Artists have been rendering inanimate objects into art since ancient times. Archaeologists have unearthed stills of common items like food on mosaic tiles and wall frescos from the ruins of Pompeii and Rome. The vase paintings of ancient Greece are among the world’s best-known still life art. Because this art form has been employed into the present, the still life study has undergone a unique evolution and various centuries have transformed it while individual artists have literally changed its face to represent new approaches to art and thought.
Popular objects depicted in the still life form have been botanicals, glass, food, pottery, musical instruments, books—a plethora of everyday items. A writing quill would certainly have been common in a seventeenth century still life while Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can was a perfectly commonplace item in the twentieth century. After the fall of Rome until the sixteenth century, most still life painting reflected religious symbolism. Painters like Giotto infused their work with items that suggested a deeper religious meaning. For example, elements of the still life form are evident in his Marriage at Cana and its various jugs and implements of tableware.
Leonardo da Vinci was one of the earliest painters to depart from complete devotion to religious subject matter as evidenced by his studies of fruit in the mid-1490s. Nevertheless, the sixteenth century witnessed a transformation of the form by its inclusion of natural subjects like botanical items and animals—especially exotic curiosities of the natural world that were imported into Europe. But Carraci’s Butcher’s Shop (1583) and its presentation of raw meats marks the great departure from religious subject matter in favor of realistic everyday objects.
During the seventeenth century the still life form seemed to dominate the Holland art scene with a peculiar change: religious iconography was taboo so the painters inserted common objects that had covert religious meaning. For example, the inclusion of a lily was meant to suggest the Virgin Mary or virginity; a skull denoted human mortality. The hidden symbolic meanings of everyday items and rendered in painting fairly exploded in the Netherlands during this time and some of the most famous still life painting like Rembrandt’s Little Girl with Dead Peacocks occurred during this time period.
The form would continue to showcase common inanimate objects, but the idea of a realistic portrayal was challenged by the end of the nineteenth century. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, possibly the most famous floral still life, marks a real departure from earlier realism. During the twentieth century, the form would be completely turned on its ear by artists like Picasso, Duchamp, or Dali. Warhol and the pop art movement made use of the still form with images like the Campbell’s soup cans or the face of Marilyn Monroe. The art form is still evolving today with computer generated graphics, a far-removed medium from those ancient brushstrokes by human hands, but just as reflective of the still life form—a form that continues to take shape.