Picasso and Things: The Still Lifes of Picasso Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Grand Palais, Paris
Still life as we now accept it emerged as a subject in its own right in Flanders and Holland in the sixteenth century; the English phrase derives from the Dutch stilleven. Still life never appealed to English patrons, who preferred pictures of their dogs and horses. The French, after toying with various alternatives—my own favorite is vie coy or vie tranquille—settled for the somewhat chilling nature morte, possibly in indirect acknowledgment of the fact that many of the earliest still lifes produced by France’s neighbors had been memento mori or vanitas paintings, reflections on the finality of death and the transience of earthly pleasures. But the genre flourished in France, and in the eighteenth century Chardin endowed it with a totally new grace and humanity, even though still life remained marked as the lowest order of painting.
A hundred years later Courbet, who had the ability to handle paint as if he were touching human flesh, broke fresh ground when he gave his depictions of fruit, flowers, and dead game (the latter often lifted directly from Flemish prototypes) some of the physicality that he achieved in his female nudes. Significantly, in 1858 his contemporary Théodore Thoré (Wilhelm Bürger) in the first volume of his Les Musées de la Hollande protested about the generic use of nature morte: much Dutch still life, he pointed out, didn’t look dead at all. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Van Gogh and Cézanne between them raised still life to a status it had never before enjoyed, the one on an emotional and psychological plane, the other through formal innovation and challenge. The Spanish expression for still life, bodegón, refers to simple domestic utensils and supplies from the kitchen cupboard and also to humble taverns and eating houses. Spanish painters eschewed the opulent displays in which northern artists came so to delight—Simon Schama’s “embarrassment of riches”—and have tended to this very day to take a grimmer view of things, thus in a sense preserving some of still life’s bleaker iconographic origins.
It was in the still lifes of the 1870s that the full force of Cézanne’s genius first made itself felt. As time went on formal innovations first hinted at in the still lifes increasingly came to inform his landscapes while in return the still lifes became increasingly animate; objects seem to pulse, draperies become heavier and denser: they envelop and protect us. Early portraits and figure studies of family and friends, vigorous, clumsy, but always truthful, gave way to monolithic studies of sitters seen as still life. And it was through Cézanne more than through any other artist that in France in the early years of this century still life came to be recognized as the prime vehicle for formalist innovation and experiment. Two of the three creators of true Cubism, Braque and Gris, were essentially still-life painters. Although we think of Picasso primarily as a painter of the human body, during the years …