down with 13  settings and each set included on the table, a hand-painted china plate, ceramic flatware and a chalice along with a golden embroidered napkin.

This massive installation, which took more than six years and a quarter million dollars to complete was made to honour women of importance throughout history. Each seat was dedicated to a different woman, her name embroidered into the tablecloth. Each side of the table corresponded to a different period of history.

Still-life art had long been only represented through two-dimensional artwork, paintings, drawings or photography. Such visually impactful, three-dimensional installation allowed to immerse the viewer into the still-life art piece and bring a much more reflective approach than classical still-life drawing.

A contemporary art installation by feminist artist Judy Chicago.
The Dinner Party art installation by Judy Chicago is widely regarded as the first epic feminist artwork, it functions as a symbolic history of women in Western civilisation. It is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Today almost everyone possesses a smartphone and food photography is all over Instagram but what most people do not realise is that every juicy burger they photograph and all the latte art shots they post on social media, add another picture to the still life images stock of our shared online culture.

If you wish to learn more, read our previous article about the History of still-life.

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