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Still Life

Of 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

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A "Lean Diet" with Cooking Utensils (Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin)
Bouquet in a Clay Vase (Jan Brueghel (the Elder))
Chanel (Audrey Flack)
Cranberries (Andrew Newell Wyeth)
Glass, Carafe and Newspapers (Georges Braque)
Madame Valpincon with Chrysanthemums (Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas)
Musician's Table (Juan Gris)
Spring Flowers (Norman Rockwell)
Still Life (Summer) (Alexandre François Desportes)
Still Life with a Monkey, Fruit and Flowers (Jean-Baptiste Oudry)
Still Life with Apples (Paul Cézanne)
Still Life with Apples, a Bottle, and a Milk Pot (Paul Cézanne)
Still Life with Basket of Apples (Paul Cézanne)
Still Life with Dead Hare and Fruit (Alexandre François Desportes)
Still Life with Dog and Game (Alexandre François Desportes)
Still life with Fruit (Jean-Baptiste Oudry)
Still Life with Harp and Violin (Georges Braque)
Still Life with Oil Lamp (Juan Gris)
Still Life with Oranges and Lemons (Francisco de Zurbarán)
Still Life: Hare, Duck, Loaf of Bread, Cheese and Flasks of Wine (Jean-Baptiste Oudry)
Still-Life with Garland of Flowers and Golden Tazza (Jan Brueghel (the Elder))
Still-life with Pheasant (Jean-Baptiste Oudry)
Still-Life: Le Jour (Georges Braque)
The Goldfish (Henri Matisse)
The Large Turf (Albrecht Dürer)
The Ray (Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin)
The Silver Tureen (Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin)


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