Research point: Still Life

The first thing that struck me when I started looking at ‘still life’ was how broad the subject was, and the range of artists producing still life work.

I thought I’d first look for a definition of the term ‘still life’, starting with the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, which defined ‘still-life’ as “a painting of inaminate objects” (Lucie-Smith, 2003: 205). I then looked at my Penguin Dictionary of Art & Artists, which had more information, including the origins of the word. The word ‘still-life’ is “a direct translation of the Dutch Stilleven, used only from 1656 to describe paintings which were earlier called simply fruit or flower pieces. (Murray, 1997: 504)

I then looked on the Tate website, and discovered various images (and also that the plural of this type of painting is ‘still lifes’, not ‘still lives’!)

I chose to look at a small number of still life artists using a range of techniques at this point, as the subject was just so immense, and I could feel myself getting less focussed!

Fig. 1

Figure 1 is a still life that was painted by Paul Cézanne. I liked the use of colour in this painting, combined with rough sketched lines in paint. To me, it gives the impression of speed and movement in an otherwise still subject.

Fig. 2

Figure 2 is a still life by Edward Collier. To me, this looked more like what I would consider to be a traditional still life with objects. It is very dark and the details are such that it looks almost photographic. This fits in with a particular style of still life’s known as ‘memento mori’, which according to the Tate, is “an artwork designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life” (Tate, 2017).

Fig. 3

Figure 3, Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher by Pablo Picasso, is another example of memento mori still life painting. The skull has been used as a symbol of mortality in many paintings of this type, though they have been depicted in various styles. I also discovered that memento mori is a Latin phrase that literally means “remember you must die” (Tate, 2017). This form of still life is also very similar to the ‘vanitas’ still life, which as well as having the same meanings and warnings of the temporary nature of human life, also contain other symbols, such as the musical instruments in Colliers’ painting, that warn of the vanity of “worldly pleasures and goods” (Tate, 2017).

Reading through The Story of Art, by E.H. Gombrich, I discovered that for artists such as  Cézanne and Picasso, both of whose work styles were very experimental, “‘form’ always comes first and the ‘subject’ second” (Gombrich, 1972: 461). I found this interesting when looking at techniques for drawing still life – and wondered whether this way of thinking, focusing on form before subject, is linked to the use of the ‘right’ side of the brain, as opposed to the left?

Fig. 4

Figure 4 is a still life by Georgio Morandi. Morandi’s style varies through his work – when I think of his work, I think of his still lifes that were created using very fine cross hatching in black and white, a style which I experimented with in the Part One of the course. Morandi’s still life doesn’t appear to be using any traditional themes, like memento mori or vanitas, but is instead concerned with ordinary objects without any apparent sybolic function.


Figure 1. Paul Cézanne (circa 1892-3) Still Life with Water Jug [Oil on canvas]. Available at: [Accessed 03/04/17]

Figure 2. Edward Collier (1696) Still Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’ 1696 [Oil on canvas]. Available at: [Accessed 03/04/17]

Figure 3. Pablo Picasso (1945) Still Life with Skull, Leeks and Pitcher. Available at: [Accessed 03/04/17]

Figure 4. Georgio Morandi (1946) Still Life [Oil on canvas]. Available at: [Accessed 03/04/17]

Sources Referenced:

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, Thames & Hudson: London.

Murray, P. & L. (1997) Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, Penguin Books: London.

Tate (2017) Still Life. Available at: (accessed on 02/04/17)

Tate (2017) Memento mori. Available at: (accessed on 03/04/17)

Tate (2017) Picasso: Peace and Freedom: Room 2: Still Lifes. Available at: (accessed on 03/04/17)

Tate (2017) Vanitas. Available at: (accessed on 04/04/17)

Gombrich, E.H. (1972) The Story of Art. Phaidon Press: Oxford.



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