Still Life Painting: From Europe to China and Back Again

Still life painting has been around since antiquity and can be seen to this day adorning the walls of Egyptian tombs. It was in Holland however, in the 17th century, also known as the Dutch Golden Age, that still life painting was at its pinnacle. The Dutch have long been considered masters of this particular genre and the term 'still life' originated there. Among the more popular pictures sold in the Dutch art markets of the 17th century were banquet scenes of fine foods, meat and exotic fruit; floral studies, with elaborate arrangements and floral varieties; and vanitas pictures, depicting objects that reflected on life's impermanence. A skull, an hourglass or a burning candle were typical objects, serving as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures.

Beyond the Dutch Golden Age, still life painting gained popularity in the 18th century in France and Spain and elsewhere in Europe, though often with an emphasis on the sumptuous and extravagant and without the moralizing messages typical of the Dutch. With the rise of European Academies, particularly in France, which held a central role in art training, still life began to fall out of favor. The academic hierarchy dictated that artistic merit was based on the importance of the subject and biblical, mythological and historical subjects were of the highest importance, relegating still life to the lowest order. Not until the decline of the academic hierarchy and the rise of impressionist and post-impressionist painting, where design took precedence over subject matter, did still life begin to be practiced fervently once again. To this day, this type of painting can be seen in the oeuvre of many a great modern painter, from Cézanne and Manet, to Van Gogh and Picasso.

It was in Europe that still life proliferated and it was European art that impacted those artists in places as far away, socially and culturally, as China. China's venture into the world of Western art began as early as the Ming dynasty, with the introduction of painting techniques by Western missionaries.1 The prevailing attitudes in China in the early 20th century regarding Western painting, was that it should be studied and emulated in the hopes that it would revitalize Chinese culture. In the period following the 1911 Revolution, more and more Chinese artists were studying Western classical painting, some traveling to Europe to fully immerse in its history and techniques.2 After World War II and Communism's triumph, Socialist Realism became the official style and oil paint the official medium, according the Soviet model. Artists were sent to be trained in the academies of the Soviet Union and much of the art of the period was devoted to heroic representations of those who fought the great battle to bring change to China.3 Despite a propensity for political art during this period, other subjects including still life were still in practice. In Chinese still life there is a richness of detail often photographic in quality, that immerged from the rigorous academic study of so many artists. The Soviets believed in a strong background of precision drawing and classical European painting techniques. Chinese still life painting to this day, engages the viewer with a high realism and depth of rendering that is truly remarkable.

We can also observe the strength and endurance of still life painting among Western contemporary artists today. With no lack of variation and enthusiasm, these artists bring their own unqiue styles and approaches to an age-old genre.

For more information on any of the paintings in this online exhibition please click on the image or contact the gallery at Tel: 416-962-0438