This traditional genre has seen surprising experimentation over the centuries.
Essentially: An art genre primarily associated with painting that focuses on the careful arrangement of inanimate objects – traditionally flowers, fruits and other foods.
Example: Fish (Still Life), Édouard Manet, 1864
Italian painter, Jacopo de’Barbari, created what is widely considered to be the first still life painting in 1504. The genre developed as it spread outside of Italy's borders with some of the most famous still life paintings eventually emerging from the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries. Artists from that region imbued still lifes with greater – and darker – allegorical significance, filling the scenes with faithfully rendered skulls, bouquets of flowers, aging fruit and freshly caught game. Dutch old masters, like Clara Peeters and Jan Brueghel the Elder, infused the format with reflections on the precarious and fleeting nature of life.
Dutch old masters imbued still lifes with greater – and darker – allegorical significance, filling the scenes with faithfully rendered skulls, bouquets of flowers, aging fruit and freshly caught game.
The 1800s saw some of the most notable artists in the Western canon begin to play with still life conventions. In Fish (Still Life), Édouard Manet took the genre's classic elements (such as the titular fish) and used his signature style to render the scene in expressive brushstrokes and a modern perspective that blended flat and three-dimensional components. The work's rich texture adds to a sense of movement that seems to play with the very idea of nature morte (or "dead nature"), the French term for still life painting.
In more recent times, Irving Penn adapted classic still life compositions to his photographic works. Many of Penn's photographs used the same somber lighting found in 16th-century Flemish paintings, some incorporating skulls and other traditional motifs. He even went so far as to capture piles of cigarettes in a celebrated series commenting on the waste of contemporary culture.