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Best Still Life Paintings

“Transparent bowl with fruit and vases” – mural painting in Pompeii, Italy, 1 st century a.c. – It is extremely difficult to determine when the genre of the still-life was born. We know that even the ancient Egyptians decorated the tombs with paintings of fruits, vegetables and other foods, aimed to feed the deceased souls in the afterlife. This example, discovered in the ancient city of Pompeii, is extraordinary for its naturalism and the gentleness with which each piece of fruit is represented, using a different pigment for each piece of the bunch of grapes that constitutes the center of the painting. It is also notable the contrast between the solid transparent bowl -glass was a very appreciated material in ancient Rome- and the sensation of instability caused by the inclined jar.

Sanchez Cotán: “Still Life with Game Fowl, Vegetables and Fruits”, 1602 (Madrid, Prado Museum) and “Still Life with thistle and carrots” (Museum of Fine Arts, Granada) – Spanish Painting from the 17th century has a high number of still-life painters, including names like Luis Meléndez, Juan van der Hamen or even the great Francisco de Zurbarán. Nevertheless, none of them were as original as Carthusian painter Juan Sanchez Cotán, unique among all of them for his apparently simple compositions, but full of force and intensity, in which the emptiness, as in the painting in Granada (another similar version is now in Philadelphia), has a fundamental importance, even competing with the object of the picture.

Abraham van Beyeren (Abraham van Beijeren): “Banquet Still Life”, c.1660 (Los Angeles, County Museum of Art) – Van Beyeren was an almost unknown painter in his day, but today he is considered a key figure of the still life painting in Dutch painting from the 17th century, which includes names like Jan Davidsz de Heem or Frans Snyders. His still life paintings -especially the banquets ones- are authentic pictorial extravaganzas, tremendously rich in all kinds of elements and details. The work illustrated here is one of his most celebrated compositions.

Jean Siméon Chardin: “The Ray (la raie)”, 1728 (Paris, Louvre) – Chardin is one of the masters of the still life painting of any era, and “The Ray” is one of his undisputed masterpieces. The work was widely published and admired by important names like Diderot -who called Chardin “the great magician”-, Marcel Proust and even Henri Matisse, two centuries later. An unusual element in this still life is the inclusion of a living animal -the cat- creating a stranger and veiled dynamism within the triangular composition of the painting.

William M. Harnett: “Violin (the old violin)”, 1886 (Washington, National Gallery of Art) – Irish born American painter William Harnett was one of the pioneers of the Still Life Painting in the United States. “Violin” (a.k.a. “the old violin”) is one of the best examples of his trompe l’oeil style (“fool the eye” style) in which the painted elements can be mistaken for real, physical objects. In fact, when this picture was first exhibited, many visitors tried to touch the violin depicted in the canvas, believing that the instrument was a physical object placed over the picture.

Vincent van Gogh: “Sunflowers (Vase with fifteen sunflowers)”, 1888 (London, National Gallery of Art) – Van Gogh’s “sunflowers” are not only one of the artist’s favorite subjects (he painted seven canvases of vases with sunflowers, plus three earlier works depicting the sunflowers alone), but they also rank among the most famous paitings ever created. “The sunflower is mine in a way”, said van Gogh to his brother Theo. The work illustrated here is one of the brightest of all the series, with a fabulous spectrum of yellow pigments. One of these ‘sunflowers’ by Van Gogh broke the auction record for a painting when it was sold to a Japanese investor for almost $40 million in March 1987. Recent rumors have suggest that the work could not be a genuine van Gogh, but a copy by Emile Schuffenecker.

Paul Cézanne: “Still life with fruit basket (the kitchen table)”, 1880-1890 (Paris, Orsay) – Cézanne is arguably the greatest master of still life painting of any era, and this shining painting constitutes one of his most ambitious compositions. The first element we see is a wood table partially covered with a white blanket, and nine pieces of fruit over it. Curiously, the enormous green pear of the right is not placed over this white blanket, as if its scale did not allow it to be placed along with the rest of the pieces. Two white ceramics jars, along with a larger jar behind them, form a particular triangular subcomposition. This group of figures could created an exceptional still life by themselves, but Cézanne has reserved us an extraordinary illusion: the fruit basket. Where is this basket? Placed in a very unstable position in the upper right corner of the table, or -thanks to a complex perspective- is on the ground along with the wood piece partially depicted at the right of the painting? Here Cézanne has created a double perspective to paint a sensational work in which the cubism begins to appear.