12x12 oil on board
Édouard Manet once called still life "the touchstone of painting."
– 'still life' – is intriguing in itself. It holds insights into civilization
December, I have chosen to focus on the genre of painting known as still-life as a matter of practicality. After tearing my ACL in a pickleball game, I found myself mobility challenged with the constraints of crutches. This temporary yet unfortunate situation has a happy serendipitous outcome. It provided me a climate to come inside and really study drawing through the history of the still life lens. Surprisingly, studies show that people generate more rather than less creative solutions when options are limited. Physically unable to trek outside, I focused on quiet inside observations. I discovered how much can be gained from going back to basics. Many art professors today focus so much on the concept behind the art that they lose sight of teaching how to draw fundamentally. Accurate observation of an object is a discipline that has gone in and out of practice in art, yet it can bring great insight and pleasure.
Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks, clay pots, or grinding stones. But no. Mead said that ancient culture's first sign of civilization was a femur (thigh bone) that had been broken and healed. Mead explained that you die if you break your leg in the animal kingdom. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink, or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A fractured femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety, and has tended the person through recovery. Mead explained that helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. I love this story, but what does it have to do with art?
Anthropologists like Meed study objects from the past to discover a culture. Art Historians use objects in paintings to discern much the same thing. Examining the timeline of still-life art history objects is a curious investigation into human history. While the art genre still-life; fruit, flowers, and other everyday objects are a minor genre in art, history depictions dating as far back as prehistoric times provide an excellent window into history. For example, an ancient still-life on the well-known Egyptian Tomb of Menna is covered with rich and well-preserved depictions of day-to-day living and funerary rituals telling modern viewers much about ancient life. Life images continue in classical antiquity during the Greek and Roman periods in the Roman villa walls near Pompeii and Herculaneum. Anthropologists use cues from things as a way to piece together history. They investigate material objects humans have left behind, including tools, jewelry, homes, money, food, and trash. The study of anthropology compares human societies across the globe and across time. It reflected our evolving relationships with other people and cultures. These relationships are deeply connected to political, economic, and social forces at different historical points. Similarly, a still-life is a collection of objects laced together in a composition that has the potential to reveal insights into daily life. Artists were the first to take objects seriously by recognizing their presence, imbuing them with life, and glorifying their forms, meanings, power, and charm. They captured the ability of objects to fire our imagination – to make us believe, doubt, dream, or act.
The seventeenth century, The Dutch Golden Age, is arguably the height of prominence for the genre of still-life. When I was a docent at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, I always included one of the best-known painters in this genre on my tours, Dutch artist Willem Claesz Heda. His style is reserved, characterized by uncluttered compositions and a restrained color palette dominated by shades of grey, yellow, and brown. I often marveled at his depiction of a highly detailed table scene. His technique and skill in painting a massive studded goblet full of white wine arranged alongside an embossed silver cup and two plates full of fish, nuts, and fruit left me in awe. He was not just painting objects - but delivering a moral message through them. His message was to remind us that life is short and that it is folly to dwell on earthly pleasures. This specific still-life, known as a vanitas, provides more than objects present in his day, but also moral ideas that prevailed.
In Margaret Meeds's example, the broken thigh bone is just a found object, but it gives a clue to a more significant idea that civilization survives when we help others. Objects have a story to tell about humanity. Where, when, and why they are found or composed is always relevant. As for me, however, I am simply enjoying the process of drawing, color, composition, and participating in a larger historical genre. Studying from life is a serious disciple with much to teach me. The greater meaning is less important now but will come in time.