Saturday, 28 May 2011


“Man will begin to recover the moment he takes art as seriously as physics, chemistry or money.” - Ernst Levy

A still life is a work of art that typically shows inanimate subject matter, either natural (flowers, plants, rocks, food, shells, etc) or manufactured (books, vases, drinking glasses, jewellery, coins, pipes, etc). The origins of this type of art is to be found in Ancient Greece with many extant examples, but also numerous descriptions of (now lost) art works in literature. In the Middle Ages, a rich trove of still life painting can be found in illuminated manuscripts, while with the advent of the popularity of the panel painting, Flemish, Dutch and German exemplars were soon imitated across Europe.

Still life paintings give the artist freedom of expression, as well as allowing much leeway in selection of subject matter, colours, composition and technique than do most other genres of painting (e.g. portraits). Still life paintings before 1700 often contained religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted. For example, a common example of still life with an obvious meaning is the “Vanitas” type, where the mortality of human beings is highlighted by the depiction of ephemeral beauty (e.g. a flower), an example of death (e.g. a skull) and a reference to the passage of time (e.g. an hourglass).

Other types of thematic still life paintings especially popular in the baroque period were flowerpieces, usually of very ornate vases filled with a profusion of flowers of every kind; the four seasons, with reference to objects typical of each one; the four continents, the four elements and so on. Other types of still life painting chose as their theme various occupations (butcher, fishmonger, cook, man of letters, etc) and the objects depicted were appropriate to the métier illustrated.

Another common example of allegorical still life was the depiction of the five senses: Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. This allowed the artist free rein to pick subjects that illustrated the five senses, but there was also a formulaic association of certain objects with the senses. Musical instruments were always a good choice for the sense of hearing, flowers for the sense of smell, items of food for taste, rich cloth like velvet for touch and a mirror for the sense of sight. The contemplation of such paintings could be the source of much reflection and philosophising, especially if one considered the deterioration of the acuity of the senses with advancing age. Similarly, the artist could introduce much contrast in the objects depicted, giving a didactic indication of “good versus evil” where the senses are concerned.

Illustrated here is a typical such still life depicting the five senses. It is by Frenchman Jacques Linard, who had many such thematic works in his oeuvre. Still life paintings have always been popular as they are highly decorative and appeal to a wide variety of tastes. Artists could make a decent living from still life paintings if the public found their work appealing.

Jacques Linard (1597-1645) was baptised on the 6th of September, 1597. The first record of being an artist was in the 1620’s. He was in Paris by 1626, and his first securely attributed still-life work is dated the following year. He was married in 1626 to the daughter of a Parisian Master Painter. He lived in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, where a number of French still-life painters such as Louise Moillon and Lubin Baugin worked alongside Flemish artists specialising in this genre.

In 1631 he was created Peintre et Valet de Chambre du Roi, a post that guaranteed him a degree of financial independence. Linard’s works of 1627-44 were mainly of fruit and flowers; with Louise Moillon, however, he was among the first French artists to combine successfully the female form with still-life elements. A painting such as Basket of Flowers (Paris, Louvre) owes something to Flemish prototypes in the anachronistic grouping of flowers that span several months. Patiently recording the flowers as they bloomed, and working on the picture from a series of drawings and sketches, Linard demonstrated his commitment to working from nature. However, this work also has a distinctively French elegance and economy of composition.

In the painting above, “The Five Senses”, Linard follows the well-established successful formula of this type of still life painting, with numerous references not only to the senses, but also with acknowledgement of the moralisation common in other types of still life like the “Vanitas”. There is a sumptuous blue velvet purse illustrating touch, but next to it are cards and silver coins. The moral there is: “Beware! Lovely to hold, but easy to lose if you succumb to the evil of gambling…” A landscape painting within this painting and a mirror refer to sight, as does the vase of multi-coloured blooms. The flowers of course refer to the sense of smell, as does the fruit, which pays homage to both smell and taste. The open music manuscript book is a reference to the sense of hearing. The contents of the two boxes are perhaps to add fuel to our sense of curiosity, but maybe not!


  1. Nicholas, I couldn't agree more with your Ernst Levy quote. So much of humankind's striving is material/worldly that 'inner' life is neglected.
    Still lifes seem to have gone out of fshion, but they point towards contemplation as an antidote to busy, obsessive living.
    The still life is still alive in conemporary art, do you think?

  2. What a beautiful painting Nic!!!
    I can see why that sort of art would have been popular then.....
    Unless I knew before hand what you explained I would have just looked at the painting and seen it as a random collection of objects......
    Interesting to know the history of it!!!!

  3. I think it was often essential for the painter to give the viewer clues as to what the inner meaning of the painting might have been. Linard explicitly called the painting "The Five Senses" so that the references to the senses would stand out.

    If he had called it A Bowl of Fruit on a Table, the well-read contemporary viewer might have found moralising symbols, as in other vanitas paintings. Or not.

    Thanks for the link. It has added to my thinking on vanitas paintings.