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Graphics by Alexander Deineka of the 1920s and 40s
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History of still life as a genre

In fine art, still life (from FR. natur morte – “dead nature”) is usually called the image of inanimate objects United in a single compositional group. Still life can have both an independent meaning and be an integral part of the composition of a genre painting.

The still life expresses a person’s attitude to the world around them. It reveals the understanding of beauty that is inherent in the artist as a person of his time.


The art of a thing has long been an integral part of any significant work, long before it became an independent field of artistic creativity. The role of still life in the painting has never been limited to simple information, random addition to the main content. Depending on historical conditions and social demands, objects more or less participated in the creation of the image, highlighting one or another side of the idea. Before still life developed into an independent genre, the things that surround a person in everyday life, only to some extent included as an attribute in the paintings of antiquity. Sometimes such a detail acquired an unexpectedly deep significance, received its own meaning.

As a certain type or genre of painting, still life knows its UPS and downs in the history of art.

The severe, intensely ascetic art of Byzantium, creating immortal, monumental-generalized, exalted-heroic images, used images of individual objects with extraordinary expressiveness.

In ancient Russian iconography, the few items that the artist introduced into his strictly canonical works also played an important role. They brought spontaneity, vitality, and sometimes seemed to be an open expression of feeling in a work devoted to an abstract mythological plot.

Still life played an even greater role in the paintings of artists of the XV-XVI centuries in the Renaissance. The painter, who for the first time paid close attention to the world around him, sought to indicate the place, to determine the value of each thing that serves a person. Household items acquired the nobility and proud significance of their owner, the one they served. On large canvases, still life usually occupied a very modest place: a glass vessel with water, an elegant silver vase or delicate white lilies on thin stems often huddled in the corner of the picture. However, in the image of these things there was so much poetic love for nature, their meaning is so highly spiritualized that here you can already see all the features that determined the further independent development of the whole genre.

Objects and material elements gained a new meaning in paintings in the XVII century – in the era of the developed still-life genre. In complex compositions with a literary plot, they took their place along with other heroes of the work. Analyzing the works of this time, you can see what an important role still life began to play in the picture. Things began to appear in these works as the main characters, showing what an artist can achieve by devoting his skill to this kind of art.

Objects made by skillful, hard-working, wise hands bear the imprint of a person’s thoughts, desires, and instincts. They serve him, please him, and inspire a legitimate sense of pride. It is not for nothing that we learn about eras that have long disappeared from the face of the earth from the shards of crockery, household utensils, and ritual objects that become scattered pages of human history for archaeologists.

Looking at the world around us, penetrating its laws with an inquisitive mind, solving the fascinating mysteries of life, the artist displays it more fully and comprehensively in his art. He not only depicts the world around him, but also conveys his understanding, his attitude to reality.

The history of the composition and development of various genres of painting is a living testimony to the relentless work of the human mind, which seeks to cover the infinite variety of activities, to make sense of it aesthetically.

Still life is a relatively young genre. It gained independent significance in Europe only in the XVII century. The history of the development of still life is interesting and instructive.

The still life flourished especially fully and vividly in Flanders and the Netherlands. Its origin is connected with the revolutionary historical events that led these countries to enter the path of bourgeois development at the beginning of the XVII century. For Europe at that time, this was an important and progressive phenomenon. New horizons have opened up for art. Historical conditions, new social relations directed and determined creative requests, changes in solving the problems facing the artist. Without directly depicting historical events, the artists took a new look at the world and found new values in man. Life, as usual, appeared before them with a hitherto unknown significance and completeness. They were attracted by the peculiarities of national life, native nature, things that keep the imprint of the labors and days of ordinary people. It is from here, from a conscious, in-depth, prompted by the very system of interest in the life of the people, that separate and independent genres of everyday painting, landscape, and still life were born.

The art of still life, developed in the XVII century, determined the main qualities of this genre. The painting, dedicated to the world of things, told about the main properties inherent in the objects surrounding a person, revealed the attitude of the artist and contemporary to what is depicted, expressed the character and completeness of knowledge of reality. The painter conveyed the material existence of things, their volume, weight, texture, color, functional value of household items, their living connection with human activity.

The beauty and perfection of household utensils were determined not only by their necessity, but also by the skill of their Creator. The still life of the revolutionary era of the conquering bourgeoisie reflected the artist’s respect for new forms of national life of his compatriots, respect for work.

Formulated in the XVII century, the tasks of the genre in General existed in the European school until the middle of the XIX century. However, this does not mean that the artists did not set themselves new tasks, mechanically repeating ready-made solutions.

Not only did the methods and methods of painting still life change over the ages, but the artistic experience accumulated, and a more complex and constantly enriching view of the world developed in the process of formation. Not one object as such, but its various properties became the object of reincarnation, and through the disclosure of newly understood qualities of things, their modern attitude to reality was expressed, a re-evaluation of values, a measure of understanding of real reality.

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