During the Dutch Baroque era in the 17th century, still life paintings were used kind of like how rappers use boast songs today — to demonstrate wealth, a form of over-the-top brag. Thus the crazy level of detail, the opulence, and the sensuality of paintings like de Heem’s depiction of sliced ham, lobster, peeled lemon, and a feast of other foods. Check out the shine on those bowls!
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fruit Basket, c. 1590
The surreal portrait/still life paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo are as strange as they are compelling. He created portraits from fruit, vegetables, and even books, in pieces that have been interpreted variously as the product of a deranged mind or a pointed critique of academic and wealth culture in Italy.
Peter Aertsen, Butcher’s Stall With the Flight into Egypt, 1551
Long ago, visual art was devoted entirely to supporting religion, proselytizing for new devotees and educating the less learned members of the faith. Artists had to find excuses to paint the real world as they saw it. In the background of Aertsen’s masterpiece is a tiny scene of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt. The rest of the painting is taken up by a magnificent rendering of a butcher’s stand with detailed representations of his craft: Huge slabs of meat shot through with fat and muscle. Which part of the piece do you think the artist was more interested in?
Juan Sanchez Cortan, Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, 1602-1603
In the Spanish baroque period, austere still lifes set against dark backgrounds were presented as pious meditations on spirituality and personal religious faith. Cortan’s paintings are particularly striking — the artist was reputed to have given up his worldly possessions to become a monk.
Paul Cezanne, Un Coin de Table, 1895-1990
Cezanne’s apple still lifes are some of the most oft-referenced paintings of fruit ever. What makes this painting, Un Coin de Table, so provocative and so unsettling is the strange spatial arrangement of the fruit and the plate on the tabletop. Everything seems to be tilted toward the foreground like it’s about to fall off into empty space. The subtly unbalanced composition and angular volumes of the still life foreshadows Picasso’s Cubist experiments.
Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963
Painter Wayne Thiebaud is America’s poet of the deli counter, depicting muffins, cupcakes, and pies with the delicacy and physicality usually reserved for human bodies. As in Cakes, he brushes impasto paint onto the surfaces of his desserts until they appear literally frosted. His colors are as saccharine as the food — Thiebaud loves pinks, light blues, and yellows.
Pablo Picasso, Still Life With Chair Caning, 1912
Many of Picasso’s classic Cubist still lifes take as their subject a classic trope: the café table. This painting, a pioneering collage, mixes chair caning with depictions of a newspaper, lemons, and drink glasses.
Salvador Dalí, Eucharistic Still Life, 1952
Dalí grew up on the coast in Spain eating sea urchins with his father. The spiny creatures feature in this still life, which creates a creepy trio of thin, angular fish, doughy Eucharist bread, and blobby urchin.
Bompas & Parr, 50 States of Jell-O
Bompas & Parr, a contemporary art duo, don’t make food-based still lifes as much as transform food into still lifes. The pair have taken gelatin as their medium of choice, here creating an entire map of the US, plus some architectural icons out of Jell-O.
Antonio Lopez Garcia, Skinned Rabbit, 1972
Spanish painter Lopez Garcia takes up the ancient form of the still life, albeit with a more contemporary approach. He brushes his paint thinly on his canvases, rendering objects in an almost-photorealistic way that still retains a sense a mystery. The same is true for this quiet-but-violent still life of a skinned rabbit.