Charley Toorop, Still life with skull, 1929, oil on panel, Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo, © ADAGP, Paris
Still life had its golden age in the 17th century, notably in northern Europe with the paintings of Pieter Claesz (c. 1597-1660) as well as those of Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). These works do not show human figures but rather dishes, fruits, vegetables, objects and flowers, often symbolic vanitas. At times considered simply as an exercise, the genre remained minor in the Western pictorial tradition in the face of history painting and portraiture. Having fallen into oblivion in the 19th century, the still life is often associated with women’s artistic practice illustrating the lack of critical consideration for female creators. The association between femininity and floral painting was the fruit of activity in porcelain and ceramic workshops as well as that of textile manufacturers. This was the case for Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) in the Omega Workshops she created with the Bloomsbury Group in 1913, where she designed plant motifs for English interiors.
The still life’s ambiguity is clear throughout the careers of the artists. Sometimes as a practical exercise, women artists made their mark with still lifes before turning to practices that better suited them. Émilie Charmy (1878-1974) painted still lifes, but it was in her brothel scenes and portraits of the author Colette (1873-1954) that she found her own means of expression and established her work’s originality. Both Betty Goodwin in Romania, (1923-2008) and Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) in the United States, began their apprenticeships with this exercise, not aiming at audacity and creativity but rather the accuracy of line and study. This idea is also confirmed in contemporary art with Carole Benzaken (b. 1964), for example, who began by representing tulips as a means to question the meaning of the image and the pictorial tradition.
Yet still life is also a genre in and of itself. After the war Geneviève Asse (b. 1923) created still lifes that she limited to only three colours – white, black and ochre. This almost monochromatic approach allowed her to access a greater freedom and amplitude in her way of making. This pictorial genre is found in aesthetic research of artistic movements. As such, Maria Blanchard (1881-1932) and Valéria Dénes (1877-1915) realised still lifes in the cubist style while Charley Toorop (1891-1955) worked in a more realistic style. In her work Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) confronted still lifes with landscapes. This modernity also has an echo in photographic practices. Aenne Biermann (1898-1933) fixed still lifes to film in strict compositions and structures before reworking them using editing techniques. In Japan, where flower painting is a traditional art, Fujio Yoshida (1887-1987) appropriated floral motifs and worked them to the point of organic abstraction. She realised these forms with different techniques, including woodblocks, engravings and oil painting. For certain female artists in the West, these representations became a means of expression that they appropriated to change their meaning, as did Juliette Roche (1884-1982) by inserting strong political messages into her works.
The still life reinvented itself in performance and installation as seen in the work of the Czech artist Jana Sterback (b. 1953) and Gloria Friedmann (b. 1950) from Germany, where it is nourished by current issues relating to ecology and the environment.
The pioneering female artists from the 17th and 18th century have been celebrated in group exhibitions such as Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC in 2019-2020, as well as in retrospectives such as The Art of Clara Peeters at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. However, it must be noted that few exhibitions are devoted to still lifes of the 19th and 20th centuries, which is one of the consequences of the ambivalence of this artistic genre.