Still Lifes

Still Life Mania and Versatility

Still lifes have grabbed my heart. I have fallen in love with the genre and I’m very inspired by the 17th Century still life paintings by the old masters. Still life vignettes are very versatile and lend an artistic feel to whatever type of images they’re used for.

I use still life vignettes for many different types of images – photo art, product photography, food photography, seasonal inspiration and content.

Take a closer look at my still life galleries…

Object Still Lifes

Photo art | Visual storytelling or visual poetry. Inspired by Old Master vanitas paintings.

Floral Still Lifes

Photo art | Inspired by the lush flower bouquet still life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.

Seedhead Still Lifes

Photo art | A seedhead can be just as beautiful as a lush bouquet. A modern take on an old master classic.

Product Still Lifes

Product Photography | Still life vignettes lend an artistic feel to products. Ideal for e.g. home decor.

Food Still Lifes

Food Photography | Dark/ moody food photos inspired by 17th Century Dutch and Spanish food still lifes.

Topical Still Lifes

Content | Topical still life vignettes. captures seasons or occasions. e.g. for magazine content.

Read more about still lifes on my blog

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Still Lifes in Art History

The Rise of the Still Life Genre

Still life like images of objects have been around since ancient times, but still lifes did not become a genre in its own right until the 17th Century in the Netherlands.

Early Still Lifes

The early 17th century still lifes were simple in composition and subject matter. They consisted of piles of fish, meat, vegetables, fruit and flowers on a flat surface. The objects were lit chiaroscuro style (partly lit and set off against a dark background).

The Dutch Golden Age

The 17th century in the netherlands is called the dutch golden age. though small in size and population, the dutch were on top of the world in this period, both in trade, science, military and art. Many riches and exotic goods were brought home from the dutch colonies. The merchants became wealthy and an affluent middle class arose.

Artistic Experiments

The merchant middle class wanted to decorate their homes with art, and not only with commissioned pieces. Many were happy to buy from the artists’ stock. This gave a new artistic freedom to the painters, who could now freely experiment with lighting, perspective, texture and colour.

At the end of the century the arrangements of the objects and the composition of the images had become much more complex and extravagant.

Artistic Ideal

The artistic ideal of the time was photo realism – ‘the more realistic the painting looked, the more skilled the artist was’, was the idea. This striving for realism resulted in incredibly detailed paintings.

Light is also very natural and realistic in the paintings. Nothing is evenly lit. Shadows are as much a part of the image as the lit parts are.

Still Life Subgenres

The still life paintings fall into different subgenres. Let’s take a look the 3 most important ones – floral still lifes, food still lifes and object still lifes.

Floral Still Lifes

One of the most popular still life genres was the flower bouquet still life. The flowers are painted with astonishing detail. And if you look closely at the bouquets, they are crawling with insects. This symbolizes decay and mortality.

FUN FACT – The bouquets may look very realistic, but in fact they are totally unrealistic. These bouquets never existed, because the flowers in them don’t bloom at the same time.

Food Still Lifes

In the 17th century there were two schools of food still lifes, the spanish ‘bodegon’ and the dutch ‘banketje’. In the spanish bodegon paintings the compositions are minimalist and they depict local ingredients and everyday tableware. The Dutch banketjes, on the other hand, are maximalist in composition and display lavish banquets of exotic luxury foods and goods.

Object Still Lifes

Besides still lifes with flowers and food, there were also still lifes with objects. Vanitas and memento mori object still lifes are closely related and both packed with symbols of mortality, like skulls, hourglasses, watches and candles. Vanitas still lifes also contain flora and fauna and objects that symbolize worldly possessions. All these objects combined convey the moral and Christian lesson that earthly life is fleeting and empty.

The Fall of the Still Life Genre

In the 18th century the symbolic meaning of the still lifes was lost. They were now mass produced for the middle class and aristocracy in a bourgois style. The genres image suffered as a result. The french art academy created a hierarchy of painting genres, and here they placed still lifes at the bottom. To them it was a technical exercise, rather than a genre in its own right.

Still Life Photography

The still life genre didn’t die, luckily. It continues to attract and inspire artists today, both painters, photographers and other artist. The chiaroscuro lighting, that was such a prominent feature in the still lifes of the dutch golden age paintings, lends itself very well to photography. Photography, after all, is painting with light. This makes Dutch golden age still lifes a great source of inspiration for photography. At least for me. I’m a sucker for light, mood and atmosphere and have lost my heart to the period and the genre.

Still Life Glossary

(NL. ‘banquet’)
lavish banquets of luxury foods.

(SP. ‘pantry’)
Minimalist Spanish food still life.

(it. ‘light-dark’)
Lighting technique with high contrast.

Memento mori
(La. ‘remember you must die’)
artwork with symbols of mortality.

Nature Morte
(fr. ‘dead nature’)
‘still life’ in French.

(Nl. ‘ostentatious)
maximalist showpiece still life that shows off worldly wealth.

(la. vanities)
type of still life closely related to memento mori. Contains symbols of both mortality and worldly goods.


+ objects arranged
on flat surface
+ elements balancing
on the edge
+ symbols of
+ Dark background
+ Chiaroscuro

Symbols in Still Lifes

butterflies: transformation,
ants: hard work
pearls: virginity
broken vessels: lost innocense

symbols of mortality

insects & slugs, wilting flowers, spoiling food, skulls, watches, hourglasses, candles, peeled lemons.

Further Readings




Old Masters

Adriaen Coorte
Jan Davidsz. de Heem
Rachel ruysch
Pieter Claesz.
Willem Kalf
Willem van Aelst
Ambrosius Bosschaert
Balthasar v. d. Ast
Clara Peeters
Francisco de Zurbarán

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