THE STILL LIFE most often is defined as a closely focused view of an array of usually--though not exclusively--inanimate objects. Such objects once had served only as accessories and attributes in history painting, religious scenes, and portraits. By 1600 in Holland and Italy, however, a combination of economic, social, and intellectual factors made pictures composed solely of material and natural things a viable subject for artists. The rise of secular humanism--the shift away from a theocentric view of the world to the belief in the centrality of man and his power to shape the world--created an environment conducive to the painting of things made, cultivated, and consumed by individuals. The growth of empirical science, emphasizing the generation of knowledge through the observation of physical phenomena, also created a disposition favorable to still life. Equally important was the rise of the middle class and its conception of the world, which focused on the material and concrete and defined identity in terms of possessions.
The still life has proven one of the most enduring of artistic subjects. Yet, despite its popularity among painters and the public, early critics denigrated the theme, claiming that painting objects required only the ability to copy, a merely mechanical skill, while depicting the human figure involved invention and imagination, faculties that brought the artist closer to God. Critics also argued that paintings should raise complex moral and intellectual issues, contending that still lifes simply invited the viewer to revel in the painter's technique.
Nevertheless, four centuries later, painters continue to find the deceptively simple still life an enormously flexible subject. Still life paintings give insight into the economies, consumption habits, and everyday rituals of various cultures. They show how attitudes toward the body, display, and possessions have changed over the centuries. Still lifes can convey great drama and emotion, be playful and witty, and communicate high seriousness and purpose.
"Grand Illusions: Four Centuries of Still-Life Painting," an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, begins with still life painting in Holland and Flanders. There, painters established many of the basic formats for the genre: the flowerpiece, the meal, the gamepiece, and the vanitas image, depicting the ephemeral nature of life and its eternal aftermath, which originated in Calvinist Holland and displayed objects such as human skulls, hourglasses, candles on the verge of burning out, and delicate soap bubbles to remind viewers of how fleeting life is and warning them against overindulgence in physical pleasures.
Eighteenth-century still lifes include works by Spanish painter Luis Melendez, who magnified the size of pieces of fruit, vegetables, and vessels to such a degree that they border on hyper-reality. Ironically, Melendez conceived his images of natural abundance during a time of terrible famine, and he made a formal declaration of poverty at the end of his life. Flemish artist Jan Van Huysum rejected the understated compositions of earlier painters and instead celebrated nature's wealth with an exuberant bouquet composed of colorful, costly blooms. Eighteenth-century still lifes also include works by Jean Simeon Chardin, whom many believe defined the genre for successive generations. Chardin's exquisitely sensitive compositions of humble objects demonstrate why author Marcel Proust extolled this painter's ability to breathe life into inanimate objects and to suggest relations between them that seem almost human. …