Life and Death in Still Life Painting

Still life paintings featuring inanimate objects have long been associated with the ephemeral nature of earthly existence and the inevitability of death and decay. Flowers, fruits, food and everyday household items are common themes, and, whilst caught in a moment of time, they convey a sense of material decline.

First popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century, still life paintings, or “nature mortes”, often depicted “memento mori” such as skulls, candles or hourglasses – reminders of mortality. Early motifs were primarily religious and cautious of worldly vanity with a moralising intention. Still life remains a popular medium for artists working today and some still use it to convey a political or social message.

Stephen Rose (1960 – )


Those commissioning still life art works in previous centuries often wished to reflect the opulence and grandeur of their status. Death was overtly suggested by the symbolism of game birds or wild animals caught in a hunt. Depictions of game meats suggested a lavish lifestyle, trophies of wealthy landowners with the leisure to indulge in sport.

This was also true of ornate and luxurious possessions, rare plant specimens or expensive glassware or porcelain. The paintings themselves were to be coveted, evidence of rank and power. However, still life has also always celebrated the humble beauty of ordinary and everyday items.

After Carl Schuch (1846-1903)

An arrangement with oranges and lemons


Still life concentrates on things that cannot move or are already dead and rarely features a human subject. Thus it intensifies the focus on the ephemerality of the scene. All the greatest pleasures of life – food, wine, books, musical instruments – are celebrated and yet all are reminders of the truth that life is fleeting and death is certain. Nothing will last.

In the modern age, painters explore different ways of seeing and this has led to the development of abstraction and Cubism. The religious and symbolic may have disappeared from the genre, extolling the virtues of the after-life, but the artist remains in complete control in this art form. The contemporary viewer remains enthralled by the issues of consumption, impermanence, passage of time, earthly beauty and extinction, the underpinnings of life and death that can never be avoided, especially in an age of anxiety.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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