The History of Still Life Painting

Still Life, fruit and other food, Peter Binoit (1590-1632 ca), painting on panel
De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

A still life (from the Dutch, stilleven) is a painting featuring an arrangement of inanimate, everyday objects, whether natural objects (flowers, food, wine, dead fish, and game, etc.) or manufactured items (books, bottles, crockery, etc.). The Tate Museum Glossary puts it very succinctly, defining the subject of a still life as "anything that does not move or is dead." In French, the still life is called nature morte, (literally "dead nature").

A still life can be realistic or abstract, depending on the particular time and culture in which it was created, and on the particular style of the artist. The still life is a popular genre because the artist has total control over the subject of the painting, the lighting, and the context. The artist can use the still life symbolically or allegorically to express an idea, or formally to study composition and the elements and principles of art.


Although paintings of objects have been in existence since ancient Egypt and Greece, still life painting as a unique art form originated in post-Renaissance Western art. In ancient Egypt, people painted objects and food in tombs and temples as offerings to the gods and for the dead to enjoy in the afterlife. These paintings were flat, graphic representations of their subjects, typical of Egyptian painting. The ancient Greeks also incorporated still life subjects into their vases, wall paintings, and mosaics. These paintings, featuring highlights and shadows, were more realistic than the Egyptians', though not accurate in terms of perspective.

Still life painting became an art form of its own in the 16th century. A panel painting by the Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari (1440-1516)—now on display in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich—is considered by many historians to be the first true still life. The painting, completed in 1504, depicts a dead partridge and a pair of iron gloves, or gauntlets.

According to the BBC documentary "Apples, Pears and Paint: How to Make a Still Life Drawing (Painting)," Caravaggio's "Basket of Fruit," painted in 1597, is recognized as the first major work of the Western still life genre.

The height of still life painting came in 17th century Holland. Artists such as Jan Brueghel, Pieter Clausz, and others painted opulent, highly detailed, and realistic images of flower bouquets and tables laden with lavish bowls of fruit and game. These paintings celebrated the seasons and reflected the era's scientific interest in the natural world. They also served as status symbols and were highly sought after. Many artists sold their works through auctions.


Traditionally, many objects in still life paintings were selected for their religious or symbolic meanings, though this symbolism sometimes eludes modern-day viewers. Cut flowers or a piece of decaying fruit, for instance, symbolized mortality. Skulls, hourglasses, clocks, and candles warned viewers that life is brief. These death-haunted paintings are known as memento mori, a Latin phrase that means "remember you must die."

Memento mori paintings are closely related to vanitas still lifes, which include symbols of earthly pleasures and material goods—such as musical instruments, wine, and books—that have little value compared to the glory of the afterlife. The term vanitas comes from a statement at the beginning of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which expresses the futility of human activity: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

But not all still life paintings feature symbolism. French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) is perhaps the most famous painter of apples simply for his use of color, shape, and perspective. Cezanne's "Still Life with Apples" (1895-98) is not painted realistically as though seen from one viewpoint. Rather, it seems to represent an amalgamation of different views. Through its exploration of the modes of perception, Cezanne's work served as a precursor to Cubism and abstraction.