A still life painting is mostly thought to concern itself with inanimate objects such as household furniture and implements, or food items like fruit and bottles of wine. Yet animals also find their way into still life, often in the tradition of the ‘game piece’.
There is something unsettling about animals depicted in still life paintings. It is with pictures of animals brought into the home as game that the name ‘still life’ is at its most apt, for it is here that painting really depicts the stilling of life itself. Extracted from its natural habitat and placed among the objects of the human world, the body of an animal becomes awkward, clumsy, ridiculous even. To paint this image is to present the viewer with a curiously pitiful sight.
William Gowe Ferguson’s ‘Still life with game birds’ shows several birds after a hunt, strewn amongst discarded hunting implements. The creatures appear to have been tossed onto the ledge without further thought as if the hunters had no further use for the animals they had so eagerly ripped from the skies; the hunters have lost all interest in the birds now they are no longer killable.
The grotesque chaos of Ferguson’s painting evinces the impetuous urge to destruction which has characterised our relationship with the natural world around us for a millennium.
Ferguson’s birds are not ready to eat – in fact, there is nothing to say that the hunters have any interest in eating them; they have not yet undergone the preparative processes which allow us to distance ourselves from what we consume. ‘Mallard’, by Stephen Rose – one of our best painters of 20th century still life paintings – also plays with the transition from living creature to meat. The duck is still fully feathered but has been crammed hastily into a roasting tray, leaving it in a bizarre, contorted pose.
The image gives an impression of something callous and demeaning which makes us uncomfortable. The absurd juxtaposition of fully feathered bird and cheap, thin foil tray somehow makes the human actions which have brought the mallard here seem mindless and crass. The tray, like the hunting implements, references an absent and aloofly brutal species, yet here, unlike in Ferguson’s painting, this species is also made to seem strangely inane and completely out of touch with the natural world.
Depicting a still life of animals, or a game piece like these, allows a painter to point to the act of brutality which preceded the image we see. Yet the painter of still life is, in an obscure way, complicit in those acts of brutality, for what is her/his task if not also the stilling of life? Thus, Ferguson and Rose’s paintings confess to the act of violence perpetrated by artists in their attempts to capture, and to ‘still’, other living beings in art.
For more food for thought, take a look at our range of still life on our website or contact us directly today.