The Artifice of a Still Life

by Courtney Townsend

A still life is one of the major genres of Western art. By definition it is an artistic depiction of an arrangement of inanimate objects. This conjures up the image of an artist studying their chosen assortment of objects, striving to capture what they see before them – striving to capture a visual image of ‘life’, as the title suggests. However, in consideration of a number of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish still lifes currently being exhibited in York Art Gallery, this attention to accuracy does not seem present.


For the Netherlands, the seventeenth century was an era of considerable prosperity and artistic production, considered a ‘Golden Age’ and a period in which still lifes were immensely popular. Studying a number of these still lifes from the Golden Age and beyond, it is apparent that these works of art are heavily constructed – motivated by an aesthetic ideal, as opposed to a desire to capture reality. Taking the Still Life of Fruit and Flowers with Bird’s Nest on a Marble Ledge c. 1772 – 1780, by Jan van Os, this stunning eruption of colour leaves little room for a background, as the profusion of flowers and fruit overwhelms the wooden canvas. This painting was constructed by the coalescence of individual studies. This is a medley of diverse natural forms that, in reality, would be physically impossible to assemble in the form van Os has captured with his paintbrush. Rather than project an appearance of incongruity, however, the painting’s illusion of reality is effective, meaning that the extent of its constructed-ness is likely to go unnoticed by a viewer.

In a Frieze article entitled ‘The Actual World’, writer Ben Lerner makes reference to Achilles’ shield in Homer’s The Iliad. He believes that its description is “so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail…The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it”. However, there are many still lifes which evidence visual art being capable of this same creativity and divergence from reality. Alexander Adriaenssen’s 1631 The Still Life with Fish and Cat and Juriaan van Streek’s Vanitas c. 1665 – 1675 are another two examples of still lifes which accentuate abundance. In each of these paintings, the array of objects precariously overflow from their containers and setting, as if threatening the dismantling of their construction. In reality, these objects would fall. In a contemporary age of social media, which glorifies Photoshop and the retouching of an image, this idea of the presence of architecture and illusion behind an image is a highly evocative and accessible concept.

In the seventeenth century, art critics considered still life as low in the hierarchy of genres due to its lack of human presence. The creators of still lifes might have consequently felt pressure to elevate their works’ appeal using imaginative enhancement. Whatever the reasoning behind the artifice may be, it reveals an acknowledgement of the often-disappointing limits of reality and the allure of fiction.

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