10 Known (and lesser-known) Still Life Paintings and Why They're Great (or not)
Still Life Pop Quiz!
How many of the following ten famous (and not so famous) paintings do you recognize?
How many were you able to identify? Tell me in the comments!
Let's go through one by one and talk about the merits and or problems in each. I'll break these paintings down for you and give you my score for each one out of 10 (you can tell me whether you agree or not).
I hope the following analysis of these 10 paintings helps you to feel more confident in judging still life paintings that you encounter and more able to enjoy beautiful works of art!
1. Still Life with Sugar by Paul Cezanne
Cezanne was, by most accounts, an earnest soul and an extremely hard worker, but he was not particularly talented at the craft of painting. This may have been a primary cause that lead him to seek directions with his painting other than intentional mimesis of reality.
This work is typical of his rift with traditional (accurate) drawing techniques in favor of a jarring rupture with perspective that he claimed to make for compositional reasons. While having a pleasing sense of color and some fun forms and textures, the overall lack of visual unity here is a very serious defect; others, later in the 20th Century, used his work to justify even more serious and ugly departures from the beauty of truth. Because I know his inaccurate drawing was intentional, I am particularly offended by the work of Cezanne.
On a scale of 1-10: 4.5
2. Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio
The early Baroque master Caravaggio's fidelity to light and form is wonderful. This basket glowing with golden light. The form of the subject has an accuracy that shocked audiences of his time and still remains potent for us today. His love of detail particularly is remarkable; his work has a visual unity beyond what the Dutch school painters achieved in painting similar subjects.
A possible flaw to mention is the consistant, cut-out edge that surrounds almost every object. Later, more advanced small 'i' impressionist artists like Valazques and Vermeer would have blurred and softened such edges for the sake of depth and visual unity.
On a scale of 1-10: 8.5
3. Still Life with Lemon by Picasso
Garish colors, vertigo-causing swirls and lines, textures that seem best described as crude and even rude... Picasso takes the errors of Cezanne and makes them the center of his work which is an assault on the tradition of beauty in the visual arts -- and painting in particular. This destruction, enabled by a cabal of artists, art dealers, art critics, and big money, ravaged the practice of painting and caused great confusion in the general population as to the general sense of beauty in the 20th century. Hopeful signs of cultural recovery today are in spite of works like these.
On a scale of 1-10: -10
4. Still Life with Sand and Shells by Robert Douglas Hunter
Hunter: Beautiful, peaceful compositions. Always with a sense of calm and harmonious colors and object sizes, Hunter described his work as "little tunes." Informed by the Boston School tradition of painting, his technical work is usually strong, but can sometimes suffer from a look of shallowness of form and hard-edged-ness in shape.
On a scale of 1-10: 7.5
5. Still Life: Vase with Three Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh
Lovely color contrast and lively shapes. Van Gogh is a "post-impressionist" particularly noted for his thick paint application and his departure from strict realism. Though many claim his lack of realism was intentional, much evidence indicates that he recognized his inability to render the fullness of seen beauty as a shortcoming in his work. His letters seem to indicate his dissatisfaction with his own draftsmanship. A little-known fact is that he worked through the Bargue Drawing Course numerous times in an effort to improve his ability to accurately depict shapes and forms.
I believe that, despite these shortcomings and due to his honesty in striving towards beauty - not making his deficits into virtues - his paintings, including this one, often have charm and beauty.
On a scale of 1-10: 5
6. Still Life with Teapot by Emil Carlsen
An American painter from Denmark, Emil Carlson produced paintings with great balance and craft. He is particularly notable for his atmosphere, where all of the edges are beautifully balanced and the objects pop out and sink into their background just as they do in life. His paintings have magnificent technical strength and often involve beautifully brilliant colors, like those of his contemporary impressionists.
On a scale of 1-10: 9.5
7. Still Life with Blue Bowl by Carl Schmitt
A really underrated American artist from the 20th Century, Carl Schmitt combines many of the experiments of the impressionist and post-impressionists in beautiful lively still life painting. Where Seurat's " A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" feels stifled and stiff, Schmitt is able to take the truths of optical color mixing and make subtle and amazing works with these rather non-traditional methods.
If you are able to see these paintings in real life, their vibrant liveliness jumps off the canvas in a way totally unexpected and far greater than mere reproduction can accomplish.
If his work has a flaw it is a bit of a lack of incisiveness in drawing, shape, and form -- more than made up for by his brilliant sense of depth and color.
On a scale of 1-10: 9
8. The Dining Room Table by Frank Benson
A loosely painted beautiful still life full of color and atmosphere. This is a typical example of a Boston School Still life, with lovely variety of edges and tones that produce depth and visual interest. A bit rougher than many still life paintings, but thoroughly entertaining in its uneven brush marks resolving into a beautiful sense of reality.
On a scale of 1-10: 8.5
9. Still Life with Fruit, Wanli Porcelain, and Squirrel by Frans Snyders
This painting by Snyders is typical of the exacting detail and delicacy of good Flemish painters from his period. The great critique of their work is that while they have drawn every detail faithfully, they often miss a sense of the grand sweep of light, the sense of forms, and the overall atmosphere (I discussed this concept in my post on Breadth). A glaring example in this painting is the way that the plate on the table feels 'flat' - the front and back feel as if they are the same distance away from the viewer due to an evenness in treatment that robs it of its three dimensional sense of projection.
While epic and rich in its subject matter, Boston School impressionists would rightly regard this as a primitive way of painting which Valazquez and Vermeer would later take great steps beyond.
On a scale of 1-10: 6
10. Roses by John Singer Sargent
A seemingly effortless small sketch, this painting is a really impressive piece of visual poetry. The economy of means by which Sargent painted these flowers and arranged this pleasing little composition is so deft as to be almost taken for granted. Visual truth is presented well, if not completely, in its essentials leading the painters of the Boston School to refer with grudging admiration to Sargent as "the greatest of sketch artists." The magic and liveliness of Sargent's sketches so often surpass even the carefully completed work of the other greatest painters in history; it is a truly remarkable accomplishment.
On a scale of 1-10: 9
I mention Vermeer and Velasquez a few times above. They are role models for Boston School painters, though a bit tricky to use in a study like this, as neither was known as a still life artist. Nonetheless, here are examples of the work of each for your reference:
Bonus: The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
Bonus: The Waterseller of Seville by Diego Velasquez
Maybe you agree with my analysis, maybe not - do tell.
The important thing is that you remember that art can and should be judged, and that art should be beautiful.
You may also be interested in: Why Still Life?
To see some of my still life portfolio, click here.
Guest post by Deirdre M. Folley
Have you ever been at a loss when it comes time to choose a gift for your loved one?
Whether you're a gift-giving maven or gift-giving-challenged, I think the story of Micah's thoughtful First Anniversary gift will inspire you.
Newlyweds Micah and Megan had agreed that they would not exchange presents for their first year anniversary. John and I have certainly been in that boat! In a busy season (in this case, a baby on the way), it does take the pressure off to know that you won't disappoint your spouse if there's a mutual agreement that no gift is necessary nor expected.
But Micah had other schemes in mind.
"Megan's father is a great gift giver. He's always great about giving his wife and daughters flowers - always so on top of it. I know I cannot compete," Micah told John of the family he'd married into.
When they discussed exchanging gifts on their first anniversary, Megan agreed that Micah could give her flowers - just flowers.
"As I approached the end of the first year of marriage I wanted to give my wife something special. She loves flowers, especially ranunculus. Their rose-like blossoms have tissue-thin petals and come in a range of beautiful colors. The dilemma I faced is that these exquisite flowers fade quickly. Thus the idea was born to capture these flowers permanently." - Micah
So the commission that John received was to paint a small oil painting - one small enough to fit standing up on Megan's desk, the way a vase of flowers would be set - of her favorite kind of flower, the ranunculus.
"It was a fun occasion for me to have some beautiful, florist-sent blooms in the studio," says John, "since of course I wanted to work from life to capture these flowers with all their delicacy and liveliness." We ordered a selection of the blooms and John chose the best colors for his composition, narrowing down on just a few in order to fit their detail onto a demure 8"x6" canvas.
"Working with John on the idea was a delight and he captured their beauty and delicacy perfectly!" Micah told me, "My wife proudly displays her favorite flowers on our living room mantle for all to see and enjoy knowing they will always be in full bloom."
Of course, the final cleverness of Micah's commission is that the first wedding anniversary is traditionally observed as the Paper Anniversary; thus, the gift delivered on canvas (close enough to paper!) ties in doubly well in this case.
We were impressed with Micah's thoughtfulness in bringing this project to John, and delighted to see it come to fruition in time for a late Fall anniversary. Our best wishes to the newlyweds, now one year in!
If you're interested in commissioning your own piece, be sure to take a look at my commissions page.
If you were to plan a commissioned fine art gift this year, what would be the occasion?
Auction for Hydrangea Tea
To learn more about this piece, check out yesterday's blog post.
For now, just a few final glimpses at the painting and then on to the auction rules!
18"x20", oil on canvas
starting bid: $900
Auction for Tea and Twine
Last week's auction on Dulcinea was a great time - we're looking forward to Round 2!
Before I say anything else: a big thanks to those who bid (and won!) and also to those who reached out to let us know what paintings they'd like to see put up for auction. If you haven't told me yet what your favorite painting(s) is/are, please do so now! Drop me a line at email@example.com! We haven't finished deciding what will come up next in this Crazy Auction series, so your input will be carefully considered!
Without further ado: Today's 2nd Crazy Auction painting is Tea and Twine!
Tea and Twine
14"x11" oil on canvas
If you're familiar with my still life portfolio, you know that I tend towards painting more formal scenes. This still life was a little more playful for me, with the more casual elements and brights colors. Here I let the few simple objects speak for themselves. In keeping with my theme of spouted vessels, I chose the tea kettle mostly for its popping and vivid color! A sort of tea time feeling came through with the buttery color of the twine...
A kettle and some twine have a practical feeling, but clearly there's time for enjoyment when it comes to stacking sugar cubes!
I can see this painting in a kitchen, a breakfast nook, a dining room, a sitting room... and anywhere that could use some beauty and warmth and the kind breath of calm and cheer that comes with a peaceful pause on an afternoon.
We have updated the rules slightly, so please read through below!
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley, an oil painter in the Boston School tradition. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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