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Transforming the Simple Still Life

One of the appeals of still-life painting is that it can take ordinary humble objects and transform them into art. The observer is presented with depictions of familiar things such as vegetables, pots, and flowers; but they are invested with a quite unfamiliar kind of value.

One of the earliest pure still lifes in European art is the Spanish painter Juan Sanchez Cotan's "Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber." The very arrangement of these illusionistically "real" images of larder items in a contrived geometrical curve, against a black background, demonstrates this process of transformation.

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By using such unexceptional motifs, an artist can feel free to concentrate on the "how" and "why" of his painting more than on the "what." His painting becomes more significant than its subject: He may even think of the objects he organizes and paints as useful vehicles for an exploration of balance, form, color, space, or light, rather than merely as subject matter.

In this process, the individual vision or language of the artist can achieve a distinct independence. Sunflowers become "Van Gogh's sunflowers." A bowl of apples, "Cezanne's apples." A group of bottles, "a Morandi." Such motifs are inclined to be general rather than particular; for example, Van Gogh's sunflowers are typical rather than individual. What makes them unique is his painting of them.

A painting is itself an object. It transforms its subject into this thing called a painting. If this subject matter consists of impermanent or moving objects, they are stilled in the painted image and given permanence by it. So to choose already stationary objects from which to make a painting is to choose a subject that is already "half-way there."

To arrange flowers or dishes of fruit for a still life is to set up and organize something that is a kind of prior metaphor for the act of painting itself. (Of course, such tactics are not confined to still life: Monet planned and planted his garden with future paintings in mind.)

But the humbleness of objects in still-life painting is only one of its aspects. This kind of picture-making seems to have been developed for a variety of reasons. As was borne out by a very striking exhibition on "Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya" at the National Gallery, London, still-life paintings were not, for example, necessarily of "ordinary humble" objects at all.

"Still Life with Artichokes and Vases of Flowers" by Juan van der Hamen y Leon is characteristic of this painter who was an established figure at the court in Madrid when Velazquez arrived there in 1623. The authors of the exhibition book, William B. Jordan and Peter Cherry, write that Van der Hamen specialized in "still lifes that appealed to the courtly taste of affluent private collectors. Luxurious objects of silver-gilt and ormolu, imported porcelain and expensive Venetian glassware were favourite motifs."

The painter clearly did not think of still life as humble, and he depicted the fine objects, as well as fruit, vegetables, and flowers, which were no less exquisitely perfect, as if they were on display like a collector's treasures. Instead of arranging them on a single shelf or table, he invented the device of stepped ledges to allow for an uncluttered and asymmetrical composition.

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It would be wrong to imagine that - like Van Gogh or Cezanne - this 17th-century Spaniard simply stood at his easel in front of such an arrangement and painted it. Instead, "he maintained a repertory of still-life motifs that he reused in different pictures," according to Johnson and Cherry. His motifs were thought of as rearrangeable pictorial elements - painted images of great verisimilitude - rather than actual things.

Whether Francisco de Burgos Mantilla had the same approach to his painting of dried fruit of 1631 is not known. An inventory of his paintings lists a few other still lifes, but none with this subject. And this small picture of nuts and fruits spilling with apparent casualness out of paper bags - as if just brought home from the shop - is literally the only painting by this follower of Velazquez known today. This painting, with its limited palette and lack of pretension, echoes Velazquez's early "bodegones" (paintings of figures and objects). It certainly is still life of the humble sort.

Academic painters tended to relegate still life to the lowest status in the hierarchy of genres. But this lofty contempt for lowly subjects (as if all still lifes were inevitably lowly) has never deterred other painters, collectors, and art lovers.

While in our time, heroic history painting, religious art, portraiture, and landscape have all lost much of their credibility, the still life has definitely held its own.

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