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Research: Still life - by George Callinicos

Still life paintings became popular in the Netherlands during the 17th century. This was a prosperous period for Amsterdam as new trading links with North America, Indonesia, Brazil and Africa were formed. Amsterdam merchants became new patrons of art, replacing Church and nobility. Few people in the 17th century could read but many would have understood the symbolic meaning attributed to objects in still life paintings. The influence and ideology of the Protestant Church was still very strong. The subjects

portrayed in still life were both humble and extravagant. Some paintings known as Vanitas represented the emptiness of worldly possessions and the fact that life is transient. This was represented by e.g. a skull, a lamp candle as it is easily extinguished, a smouldering pipe or a watchclock as time is running out. Some paintings of flowers or fruits showed impossible arrangements with specimens blooming in different seasons, or a fly or snail on a fruit indicating that everything decays with time. Other paintings

depicted luxury objects such as silver, mother- of- pearl, Chinese porcelain products that had been imported. Kalf’s still life with Drinking horn is a good example of opulence whereas Abraham van Beyeren’s depiction of exotic shells represented newly discovered

territories. The symbolism expressed in these two types of still life shows the contradiction between the protestant church ethics and the extravagance and power of the Dutch nation.

The painting above is Willem Kalf’s Still life with the Drinking- Horn of the Saint Sebastian Archer’s Guild, Lobster and Glasses’- About 1553. Oil on canvas, 86x102 cm ; The National Gallery London.

This is one of my favourite still life paintings in the gallery. All the objects on display were expensive, luxury items; goods of ostentation. Seventeenth century Netherlands was a prosperous, seafaring nation, trading and importing goods such as silver goblets, pitchers, ornately woven cloths etc. Kalf was not only a painter but also an art dealer and therefore would have had relatively easy access to these luxury goods. These paintings appealed to the merchant classes and were bought by wealthy patrons who commissioned them. The drinking horn, set in a silver mount features Saint Sebastian, patron Saint of the archers who was bound to a tree as a target for two Roman soldiers. It dates from 1565 and is kept in Amsterdam Museum. The horn was probably commissioned by a member of the Amsterdam archers guild.

What is special about this painting was the way that Kalf manipulated the light in such a skilful manner, controlling texture, pattern, tone and colour within the composition. The craftmanship displayed by Kalf in his still life paintings did a lot to bring this genre to the same level as figurative painting as the former was frequently seen as inferior. Today not many artists display the levels of skill required to depict objects with such realism. What surprises me is that this painting, in room 22 at the National Gallery, does not have a very ornate frame around it.

Sources used:

Langmuir,E (2001) The National Gallery companion guide, National

Gallery Company Limited, London, distributed by Yale university


Another interesting painting is Apples and Oranges by Cezanne (1899), displayed at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

What is interesting about this painting is not the subject matter so much, but the way Cezanne has gone about depicting this still life. I like the colour arrangements and the way he has broken the rules of perspective. Linear perspective is no longer used to try to create a 3- D realism on a 2- D canvas, but by using multiple viewpoints, a new type of realism is achieved. Cezanne has used strong colours and geometric arrangements of the ‘solid feeling’ apples and oranges to produce a harmonious and balanced painting.

Cezanne’s work had an influence on artists such as Picasso, Braque and Gris in developing Cubism as they also looked at objects from multiple viewpoints thereby creating different levels of reality.

Sources used:

Becks- Malorny, U (2000), Cezanne, Germany, Taschen series Blake, R (2001) Essential Modern Art, Parragon Chilvers, I 7 Osborne, H ( 1997) The Oxford Dictionary of Art, Oxford University

Murray, P & L (1997), Dictionary of Art & Artists, Penguin Books