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Word Gallery: Still Life

Throughout art history, scholars have devised a special vocabulary to talk about art. These terms are very useful, but they are not always self-explanatory. So we thought we'd take you into the art historical word gallery to provide some definitions commonly used to describe artistic styles, techniques or movements in art.

Still Life

Willem Claesz. Heda (Haarlem 1594–1680 Haarlem), Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco, 1633. Oil on panel, 20 x 29 3/4 inches (50.8 x 75.6 cm). The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection. Image courtesy Peabody Essex Museum

The term "still life" describes a work of art that portrays inanimate objects such as flowers, foodstuffs, and various other objects or artifacts. Generally associated with oil paintings from 17th-century Europe, the still life comes in many forms, including mosaic, pottery, or wall paintings.

Ancient examples of still life can be found in Egyptian funerary paintings that depict food offerings presented to the dead, reinforcing the concept of an afterlife in which the deceased continued to eat and drink. Classical still life is found throughout the ancient Greek world, especially on pottery. Inspired by the Greeks, Romans also incorporated still life into decorative panels and architectural details. Roman still life is renowned for its realism and borders on trompe l’oeil.

Although these antecedents fall into the category of still life, the term wasn’t codified as a distinct artistic genre until the 17th century. Prior to this classification, inventories listed terms like vie coye (silent life) or nature morte (dead nature) in France and ontbijtje (small breakfast), banketje (little banquet) or vanitas in the Netherlands. Vanitas ultimately became a sub-genre of still life, signifying the fragility of life.

During the 17th century, the Netherlands proffered the highest form of still-life painting, which can be seen throughout the exhibition Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection, on view at the Legion of Honor through Sunday, October 2. In this stunning example, Willem Claesz. Heda, known for his “monochromatic banquets,” created a definitive still life featuring a golden lemon, strikingly realistic glasses and metal dishes, and a crumpled paper filled with tobacco. Although the arrangement of the objects appears arbitrary, it is, in fact, a carefully structured composition.