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
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.
- Explore still life in Tate’s collection
- Or browse the slideshow below for a snapshot of the development of the still life genre
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.
Nathaniel Bacon: Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit 1620-5
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 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 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.
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
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.
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.