In painting, they have always been a minor genre. They have mostly been sublimated to history painting, portraiture, and even the lowly landscape. Someone aeons ago decided to call such work still-lifes. From the very start it's a contradiction of terms. A better phrase might have been, "life, stilled." That is to say, a bit of life, animal, vegetable, or mineral, culled by the artist from its natural environment, and "stilled" into a contrived arrangement hopefully signifying something. As painting goes, they're a relatively recent development, perhaps growing out of the props used to decorate portraits or religious paintings. Both, going centuries back, often have exciting little nooks and crannies with modest, sometimes exquisite little still-life representations. Vermeer comes to mind...and Rembrandt.
Not coincidentally, both were Dutch. Of course, by the time painting came of age in the low countries and northern Germany, the still life had long been a staple in the painter's art. But the genre reached a sort of peak in the hard-edged realism reflecting the highly materialistic world of Flemish society. Not until our modern era do we again see it hold such sway. Strangely enough, it was Picasso, Braque, and the Cubists who once more brought up the subject, raising it to new heights, using it as a platform for their experiments in shattering illusions of planes and textures. Artists as diverse as Marden Hartley, and James McNeill Whistler have tried their hand at it. Photographer's delight in them, perhaps because they offer the opportunity to experiment almost endlessly with nuances of light and shadow, edges, reflections, and textures, and afterwards, if they've chosen their model carefully, they can eat it.
Painters routinely deal with two primal elements in their work--reality and illusion. Like fire and water, in the art of still-life painting, they are often at war with one another. American still-life artists such as Charles Bird King, several of the Peales, William Harnett, Frederick Peto, and others all, chose to explore the illusionary end. An artist by the name of Donald Sulton uses tar, oil, plaster, and even linoleum over masonite to explore the reality of the genre. His 1985 Flowers and Vase is a modern example. In my own work, I've done both, even tried to broker a peace between the warring factions by mixing the two elements, asking: "Where does illusion end and reality begin?" We can paint extremely credible illusions of reality with oils or fabricate sculptural reality with all manner of mixed media, even appropriating the "real thing," an actually apple for instance, in the ultimate homage to reality. On the one end there is painted, two-dimensional illusion masquerading as reality, on the other end is three-dimensional reality masquerading as art--begging the question, is it, in fact, "art" once it reaches such extreme reality? Hurry and answer, before the apple rots.