An essay on making the most of social distancing, solitude in the time of a pandemic with the contemplative process of still life painting. By Brian Keeler
Contemplative experiences, say like painting for instance, can be perfect for times of social distancing. Actually, as painting has been my career, time alone in the studio is not that different. However, thinking of Henry David Thoreau's self-imposed alone time at Walden Pond, Buddhist monastery experience and meditation in general all seems apropos for these times. So, this winter I have been creating still life paintings with the traditional subtext of importance underscored with fragile and perishable subjects like fruit and flowers- and further augmented with timepieces – a metronome or clocks.
So when was the first still life painted? I have an idea from art history but also because I’ve seen the originals in situ. But like any first, it is probably difficult to pinpoint exactly when somebody with pigments and brush first depicted an everyday object- maybe in the Lascaux caves in France or petroglyphs in the Americas. But there are two paintings that come to mind, both frescos in Italy, that are candidates for the first still life paintings. The older one by about 1500 years is in Pompeii and it depicts a glass bowl with fruit on a shelf vignetted or isolated on a wall. This is a kitchen decorative painting by an artist whose name is lost to us today- no artist signed their names until the renaissance. The other more famous painting is from the early renaissance in the huge cathedral in Florence, Italy- Santa Croce. There is cycle of frescos by Giotto and assistants on the right side of the transept and some believed to be by Taddeo Gaddi, one of Giotto’s team. It depicts a simple vase on a pilaster. It is rather modest and unassuming and easily passed over with all the visual competition. An interesting aside about Gaddi is that there is a traffic circle named after the artist in the oltrarnno district of Florence, which is the area on the opposite side of the Arno River from the center of the city. I always thought is was cool that in Italy,where there are so many public works named after artists; fountains, roads, bridges, the old lire bills with Caravaggio’s portrait instead of war mongers.
However, even though the two aformentioned works preced this one, the first still life is generally attributed by some to a Venetian painter, Jocopo de’ Barbari who painted a dead partridge in 1504. This was about the time that Albrecht Durer was there and the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, so these painters are likely influences. But the title of this work fits in with the later name for the genre, nature morte, which means dead nature in French. There’s a similar iconic little painting called The Gold Finch, painted by a student of Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius. This painting done in the 17th century was the inspiration for best selling novel, "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt a few years ago and a subsequent movie.
Still life as a genre for most of us begins with the Dutch Golden Age, which is the 17th century with painters like Pieter Claesz, Abraham van Beyeren, Willem Heda, Clara Peters and many others. I am sure you have seen some in museums and marveled at their great virtuosity, impressive detail and sophisticated compositions. One of the primary messages of the still lifes of this era is the underscoring of the impermanence of life, the fragility of everyday and our mortality. This is often communicated with skulls, flowers, fruit and other perishables. “Memento Mori” is the is Latin term for the genre. We also think of paintings with a person blowing soap bubbles, as a related style, as they were also illustrating the brevity of time. Another type of still life was the more ostentatious variety that showed abundance, opulence and good fortune. These works were sometimes called “pronk” or “display” paintings. The use of luxury items such as silver, porcelain and expensive glassware like rohmers were often included in these works. Maybe we can refer this type of still life as "bragging rights" for art collectors or for the artists as well.
If we break out of Holland however, we can see that many other countries have some stellar examples of still life painting. Some that I have seen that come to mind, include the Spanish artist, Juan Sanchez Cotan, the American painter William Harnett who popularized the trompe l'oeil method, which means, "fool the eye." I recall doing a painting in this style back in art school, as it was an assigned project for our entire class. I used some antique ice skates, a beer coaster from Munich and other items pinned to barn board.
So my involvement with still life goes back to those days at the York Academy of Arts where two teachers were very accomplished in this genre. Tom Wise and Ted Fitzkee were both accomplished realist painters and they served as wonderful roll models and teachers. I have since then painted still life in spurts and with the current pandemic gripping the world and forcing time at home- this winter has provided an opportunity to reinvestigate the still life with some new ideas and approaches. With death on our minds because of the pandemic it has also underscored the main theme of impermanence. So the contemplative aspects of solitude and meditation along with Buddhist’s principles have been in mind. Also a friend turned me on to a lecture by a woman who is now writing about Thoreau and she reminds me of his interest in the “now.” She brings out that his two year stint more or less alone at Walden Pond was in part a mission to appreciate the quotidian.
One of the aspects of still life painting that I enjoy most is the way this type of painting allows the artist to control, direct, orchestrate and generally create with more personal input. We can select the objects, the light, the angle, the mood and have great fun entertaining and suggesting any accompanying narrative. Speaking of narrative, this is exactly what a workshop instructor told us to accentuate. This was the late Sandra Freckleton, whom I took a workshop with at her studio, which she shared with her artist husband, the late Jack Beal in Oneonta, NY. She said something to her students to the effect of- think of your painting as novel rather than a newspaper report. You are creating a higher truth in other words and not merely or dryly recording facts.
There are three basic approaches to still life painting as I see it. Painting directly from the objects with them right in front of you. Then painting from photos. And perhaps painting from imagination. Then there is any combination of the three. I have been enjoying another option which is a hybrid of still life combined with landscape and sometimes the nude or portrait. These combinations open up the genre and provide an intriguing interplay and dialogue between the interior settings and the close space, the objects in the front then are shown within a deeper space of landscape. With the figure combined too it shows still another aspect of the human living form with either fleeting objects of beauty like flowers and with reminders of our mortality like bones. There are two combinations of these genres that I have not explored yet, which would be combining still life with cityscape or seascape.
To conclude I will just mention it is certainly interesting to see the still life genre exploded in the early 20th century by George Braque and Picasso with their cubist fracturing. But before leaving we should acknowledge Cezanne's work as he represents a special place in the history of still life painting. Having visited his home in Aix en Provence in France and seeing the major exhibit at the Philadelpia Museum of art his work holds a special place for me. As the museum guard at that exhibit said to me as I entered, "Cézanne is the Man." In fact his fractured and process oriented paintings presaged the road towards dissolution that Braque and Picasso trod. Who has not stood in front of a painting by Cezanne and not felt the rush of appreciation at the lush beauty of his color and constructed brushwork and outlines left visible.
A hundred or so years later now, after Braque broke new ground, many of us still find intrigue, growth and potential for the traditional representational process of still life. Recording impressions and interpretations of our lives through the arrangement and portrayal of everyday objects can be a very rewarding pursuit with spiritual and emotional significance.
To a view a video documenting the final touches on the above painting, go to this Youtube link;