Still life paintings became a genre of painting during the Renaissance. The practice began quite simply as practice for the artists. Most portraits of the period included objects around the person being painted; household items, books, or bowls of fruit. In order to prepare to include these things in the final portrait, the artist would do a practice sketch or even a painting of the items. He or she might be testing ways of conveying the light hitting round objects, or the way the shadows fell due to the placement of a light source. All to improve the details in the final portrait of the person that would be captured on canvas.
But for many, the exercise of painting the household objects became an aesthetic experience in itself. The composition of the objects, where they were placed in the painting in relation to each other, became an imaginative exercise for the artist. Sometimes, the artist would include an object that would strike the viewer as incongruent with the rest of the image – perhaps a bloody dagger lying beside beautiful blooms in a vase. The diligent practice exercise turned into a means of artistic expression on its own.
“Yellow Roses in a Vase” by Gustave Caillebotte shows this sort of progressive regard of the Still Life as artistic comment in itself. Painted in 1882, its style contains elements of the freer brush strokes that were gaining popularity among the Impressionists. The roses are not at full bloom, but rather now droop a bit over the marble table, dropping petals as they begin to fade away. They’ve only just begun to dwindle from their full beauty.
Before the Renaissance, fading flowers in a portrait would have been an intentional symbolic commentary on the subject of the painting. But with the growth of Still Life as a genre of its own, such imagery speaks for itself. It reminds us that art is always about communication from the artist to the viewer.
As painting styles progress into the modern age, the Still Life continues to provoke imaginative possibilities in artists.
Ferdnand Léger was one who brought the considerations of the Still Life into modern styles. The influences of both Abstract art and Cubism show in his “Still Life with a Beer Mug” from 1921. He gives the viewer a new way of looking at the quite ordinary experience of drinking a beer at a small tavern. The artist looks beyond the expected shapes and takes note of color and shape combinations.
When an Abstract artist such as Diana Hobson gives attention to the world around us, she is looking much further than the recognizable forms of things.
Her 2012 work “Swoosh Blossom” does not on first glance seem anything like the blossoms of spring. But when we remember that Abstract artwork is not about being representational, we start to awaken to the energy of the piece and the colorful splashes that hang in the air around us. There is much more to be found in Abstract art that our first glance gives us. Diana Hobson’s art can be found in Venice, on display at the Tech Studio on Abbot Kinney.