The History of the Still Life

The term ‘still life’ was coined in the Netherlands in the 17th century, but the practice itself dates back to ancient times.

As a basis, a still life is “a piece that features an arrangement of inanimate objects as its subject” (My Modern Met). Meaning, for you toy photographers reading this, toy photography is a form of still life!

Ancient Egypt, Greece & Rome 

Still-Life Found in the Tomb of Menna (Photo: The Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
Still-Life Found in the Tomb of Menna, circa 1422-1411 BCE

In Ancient Egypt, what is sometimes categorized as still life, may actually be more of a list of gifts as seen above. In Ancient Rome and Greece however, vegetables and game were painted as a way to depict pleasure and abundance.

‘Still Life with Glass Bowl of Fruit and Vases,’ 63-79 AD

Middle Ages

Throughout the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, all non-religious art largely ceased. Coins, fruits, etc were used to decorate the boarders of illuminated manuscripts and the same could be seen in small sections of religious paintings, but nothing that could truly be considered a still life in itself was created in this time.

The Renaissance 

Still-Life with Partridge and Gauntlets, Jacopo de’ Barbari, 1504

Coming out of this period was the enlightenment, and one of the first still lives created in this time was Still Life with Partridge and Gauntlets by Jacopo de’ Barbari, as seen above. Considering it wasn’t until the 1600s that the term ‘still life’ came to be, this painting is considered to be one of the first still life paintings. Hans Memling’s Flowers in a Jug also contends with this title.

Flowers in a Jug, Hans Memling, 1480

The Netherlands invested heavily in exotic flowers and in turn, in paintings of exotic flowers. While still lives were largely of food up until this point, flowers now came to be a prime subject. With the stock market crash of 1637, painters began to shift the symbolism of abundance and the vanitas came to be. The Dutch vanitas paintings were reminders that abundance was temporary and life was fleeting. We see this in depictions of skulls, dying flowers, rotten fruit and imperfect table settings.

Still Life with gilt cup, Willem Claesz Heda, 1634

Industrial Revolution and the Invention of Photography

La Table Servie (the set table), Nicéphore Niépce, 1823 – 1829

The early processes of photography required a very long exposure time, and so of course items that didn’t move were good subject matter. One of the very first photographs, created by photography’s inventor, Nicéphore Niépce, was a table set with cloth, bottle, bowl and silverware.

Still life, 1837

Roughly 10 years later, the first example we have of a reliably dated daguerreotype (above), is also a still life.

The First Photography Exhibition

Hippolyte Bayard hosted the first photography exhibition in 1839. He created his own photographic prints, making direct positives, rather than printing positives from a negative, and claimed to have invented photography before Daguerre or Talbot (multiple people were inventing forms of photography in their different regions all within the same time frame).

Manipulated photos of abundance

George B. Cornish, A Car Load of Texas Corn, 1910

While veritas paintings showed that everything, even abudance is fleeting, photographers in the midwestern United States after a time of drought took the opposite approach. They instead, manipulated photos to appear as if there was abundance when there was none to be had. This fantasy postcards, a genre that was unique to the US, flourished between 1908 and 1915.

Painterly Photography

Heinrich Kühn, Still Life, 1895

In large part, photography, in its early years, continued to constrain itself to the aesthetics of paintings.

Ogawa Kazumasa, Hand-Coloured Photographs of Flowers, 1896

After learning the callotype process, Orawa Kazumasa opened his own studio in Tokyo in 1888. The following year he established Japan’s first callotype business. He is known for his work hand coloring images of flowers, cahanging the scope of floral still life photography.

Impressionist/Post-Impressionist Movement & Beyond

Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Skull, 1890s

Still life came to the forefront of modern art when Vincent van Gogh began to paint flowers and Cézanne chose apples, wine bottles and the like. Cezanne also painted some still lives in the vanitas style.

Cubism and Pop art had a continuation of still life with the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Picasso, Georges Braque, etc.

Color Photography

Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud, Still life with dahlias and fruits, 1916

A lot of work had to be done to understand colors in nature in order to apply that information to photography. Early color photography processes were invented in the 1860s but were not very practical since the existing photo emulsions had very limited color sensitivity.These processes were further refined in the 1890s with various separate colored filters being placed in front of the camera lens. These 3 separate exposures would then be super-imposed over each other. This process was prohibitively expensive. In 1894 a process where all 3 filters could be used at once was developed. In 1907 Autocrome plates began to be produced commercially, and color photography was finally a practical process.

And the rest is history still in the making.


Still life isn’t going anywhere. It’s can be such a symbolic medium when practiced thoughtfully. Check out the early 1900s surrealist photographers linked in the ‘Read More’ section below to see early symbolic uses of this medium with toys and small scale figures.


Read More:

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