Up until the mid-19th century, the hierarchy of genres in painting was a universally accepted fact. The most important genre being history, followed by portraiture and then finally still life and landscape. Today we find this academically rigid structure hollow and restrictive. This a logical progression considering our democratically oriented culture. A work should be judged by its intrinsic artistic quality instead of its ‘caste.’
The elimination of the hierarchy of painting was essential to seeing the true value of specific works. Unfortunately, the calamity caused by this necessary revolution of the artistic class system eventually expanded to consume some of the fundamental and inseparable principles of art: beauty, design and poetic vision.
Still life painting in its most prosaic form is a simple exercise in the copying of objects onto canvas. The upmost importance is placed on accurate representation. Composition becomes an autonomous formula involving tonal gradations and abstract geometries. Some recent academies have even suggested specific percentages of light, shadow and half-tone for the ‘proper’ still life. The subject is reduced to an applied narrative and hollow symbols. The introduction of photographic seeing has only justified these erroneous convictions of the second rate.
At its very best, the genre of still life becomes an existential vision of the artist’s internal world. Composition, light effect, color and tone are coalesced via artistic vision to transcend narrative and become visual poetry.
One of the painters to do this was Jean Simeon Chardin(1699-1779). His greatness as an artist is derived from not what he put in his pictures, but how he painted them. His compositions are a natural evolution of the study of relationships between different objects under a particular light effect. Arguably, his most powerful pictures are his most simple ones.
Chardin is also the paragon for non-photographic seeing. Observation of nature was his prime concern. He even lamented the contemporary academic approach of art instruction and its neglect of direct observation. Diderot quoted Chardin as saying: “After interminable days and nights burning the midnight oil in front of immobile, inanimate nature, we are presented with living nature; and suddenly the work of all the proceeding years seems reduced to nothing: one was no more awkward the very first time one picked up the pencil. You have to train your eye to look at nature; and how many have never seen it and never will.”
There have been many great still life painters before and since Chardin. Caravaggio, Velasquez, and Fantin la Tour are a few that come to mind at the moment.
I have dedicated a decent amount of time to the genre myself. The image below is an image of a recent still life that I completed. It definitely reveals my interest in Chardin. The painting was included in the 2010 Richeson75 still life show and is at auction at the Brigham galleries. You can find the auction here.