Exercise: Create a version of a Dutch still life or interior

The idea of this exercise is relatively straight forward and the title is self-explanatory but first it is suggested to do some research into the iconography of As the course material states still life paintings were often known as ‘vanitas’ paintings and often the objects had direct meanings.

The actual term of still-life only appeared in the mid 16th Century but this type of painting was used as far back as Egyptian times when it adorned tombs.  Food and the other items depicted on the tomb murals were thought to be come real items in the afterlife and so objects were chosen that would be useful. Greek vases, wall paintings and floor mosaics also depicted similar items including food and flowers.

Moving forward to the 1300 still life was then depicted in the fictional niches on religious paintings with the items chosen being everyday objects.  By the 16th century the development of oil painting meant artists were able to paint in a hyper-realistic style and flowers as well as food appeared as symbols of the seasons and five senses.  The use of objects with symbolic meaning became common place for these still life works which became known as the aforesaid vanitas paintings which were rendered with great skill – despite the absence of figures the works became ones with allegorical or narrative meanings.

Having researched online I found a useful article  in a blog called The Berkemeyer Project [online pages 1/3] which listed various objects (for Dutch art) and the meanings that they are supposed to have had (evening though apparently scholars still argue over them).  The common ones that are listed and that I have seen in various still life paintings are (please note I quote and list directly from the article albeit abbreviated):

  • SKULL: death – a memento mori which was a reminder  life is very fleeting and is a recognize symbol of death universally. This symbol has been used since Roman times.
  • WATCH OR HOURGLASS: time is limited and is passing – used wisely in paintings and carefully.
  • BOOKS: human knowledge with its temporary nature.
  • ARTIST’S INSTRUMENTS: indulgence in the arts – the majority of people could not afford to be patrons of the art never mind affording to be artists.
  • SHELL: normally exotic and not commonly available in The Netherlands – symbol of vanity that comes from wealth due to the exotic nature.
  • INSECTS/DECAYING FLOWERS: transience of life – reminder that life is temporary and moral considerations deserved more attention that material things.
  • BROKEN/TIPPED OVER GLASSWARE: another symbol of the transience of life or fleeting nature.
  • MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: indulgence of the senses as luxury or representing artistic inspiration (music inspired artists).
  • SILK/VELVET TABLECLOTHS: vanity due to their expense – silk was the most expensive fabric and purple the most expensive dye.
  • ORIENTAL RUGS/CARPETS: due to the incredible expense often these carpets/rugs were placed on tables to avoid stepping on them and hence the colour or integrity decaying so consequently they were a symbol of wealth and also of pride as they would have come into the United Provinces through trade and commerce.
  • JEWELRY/CLOTHES/MIRRORS: reminder of the temporary nature of beauty, wealth and wisdom due to their earthly nature and reminder of the fact that life should be lived according to the modesty traditions of the time.
  • MIRROR: symbol of vanity that should be avoided.
  • JARS: usually used for oil or water which were essential to sustain life in the 16-17th Century.

In addition I have also seen other objects used in still life paintings such as scientific instruments that were though to be symbolic of the inadequacy of human knowledge (in relation to that of divine knowledge) or the placement of a candle which is another reminder for how short life is.

It is now interesting to look deeper into a painting and to realize the placement of objects that have more meaning than you first realize and question what the artist is referring to – a simple watch or carefully place instrument or glass on its side now become narrative.

IMG_5609As part of my research it is suggested in the course material to paint a still life and having struggled with creating a Dutch still-life I felt more confident in doing a more contemporary version but one that could have existed in the time period albeit with a palette for the paints instead of tubes and obviously books relating to the time period. I do not have oil paints so substituted acrylics on acrylic paper in the colours of Paynes Grey, Ultramarine blue, Cerulean blue, Yellow Ochre, Burnt umber, Cadmium Red and Titanium white.


Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc (2016). Vanitas Art [online] [Date Accessed:  June 2016]. Available from:   http://www.britannica.com/art/vanitas-art

Rodrigues, L (2012).  The Berkemeyer Project [online] [Date Accessed: June 2016]. Available from:  http://levinrodriguez.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/symbolic-meaning-of-objects-used-in.html


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