Still-Lifes TodayOf all the traditional art subjects down through the ages the one seemingly most "forgotten" today is the still life. Landscapes today survive and flourish. Portraits will never die out. Paintings of wildlife and pets are probably more popular than ever before. Even abstraction has its niche in the hearts of artists and the art market. It would seem logical that in the "material world" of today there would be an abundant interest among artists in painting "things" and a similar market for such work. Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case. Traditional still-lifes (at least those painted today) are, without a doubt, the most difficult type paintings of all to sell. Strangely, there is a market for car paintings or boat paintings and even motorcycle paintings, but while these are, in fact, still-lifes (albeit on a grand scale), I have to class them more as portraits than still-lifes because they are usually of specific "things" and commissioned by the buyer much like portraits.
I suppose there are reasons for this "death" of still-lifes. For one thing, there is a stench of amateurishness about the hackneyed bowl of fruit with bouquet of flowers, or violin with associated musical paraphernalia that seems to attract the beginning painter. Even under the best of circumstances, once the painting is finished, the items just "lie there"...perhaps more like a "still-death" than a still life. Yet those artists who try to breathe renewed "life" into the still-life by painting modern, non-traditional subjects in a non-traditional manner find their work merely objects of curiosity, no matter how realistically they paint and how striking the finished work may be.
At their peak in the trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) still life period of the late 1800s and very early 1900s, the works of artists like Frederick Peto and William Harnett were immensely popular. During this, the Victorian era, there was something of a competitive quality that marked these still-life halcyon days. Artists played lively games with their viewers, trying to trick them into believing, for at least a moment, that their still-lifes were the "real thing" and trying to spark feelings of awe at their skill with the painted image. Today all this is barely moment remembered in art history. What has changed? The camera? The level of viewing sophistication of the public? The public attention span? Tastes? Material values? Is the still life so hopelessly old-fashioned that nothing can be done to revive its popularity? I wish I knew the answers.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
13 March 1998