A Little Philosophy of a Still Life

When I was about fifteen I thought still life paintings were one of the most boring kinds of art to exist. I’d just started learning about art seriously. In my drawing classes I was assigned still lifes to learn classical drawing skills like smooth shading and dimension and lost and found edges. If I could learn to draw the contours of a pear, I was told, I could learn to draw the contours of a body. I thought that still lifes were meant for that. They were studies and practices and tools to get to something else. I even spent a good eight months of Wednesday classes drawing and redrawing and adjusting my drawing of a still life painting by William Harnett.

In the past year I’ve learned more about the history of the still life, and realized it’s much more of a complex and meaningful genre than I once perceived it to be. It actually was not as old and archaic in painting as I once thought it was. Though it has very ancient roots, it emerged as its own genre during the 16th century. And though still lifes are often created for solely decorative and aesthetic purposes, considered on the low rungs in the hierarchy of genres, they have often been created for their symbolism. Many of these pieces are memento mori, serving as reminders of mortality through the use of objects like skulls and perishable items like oysters, fruits, and flowers. 

I collect things. I collect ideas and tidbits of information and old pieces of paper. I have boxes filled with tiny fragments of my life tied strongly to emotions and past identities and people. I therefore understand the capacity of objects for meaning. I understand why that Harnett painting I once spent so much time on is called “My Gems” and contains a few certain inanimate objects that each show up over and over in his other still life works. I understand the value of metaphor and personal mythology and I try and plant some for myself. I try to keep collecting.

The idea of a still life is beautiful for its ability to represent a shivering slice of time with nothing more than pigment on a flat surface and to create an emotional or philosophical register through the depiction of inanimate objects on a table top. I chose it as a title and I guess a little bit of a theme for this blog because I am supplying snapshots of small and still things that I hope can gesture in the direction of something bigger and deeper. The term “still life” makes me think of a peaceful place that I hope my life will someday bring me to. 

Because of their use of memento mori, still lifes also remind me of one of my favorite quotes, which says, “I don't deny that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet” (G. K. Chesterton, Manalive).