Still life History Historical Impressionism Cubism1 by ICC13Rl


									Still-life painting

This unit will give an introduction to still-life from a historical critical perspective,
then concentrate on Impressionism and Cubism through the work of Cézanne and

Still-life painting                                                             3

Cézanne: composition, colour and painting for painting’s sake                   9

Braque and Cubist Still-life                                                    18

List of figures

Figure 1 - Caravaggio "The Supper at Emmaus" 1601-02
Figure 2 - Abraham van Beyeren "Still-life with Lobster" 1653
Figure 3 - Pieter Claesz "Vanitas Still-life" 1630
Figure 4 - Caravaggio "Basket of Fruit" c1597
Figure 5 - Eduard Isaac Asser "Still-life with Meissen 'schneeball' vase and model
                ship under bell glass" c1851
Figure 6 - Paul Cézanne "Still-life with Compotier" c1879-82
Figure 7 - William Bouguereau "Spring" 1858
Figure 8 - Claude Monet "La Grenouillière" 1869
Figure 9 - Claude Monet "Still-Life" 1880
Figure 10 - Paul Cézanne "Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue" c1882-5
Figure 11 - Paul Cézanne "Still-life with Apples" c1890
Figure 12 - Pieter Claesz "Still-life" 1633
Figure 13 - Paul Cézanne "Apples and Oranges" c1895-1900
Figure 14- Jacques-Louis David "The Oath of the Horatii" 1784
Figure 15 - Paul Cézanne "Basket of Apples" 1895
Figure 16 - Georges Braque "Violin and Pitcher" 1910
Figure 17 - Georges Braque "Still-life on a Table: ‘Gillette’” 1914
Figure 18 - Georges Braque "Still-life with harp and Violin" 1912
Figure 19 - Georges Braque "Musical Forms" 1913

Exercise 1

You will be introduced to some new terms and keywords – as a group we will go
through the text looking at these terms and phrases to work out what they mean in the
context of art.

Some of these words are highlighted in the text already.

In your own words, write a quick summary of what each means in the vocabulary
section of your critical notebook.

Still life

Why did artists in the past paint still-lifes?
How did artists in the 19th century and beyond paint still-lifes and why was this
different from how they had been painted in the past?
How did Cézanne use the techniques of Impressionism in painting still-lifes? Why is
his work different from an Impressionist like Monet?
How did the Cubists change the way still-lifes were painted and why?

Still-life painting:

When looking at, describing and evaluating paintings of still-life objects, it is worth
considering why an artist would chose to paint or draw a group of unmoving,
sometimes unattractive or unexciting, objects? In French still-life is called nature
morte (dead nature), emphasising its stillness and lack of activity.

There is a long tradition of still-life painting in Western European art. It stands in
contrast to other genres such as narrative, history and portrait painting in the lack of
human subjects within its images. This lack of active subject matter denies the viewer
the chance to create narratives or stories based upon the actions of the people depicted
(where these actions had actually been witnessed by the artist or were imagined). All
there are to look at are static objects, normally arranged on a table in an interior
setting (most often the artist’s studio).

Figure 1 - Caravaggio "The Supper at Emmaus" 1601-02

Still-life objects are often found in paintings that have living subjects and provide part
of the setting or staging of the image, as a part of the composition as a whole. Here
Caravaggio painted a beautifully observed basket of fruit as part of a dramatic
religious scene. The still-life element jumps out of the painting, partly due to the way
it has been painted teetering over the edge of the table (fig. 1). However when still-
lifes are painted on their own they are part of a separate, specific genre or type of art.

Figure 2 - Abraham van Beyeren "Still-life with Lobster" 1653
One of the origins of the genre was to enable patrons to show off their expensive
belongings: silverware, glassware, jewellery, musical instruments, clocks (fig. 2).
This was especially popular in France and the Netherlands in the 17th century and

Figure 3 - Pieter Claesz "Vanitas Still-life" 1630
However it was seen to be potentially sacrilegious to show off expensive possessions
in this way or for the patrons to amass wealth in the living world, so painters would
often use still-life paintings as memento mori (Latin for “Reminder of death”). The
paintings would contain hidden symbols, rather like a visual code, which would
remind the owner or viewer that they should be storing up wealth in heaven rather
than during life. Most of the objects could have one or more meanings: fruit won’t
last forever and will rot; worms burrow out of fruit; clocks suggest time passing;
plates and other objects hang over the edge of tables as if they might fall at any
minute; jugs spill, or are about to spill the liquid inside; skulls obviously relate to
death (fig. 3). All these meanings suggest that life is short.

Another reason for painting still-life was that it allowed the artist to demonstrate their
skills. They could set up the objects in their workshop or studio and spend as long as
they liked carefully observing and painting them. They did not have to rely on people
sitting and posing for them for long periods of time, nor did they have to spend time
outside painting a landscape and be subject to changes in the light and weather.
Within the studio they could control the lighting, the choice and the position of the
objects. In this way they could show potential patrons their abilities and these
abilities would be easily checked by referring to the objects that had been painted.

Figure 4 - Caravaggio "Basket of Fruit" c1597
From ancient times, the ability of an artist to trick the eye and fool the viewer into
thinking that a painted object was actually a real object that could be touched was
highly prized (fig. 4). The Roman historian Pliny writes of the artist Zeuxis painting
grapes so realistic that birds pecked at them. This is sometimes known as trompe
l’oeil painting (French for ‘trick the eye’). This concern with fooling the viewer into
thinking a painted object was real became less important as the artists who came to be
known as the Impressionists began to explore the ways they could capture the essence
of a scene using paint. They became concerned with how a scene appeared at a
particular moment in time, with how colours and light reflecting off surfaces or in the
air could give an impression of a fleeting instant.

The importance of still-life in art from the late 19th century to the present day to the
history of art is partly due to the ability of the painter to control the manner in which
they can approach the act or process of painting. The painter can concentrate not just
on what they are painting, but how they are painting. They can focus their attention
on ‘pure’ painting without the distracting ‘ideas’ of narrative that are introduced by

having people in the image. When concentrating purely on painting in this way,
artists are able to question what it means to look at an object and comprehend or
understand it. They can consider how the viewer’s ideas about an object - their
knowledge of its appearance from many angles, its history and its relationship to other
objects – might affect how they paint it and how they see it visually. They can also
use objects as a base upon which to build paintings where they are more concerned
about aspects of painting (colour, texture, pattern, light, shade) than on the actual
objects themselves. Their aim isn’t to make a picture of an object, but to make a
painting purely for its own sake.

Figure 5 - Eduard Isaac Asser "Still-life with Meissen 'schneeball' vase and model ship under bell
glass" c1851
Also, from the mid 19th century onwards, artists had to compete with photography
(fig. 5). If you can take a photograph of an object or person and get an exact likeness,
why would you need to paint? How could you paint something and achieve a
different, or maybe even better, image of an object, person, landscape or scene than
that taken by a camera? What can painting show about an object that can’t be seen in
a photograph?

Cézanne: composition, colour and painting for painting’s sake

Objects within still-life paintings are used for a variety of reasons – they may have
hidden meanings or merely be beautiful or have an interesting shape or texture. They
may be used to help a composition come together either due to their visual
relationship with other objects in the still-life or by the way their shape or colour leads
the eye around the painting. Objects such as knives can lead the eye into the painting.

Figure 6 - Paul Cézanne "Still-life with Compotier" c1879-82
Cézanne took the Impressionist technique of translating the observations or
impressions of the world outside directly into colours that could be painted and tried
to make it more solid and timeless. He aimed “to make of Impressionism something
solid, like the art of the museum”. Bouguereau (fig. 7) was typical of the academic-
style of painting favoured by the art establishment at the time – art that achieved high
official recognition often harked back to the classical Greek and Roman past in both
subject matter and technique, ignoring the painting of everyday modern life that the
Impressionists were involved in. Cézanne hungered for official recognition and so

sought to achieve the apparent timelessness of the academic painters while working in
still-life and landscape rather than history or allegorical painting.

Figure 7 - William Bouguereau "Spring" 1858

Where the other Impressionist painters wanted to capture the fleeting essence of the
view before them through rapidly applied brushstrokes of contrasting and
complimentary colours, Cézanne wanted his images to give a sense of time passing.
He intended his images to convey not just how the scene or objects looked, but also
the ideas he had about the landscape or objects he was looking at.

Figure 8 - Claude Monet "La Grenouillière" 1869
From the Impressionists, he took the directness and spontaneity of the plein air
technique – painting outdoors, directly from nature, and using small dabs of paint, like

little touches of colour, juxtaposed or placed next to each other (fig. 8). He used this
technique for both landscapes and still-lifes, but in a heavier way to create a more
sculptural and spatial effect. His marks appear to use the pure instinct and
spontaneity of his fellow Impressionists, but they were built up carefully over time.

Figure 9 - Claude Monet "Still-Life" 1880

He was concerned less with the instant appearance and feel of a scene and more with
showing what was timeless or eternal about the objects or landscapes he was painting.
Where Monet might have been more concerned with capturing the play of light and
colour across a landscape or still-life objects at one particular moment or time of day
using a technique that made it look as if he had painted very quickly (fig. 9); Cézanne
instead wanted to give a sense of solidity and endurance. He tried to keep the
brightness and freshness of the plein air colour, while adding a weight to it through
the way he applied the paint and the way he linked colours from object to object or
across the canvas as a whole. This can be seen in his landscapes as well as his still-
lifes (fig. 10).

Figure 10 - Paul Cézanne "Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from Bellevue" c1882-5

Figure 11 - Paul Cézanne "Still-life with Apples" c1890

Cézanne spent a long time painting each still-life – so long that the fruits would rot
away. Sometimes he used fake wax fruit to allow him to paint a set-up over weeks
and months. He goes beyond the techniques of the older trompe l’oeil still-life
painters (fig. 12) – his fruit becomes less detailed, but also more solid.

Figure 12 - Pieter Claesz "Still-life" 1633

He reduces, or rather distils, each apple or orange into nearly spherical objects – he is
trying to paint the ‘idea’ of an apple or orange rather than a picture of a specific
object. Cézanne sees apples and oranges more in terms of their roundness and bright
colours and less in terms of their individual shapes. He takes so long painting each
still-life, not because he is trying to paint an exact trompe l’oeil, but because he is
using the shapes, colours and textures within the painting (which are not always
present within the actual still-life set-up) to create a timeless composition. He is
reducing the individual and unique shape of each piece of fruit to the shape which can
be instantly understood as standing in for all apples or all oranges. Once he has done
this, he can then use these shapes as a base from which to explore different ways of
working with light and colour within a composition. Cézanne was concerned with
painting a painting for its own sake, rather than painting images of objects or

Cézanne’s Apples and Oranges – analysing the composition

Figure 13 - Paul Cézanne "Apples and Oranges" c1895-1900

Cézanne’s Apples and Oranges is at first glance a simple still-life composition, with
fruit, crockery, and both plain and decorated cloth on a table. However if we look
more closely, there are strange things going on. There are repeated oval forms in the
plate, the compotier (display bowl) and the jug, but they don’t appear to fit together
naturally. The plate is tilted towards us; the compotier is slightly squint; the lip of the
jug is angled towards us in a way that suggests it’s either going to fall over or has
been made in an uneven way. The table on which everything rests appears to slope
dramatically to the left – even accounting for perspective there is no way the fruit
would be able to avoid rolling off out of the composition. There is very little visual
information given to allow you to tell the white cloth apart from the white china of the
plate or the compotier – the same limited palette of colours is used to paint both, and
apart from a slightly rougher handling of the paint on the cloth, no attempt has been

made to use paint to show the two different textures of the surfaces. Some of the
apples are unnaturally large in comparison to other fruit on the table.

Why would Cézanne create these distortions? One reason would be to create a
compositional vortex or whirlpool of movement at the centre of the painting – the way
the ovals of the plate, jug and compotier make the eye circle around the middle of the
painting keeps your attention on the focal point of the composition, the fruit. The
white cloth draws your eye in from two points on the bottom edge of the frame to this
central part of the composition – and because there is no difference in treatment
between the cloth and the china, it is the arrangement of fruit that is propelled forward
and stands out. The simply, maybe even roughly, painted printed cloths at the rear, in
contrast to the white cloth and china, halts the eye in the middle and concentrates your
gaze on the real subject, the apples and oranges.

Figure 14- Jacques-Louis David "The Oath of the Horatii" 1784
Unlike in previous modes of painting, as in David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784),
where the eye is drawn into the focal point of the picture by lines formed by elements
of the composition (the angle of the arms, the swords, the line between the women’s
heads), in Cézanne’s painting it is colour, not line that draws you in.

The fruit is a collection of nearly spherical objects described using colour. Spheres,
because of their shape, naturally give a sense of movement, or the potential to move,
especially when painted on a table which appears to be sloping and on a plate or

compotier that is at an angle. Their roundness, combined with the tottering feeling of
the oval edges of the china objects, adds to the whirlpool effect. Their roundness is in
contrast to the angularity of the table leg and edge, to the grid pattern of the reddish
background cloth or to the angular folds of both the white and patterned cloths. As
the eye passes from one piece of fruit to the next, you can see that each orange or
apple is painted differently. They appear to be very simply painted, using a limited
palette of warm reds, oranges and yellows; however each one is unique, even though
they all share this solid roundness. When painting each one, Cézanne has tried to
describe its three-dimensional solidity using only a few paint marks with simple
highlights and shadows. The whirlpool nature of the central part of the composition
draws our attention to how Cézanne is exploring colour for its own sake – he is more
concerned about how you use colour when painting to show solidity, form, weight,
roundness, light and shade than about showing a ‘real’ apple or orange. He has
moved away from the trompe l’oeil concern of painting objects exactly as they look
to painting objects as they are understood. At the same time he uses simple objects
to explore painting for its own sake.

Figure 15 - Paul Cézanne "Basket of Apples" 1895

Braque and Cubist Still-life

Figure 16 - Georges Braque "Violin and Pitcher" 1910

Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso both learnt a great deal from seeing Cézanne’s
work and were particularly influenced by the way he had moved beyond merely
painting a picture of an object. They took Cézanne’s concerns with the actual act of
painting further in landscapes, portraits and still-lifes. They were not concerned with

the plein-air spontaneity of the Impressionists. Instead they tried to investigate what
it actually meant to look at and paint an object.

What do you actually see when you look at an object in three-dimensions and over a
period of time? What do you remember or assume about an object? Do you really
see what is in front of you or does your knowledge about an object’s shape, colour,
use or history affect what you see?

If we look at Braque’s “Violin and Pitcher” (fig. 16), there are lots of angular,
shadowy lines and facets covering the entire surface of the canvas. Some of these
could be meant to describe a table, a tablecloth or the wall. In the midst of these
forms there is a pitcher and a violin, both rendered in the same disjointed and broken
up way.

However, no matter how much they are broken up, both the pitcher and the violin are
easily recognisable. Braque has stripped them down to their crucial elements – the
pegs and peg board, strings, F holes; the handle, lip and spout. The peg board of the
violin is seen from the side so the easily identifiable curly scroll is visible, but the
body of the violin is seen as if from the front. The bottom half of the violin is seen as
if from below, at an angle – as a result the strings don’t link naturally with the strings
from the top half. The handle of the jug is seen from the side, but the lip is angled
towards us, as if seen from above. Braque has re-arranged the objects, or elements of
the objects, into viewpoints that allow us to see the all the most important parts at the
same time, as if we were walking around them or picking them up to have a look at
from all angles.

The colours are nearly monochromatic with some browns. The objects are not really
separate from the forms and lines that surround them. In fact they share some of the
lines and coloured planes with the background. Background and foreground can be
read as one plane – the plane of painting, not of real-life.

Braque has moved beyond Cézanne’s use of still-life as a base from which to
experiment with creating a timeless style of painting concentrated on colour and form.
Braque and Picasso are making paintings whose subject matter is painting itself.
They are trying to paint a description of what it means to look at and understand an
object. When we look at a violin, we do not need to see the scroll from the side to
know that it is there – when we see a violin we understand and remember all the

elements we have seen on violins before. We might not be able to see them from the
angle we are looking at the violin from at the moment, but our memories affect the
way we look at it. This period of Cubism is known as Analytical Cubism due to the
way the painters are analysing the scene in front of them from several viewpoints,
looking for the most crucial elements to paint.

As Braque is painting objects in this way, by making the colours more and more
muted and by merging the foreground and the background elements, he is drawing our
attention to the fact that this is a painting made with brushes and paints, not a
photograph or a window onto a scene. In this image, Braque makes this point even
more clear by painting in a trompe l’oeil nail at the top that appears to cast its own
shadow onto the painting (fig. 16). It is as if he has nailed the image to the wall. He
is spelling out the idea of painting as painting.

Figure 17 - Georges Braque "Still-life on a Table: ‘Gillette’” 1914

Two years later in 1912 he goes one step further and, along with Picasso, invents the
technique of collage (from the French word colle for glue) and begins to stick real
pieces of newspaper, wallpaper and other pieces of paper onto the canvas.

1912 is the year when Synthetic Cubism moves on from Analytical Cubism – these
are over-simplified terms, but this year marks the point at which artists start to bring
real-life objects into their paintings. In the years following (fig. 17), they start to
bridge the gap between painting and the real world and stop looking at painting as a
representation or image of the world.

Figure 18 - Georges Braque "Still-life with harp and Violin" 1912

Figure 19 - Georges Braque "Musical Forms" 1913

Exercise 4

Write down as many objects as you can identify in the two Braque paintings above
(figs. 18 and 19).

Using the visual elements of line, colour, tone, shape, form, texture and pattern
compare the two paintings and write down your ideas. Which do you think is the
most successful still-life and why?

How has Braque’s style changed between 1912 and 1913?


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