Still Life

I can’t say I’ve ever spent a lot of time thinking about the term still life. I do know that at least once I had thought about the incongruity of the term though.

When you think about it, most still-life paintings contain very little life. Sure, they’re as still as can be, no arguing that, but life? Most contain inanimate objects. Some fruit perhaps, or flowers, as in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers for example, which are at least natural, but hardly full of life. If animals are featured in a still life, they’re generally dead: some pheasants perhaps, waiting to be plucked and cooked. But if one were to paint living animals, that would generally be considered to be animal art.

But like I said, not something I’d ever really thought much about. Maybe just once it occurred to me in some gallery, and I dwelt on it for a minute or two. The thought did return to me recently though, when I noticed in an Italian gallery the term natura morta (literally dead nature), meaning still life. Ah, I thought, that makes more sense! And I thought about still life again, and why the two languages would use such different terms.

After some cursory reading, I think it’s all due to conflicting tastes and trends in art in the past. Still life in English comes from the Dutch stilleven, (still life), as the genre came to prominence in the Low Countries in the 16th century. While the genre did spread from there, it never took off to the same extent in Southern Europe. And this might be why Romance languages use terms meaning dead nature: not necessarily a derogatory term, but certainly more prosaic and objective.

Not of course, that the term still life is completely inappropriate. What is life, after all? There’s no life in a still-life painting in the sense that there are no living things, sure (except flowers though, technically!) But most feature objects from everyday life, and were often intended to have some kind of comment on life somehow. So if you think of life in terms of life in general, and not strictly biological life, then it makes a lot more sense.

2 thoughts on “Still Life

  1. I’ve always assumed ‘still life’ referred to painting a subject that is ‘still’ (as in staged and not able to move) from ‘life’ (as in painting what is actually set out in front of you in real life rather than from memory or from photographs or sketches, etc.)… I’ve never actually associated it with the subject not being alive – but now that I think about it, it is an odd term! 🙂

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