One of the principal genres (subject types) of Western art – essentially, the subject matter of a still life painting or sculpture is anything that does not move or is dead

Paul Cézanne, 'Still Life with Water Jug' circa 1892-3
Paul Cézanne
Still Life with Water Jug circa 1892-3
Oil on canvas
support: 530 x 711 mm
frame: 710 x 900 x 90 mm
Bequeathed by C. Frank Stoop 1933

Introduction

Still life includes all kinds of man-made or natural objects, cut flowers, fruit, vegetables, fish, game, wine and so on. Still life can be a celebration of material pleasures such as food and wine, or often a warning of the ephemerality of these pleasures and of the brevity of human life (see memento mori).

In the hierarchy of genres (or subject types) for art established in the seventeenth century by the French Academy, still life was ranked at the bottom – fifth after history painting, portraiture, genre painting (scenes of everyday life) and landscape. Still life and landscape were considered lowly because they did not involve human subject matter.

In modern art simple still life arrangements have often been used as a relatively neutral basis for formal experiment, for example byPaul Cézanne, the cubist painters and, later in the twentieth century, by Patrick Caulfield.

Note the plural of still life is still lifes, and the term is not hyphenated.

The development of still life

Using still objects as a subject for art is something that spans the centuries, and there has been surprisingly little change in the type of objects used. But the way they have been depicted has changed, reflecting developments in style and technique.

1 of 20
  • Edward Collier, 'Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes'' 1696
    Edward Collier
    Still Life with a Volume of Wither's 'Emblemes' 1696
    Oil on canvas
  • Robert Edge Pine, 'Still Life with Palette and Brushes, Fruit and Flowers' circa 1760-70
    Robert Edge Pine
    Still Life with Palette and Brushes, Fruit and Flowers circa 1760-70
    Oil on canvas
    unconfirmed: 452 x 617 mm
    Bequeathed by Mrs Nancy McLean 1993
  • Benjamin Blake, 'Still Life' ?1829
    Benjamin Blake
    Still Life ?1829
    Oil on wood
    support: 254 x 200 mm
    Bequeathed by Sir Henry Layard GCB 1913
  • Roderic O'Conor, 'Still Life with Bottles' 1892
    Roderic O'Conor
    Still Life with Bottles 1892
    Oil on canvas
    support: 552 x 464 mm
    Purchased 1957
  • Vanessa Bell, 'Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece' 1914
    Vanessa Bell
    Still Life on Corner of a Mantelpiece 1914
    Oil on canvas
    support: 559 x 457 mm
    frame: 614 x 512 x 49 mm
    Purchased 1969© The estate of Vanessa Bell
  • Georges Braque
    Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece 1911
    Oil on canvas
    support: 810 x 600 mm
    frame: 935 x 723 x 74 mm
    Purchased with assistance from a special government grant and with assistance from the Art Fund 1978© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2004
  • Pablo Picasso, 'Still Life' 1914
    Pablo Picasso
    Still Life 1914
    © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002
  • Fernand Léger, 'Still Life with a Beer Mug' 1921-2
    Fernand Léger
    Still Life with a Beer Mug 1921-2
    Oil on canvas
    support: 921 x 600 mm
    frame: 1074 x 747 x 70 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Winifred Nicholson, 'Window-Sill, Lugano' 1923
    Winifred Nicholson
    Window-Sill, Lugano 1923
    Oil on board
    support: 286 x 508 mm
    frame: 345 x 584 x 55 mm
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1940© Tate
  • Ben Nicholson OM, '1934-6 (painting - still life)' 1934-6
    Ben Nicholson OM
    1934-6 (painting - still life) 1934-6
    Oil and gesso on canvas
    unconfirmed: 410 x 506 mm
    Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax and allocated to the Tate Gallery 1995© The Estate of Ben Nicholson. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2002
  • André Derain, 'Still Life' circa 1938-43
    André Derain
    Still Life circa 1938-43
    Oil on canvas
    frame: 1109 x 1677 x 60 mm
    support: 885 x 1458 mm
    Purchased with assistance from Cognac Courvoisier 1986© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Giorgio Morandi, 'Still Life' 1946
    Giorgio Morandi
    Still Life 1946
    Oil on canvas
    support: 375 x 457 mm frame: 533 x 613 x 65 mm
    Presented by Studio d'Arte Palma, Rome 1947© DACS, 2002
  • John Bratby, 'Still Life with Chip Frier' 1954
    John Bratby
    Still Life with Chip Frier 1954
    Oil on board
    support: 1314 x 921 mm frame: 1686 x 1278 x 135 mm
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1956
  • William Scott, 'Ochre Still Life' 1958
    William Scott
    Ochre Still Life 1958
    Oil on canvas
    support: 864 x 1118 mm
    Purchased 1962© The estate of William Scott
  • Andy Warhol, 'Black Bean' 1968
    Andy Warhol
    Black Bean 1968
    © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Right Society (ARS), New York and DACS, London
  • Adrian Stokes, 'Still Life: Last Eleven (No. 11)' 1972
    Adrian Stokes
    Still Life: Last Eleven (No. 11) 1972
    Oil on canvas
    support: 356 x 457 mm
    frame: 380 x 480 x 44 mm
    Purchased 1983© The estate of Adrian Stokes
  • William Brooker, 'Still Life, New Studio' 1974
    William Brooker
    Still Life, New Studio 1974
    Oil on canvas
    support: 914 x 914 mm
    frame: 958 x 964 x 40 mm
    Purchased 1975© The estate of William Brooker
  • Hans Landsaat, 'Red Still Life' 1980
    Hans Landsaat
    Red Still Life 1980
    Screenprint on paper
    image: 730 x 807 mm
    Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1980© DACS, 2002
  • Andrew Lord, 'breathing' 1996–2000
    Andrew Lord
    breathing 1996–2000
    © Andrew Lord
  • Sarah Lucas, 'The Old In Out' 1998
    Sarah Lucas
    The Old In Out 1998
    Polyurethane
    displayed: 400 x 360 x 520 mm, 14 kg
    Purchased 1999© Sarah Lucas

Further reading (and listening!)

Focus: Dead Standing Things: Still Life 1660–1740
This display examined the origins of still life in Britain…read the display text to find out more.

Still life in focus

Nathaniel Bacon: Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit 1620-5

Sir Nathaniel Bacon, 'Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit' circa 1620-5
Sir Nathaniel Bacon
Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit circa 1620-5
Oil on canvas
unconfirmed: 1510 x 2475 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1995

Work of the week: Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit by Sir Nathaniel Bacon
Read an introduction to this painting which celebrates abundance.

Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit
Listen to different perspectives on the work by curator Tim Batchelor and gardener Alys Fowler.

Art can be good for you
Find out how Bacon’s painting, along with others in Tate’s collection, has the feel-good factor.

Discover what else was happening in the art world at the time when Bacon painted his Cookmaid…

Patrick Caulfield: Pop-inspired still lifes

Patrick Caulfield, 'Sweet Bowl' 1967
Patrick Caulfield
Sweet Bowl 1967
Screenprint on paper
image: 559 x 914 mm
Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975© Patrick Caulfield. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2002

Patrick Caulfield exhibition
Read the online guide to the Patrick Caulfied exhibition at Tate in 2013 for an introduction to the artist and the development of his work.

Patrick Caulfield, Interior With a Picture: i-map animation
Explore one of Caulfield’s paintings in detail with this animation.

I’ve known very few people with such a profound sense of self-certainty
In this touching personal account, the esteemed playwright David Hare remembers the life and times of his friend Patrick Caulfield.

Prunella Clough: Everyday objects abstracted

Clough often explored the nature of ordinary objects as if they were unfamiliar, using their shapes, textures and colour to inspire abstract artworks, and in doing this endow the ordinary with a lyrical presence.

Prunella Clough, photograph of plastic buckets stacked up underneath a shop window, Tate Archive
Prunella Clough
Colour photograph of plastic buckets stacked up underneath a shop window [1990s]
View this item in Art & Artists
Prunella Clough, 'Stack' 1993
Prunella Clough
Stack 1993
© The estate of Prunella Clough

Prunella Clough exhibition
Discover Clough’s work and what inspires her in this online guide to Tate’s 2007 exhibition.

Prunella Clough in Tate’s archive
Explore the photographs Clough used as source material for her work and browse her fascinating sketchbooks and other items to see how she developed her ideas.

Other perspectives

Cildo Meireles, 'Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project' 1970
Cildo Meireles
Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project 1970
Transfer text on glass bottle, metal and soft drink, in three parts
object, each: 250 x 60 x 60 mm
Presented by the artist 2006, accessioned 2007© Cildo Meireles

How We Are: Photographing Britain: How We Are Now: Still Life
Browse still life themed photographs taken by members of the public on the occasion of the 2009 Tate Britain exhibition How We Are: Photographing Britain.

Coca-Cola, but not as you know it
Assistant curator Eleanor Clayton explores the hidden message in these apparently ordinary coke bottles

In context

Picasso: Peace and Freedom: Still Lifes
Explore Picasso’s still lifes from the 1940s to the 1960s in the context of the history of the period, in this online guide for Tate Liverpool’s 2011 Picasso exhibition.

Archive photos and sketchbooks
Explore fascinating still life source photographs and development sketches used by artists such as Paul Nash and Keith Vaughan in Tate’s archive.

Keith Vaughan Drawing of a still life 1951, Tate Archive
Keith Vaughan
Drawing of a still life [1951]
© The estate of Keith Vaughan
Paul Nash, Black and white negative, still life flints on a doormat date not known
Paul Nash
Black and white negative, still life flints on a doormat, date not known
© Tate
View item in Art & Artists

In detail

A Technical Study of Picasso’s Construction Still Life 1914
A detailed examination of the construction techniques used by Picasso in making this groundbreaking still life relief.

Related glossary terms

Cubism, memento mori, found object, genres