Again in still life we bring together subjects which have already been treated separately: plants, animals, and objects. As in landscape, the separate objects are not there for themselves; the significance of a still life lies in their combination. The usual combinations of subjects in a still life are of interest primarily to painters, not draftsmen. The concept must be extended to include all the obviously chance combinations which are of constant interest to draftsmen, such as dented metal jugs in a corner, a hole in the ground, a dead bird.
The difference between the painter's still life and the draftsman's consists, without any inner reason, in the difference between the deliberate combination and the chance find.
Here arises the problem of the purpose of a still life. The French call it nature morte, which is less telling thcn the English concept of still, secret, and outwardly unmoving life. The term is derived from the Dutch Still even and was adopted by art historians in the eighteenth century. A still life is concerned with, one might say, the helpless, unconscious existence of things, whether they are really dead material or partake of the continuous life of a flower, a fruit, and, if we see more closely, of a dead animal, too.
The classical still life painting, pictures of flowers, hunting trophies, or fruit pieces, as they are called in dealer's parlance, arise from the painter's delight in his ability, his technical self-satisfaction. It is a piece of virtuosity, like elaborate compositions played by virtuoso pianists and violinists, or the passages sung by a coloratura, with nothing particular outside itself to communicate.
In such pieces the artist at last finds the opportunity to show off his brilliant technique. It is no different with the purely painterly charm of the still lifes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a complete contrast to the Piece of Lawn of Durer or the Sunflowers of Van Gogh, where all thought of the technique of the master is forgotten in sym pathetic contem plation of the existence of these small things.
A composed still life is a useful way of practicing composition and studying painterly effects, different materials, the changes of color in light and shade, and their use for harmony or dissonance, and trying out combinations of different strong colors or emphasizing one dominant color with subordinate or complementary tones. Sometimes under the hand of a great master these technical exercises produce works of art.
The still life based on the chance find is something else. A pair of old shoes thrown away and forgotten may cause the artist to seize his pencil; and while the open seam, tw,isted leather, and torn soles may present interesting problems of form and interpretation, his imagination may be inspired by the amusing or tragic implications of the subject.
The beholder of the drawing will certainly respond in this way. Thus, it is usually "ugly" things that interest the draftsman, what is forgotten and, for the former owner, long since dead. These things would probably mean nothing to the artist while they were bright and new with no patina of use and age. The charm comes not alone from what is picturesque, but also from a feeling for recording small things for their own sake.
Having thought of a still life in this way, the student may approach the incidental objects in a picture with a higher intention; in fact, a picture of quite a different subject often contains still life as an accessory. Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century should be examined for this. In the portrait of Georg Gisze by Holbein the loving inclusion of the many small still life objects enhances the extraordinary clarity of the face.