Art Theory – Still Life

Besides the representation of action and of repose as exhibited in nature, there is another condition in which nature may be described when, although animate, she is neither in action, nor yet in repose strictly so called, but in a neutral state which differs from both. This is the description of what is termed in art still life, comprising the representation of objects which are at the same time living and stationary, such as a group of men standing or lying down, cattle grazing at pasture, birds sitting instead of flying. In the case of still life, nature exists as fully and as really as it does in active life, although it is wanting in that motion and energy with which animated objects alone can be endowed.

The representation of still life is easier to effect than is that of action, as a mere transcript is here made from what we see in nature, to the canvas. No extraordinary devices are necessary to be had recourse to, as we observe in the description of action or animation, in order to supply the want of the latter in painting; but nature has only to be imitated just as she is perceived, and on this account these representations in painting and sculpture approach much nearer to nature than do those of action.

Still life, nevertheless, allows not only of the display of much skill as regards the fidelity with which it is represented, but of great variety as to the mode of doing this, and admits of a considerable degree both of grandeur and beauty.

Painting and sculpture are peculiarly adapted to the portrayal of still life, as both life and stillness are especially fitted for re-presentation by these arts. Poetry, although adapted to de-scribe life, is less adapted for stillness than for action. Music is inadapted for stillness, and architecture for actual life. of any kind. Acting, although fitted for still life, is, nevertheless, less successful here, and has less scope than where motion is to be represented. And both in costume and gardening there is scarce life enough to characterize a scene of this description. Costume, indeed, represents still life so far as it is substituted for, and is alone visible in the stead of the real form which it covers and hides. In gardening, although the plants which contribute to the composition have life, yet the composition as a whole is destitute of this endowment. Moreover, in art, it is not reality but imitation that is aimed at.

In the representation of landscape scenery, considerable life, and even animation are infused into it by the introduction of men and cattle and birds, or other animals, which serve to communicate to it much of the vitality and activity with which they themselves are endowed. On the other hand, even a real prospect without any animated beings, always appears dull and lifeless. It is, in fact, this entire absence of all living creatures that constitutes a desert, which is nothing more than a lifeless landscape, bereft, indeed, of verdure as well as vitality.