The Secular Nature of Still Life

Sheldon Tapley celebrates excess in his still lifes that include images of the nude; here, Daniel Brown explains the ways in which still life differs from figure and landscape in the Western tradition.

The Secular Nature of Still Life
By Daniel Brown

Still life, Tapley’s preferred mode of celebration and explication, differs from other genres in Western art because the Roman Catholic Church was not the determinant of its content. The Netherlands, as the first non-Catholic European country, produced painters Franz Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, among others, who could more freely expand their subject matter while experimenting with different technical approaches, and thus depict both the material world and changing market forces. The result was that artists could include profane portraiture and the attendant celebration of “the good life” of the country’s new burghers—riches not associated with religion. Thus, still life painting became a means of celebrating the objects of this world, not the one to come. The momento mori or vanitas painting emerged concurrently as a cautionary reminder of the excesses of the material world (the skull lurking in the banquet food, or, as we might say, the death’s head at the feast, remind us that today’s ripe fruit and the ripe flesh become the decay of tomorrow). Thus, the morality play that underlay still life painting continues today (Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic exhibition of 1990-1, “The Perfect Moment,” reflects these dynamics with reminders that the petals will turn brown, the fruit rot, the fish stink and the body decay).


With theatrical splendor, Sheldon Tapley celebrates excess, reinvesting the still life tradition by incorporating the figure and complicating the design. Read the full story in the May 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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