Artists in both Western and Eastern traditions have long used still lifes to explore possibilities of space, composition and perspective. Below, Kenneth J. Procter, artist represented by Alan Avery Art Company in Atlanta and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia College, explores what makes seven still lifes so remarkably recognizable.
Kitchen Counter Points
Jean Siméon Chardin’s kitchen arrangements are the chamber music of the still life genre — small ensembles of humble objects exquisitely arranged, each element with its own clear voice, every nuance evident to the eye. Less makes more.
Still Life With a White Mug appears to be a quiet composition, but Chardin slips in a surprise. The paring knife slices a wedge of space between mug and fruit. The knife launches a wave of peaks and dips that almost topples the far pear and pushes the other pear perilously close to the ledge.
The movement from right to left — opposite the direction our eyes are accustomed to traveling — adds tension and force. Not so quiet after all. The knife handle projects out of the painting, a bridge between the objects and our side of the ledge — an illusion that succeeds in part because the counter edge appears to be nearly flush with the picture plane.
How we perceive and understand the picture plane and its relation to pictorial space is fundamental to perspective. Perspective creates a window into space, and Chardin pokes his knife right out the window.
At a glance, Paul Cézanne’s Still Life With a Watermelon and Pomegranates recalls Chardin’s kitchen-counter still life. Cézanne’s composition looks serene, but it holds disquieting ambiguities.
Instead of a knife, Cézanne shoves a watermelon into the arrangement to stir things up. In response, the decanter leans left, as if nudged at its base. But it won’t topple. The angle is not a physical reaction to the watermelon’s mass but a compositional reaction to the thrust of the melon’s visual weight.
Chardin’s still life is shadowy, as if set deep in a kitchen, far from a window. Shadow is an essential element of the composition; the cast shadow on the ledge is critical to the illusion of the knife handle.
By comparison, Cézanne’s composition is classic transparent-watercolor technique, open to the white of the paper, airy and light. Instead of modeling, Cézanne modulates the colors. Patch by patch across the painting, he shifts between hues, establishing light, shadow and reflected light.
The watermelon’s mass comes from shadowy blues, darker than watermelon green but still clean, “unshaded” color. A hallmark of Impressionism’s influence on Cézanne’s palette, blue is the color of shadow out of doors. Cézanne must have set up near a window.
The near edge of the table, apparently flush with the picture plane, grounds the composition as it does in Chardin’s painting. But the frieze of objects is some distance back or up, depending on whether you read the space as an illusion or as a literal flat plane.
Foreshadowing the Modernist revolution that would upend traditional pictorial space, Cézanne cues both. We’re looking down at the table, so “up” should read as “back.” But from where the watermelon appears to touch the frame — a phenomenon called false attachment — it’s a straight drop down to the front of the table.
The sense that the table drops straight down or tips up toward the eye is at odds with the perspective. Cézanne’s painting violates a fundamental assumption in perspective — that there is one fixed point of view.
All About the Atmosphere – in Still Lifes
Atmospheric perspective — haziness and color shifts that suggest air and distance — is characteristic of landscape art, but it has an unofficial counterpart in still life. Chardin’s soft focus and blurred edges put air around his objects. It assists the illusion that the mug and fruit sit on a real shelf and supports the transition from the objects through the short space to the indistinct back wall.
Cézanne’s broken outlines and patchy paint are analogous to Chardin’s hazy edges. Cézanne draws and redraws his objects. The effect is like a sketch where each successive stroke zeroes in on the contours, except that Cézanne’s broken outlines tend to diffuse the forms.
In place of illusion, the sketch- like broken contours and patchy paint suggest atmosphere and space even while they flatten and paste everything onto the picture plane.
Color and Composition
In Bouquet of Flowers, Odilon Redon uses pastel’s dry velvety brilliance to depict flowers with pure, luminous color. Shadows and a dark background could make Redon’s bright flowers phosphorescent, but shadows come at a price.
As every painter knows, shading darkens and dulls bright pigments. To avoid dulling, Redon mostly avoids shading. Where he needs a shadow, as on the left side of the vase, he uses a dark blue related to the lighter blue.
The shadow blue is pure, saturated and unshaded blue. Dark hues round the vase and “shade” some leaves and petals. Color and texture envelope the vase in its niche, half solid, half atmosphere. Bouquet of Flowers stands in a world of pure color — ethereal, dreamlike and visionary.
Strategic Still lifes
Clustering objects into a tight group is a proven compositional strategy. In Eggplants, Charles Demuth nestles three eggplants into a crumpled cloth. Giving a compositional role to the surrounding space is the challenge. The rumpled tablecloth, mostly white paper, acts as a foil for the eggplants. White enhances their dramatic purple-black weight.
To activate the outermost empty space, Demuth aims the stems and their rhyming shadows out from the central cluster. Then, to transition from cloth to space and pin the eggplants to the surface, Demuth shapes the folds into crystalline structures that narrow into lines reaching toward the edges of the paper. This tactic recalls his roots in Precisionism, with its source in Cubism.
We can also read the composition in reverse — from space to lines and from lines to folds — with the eggplants seeming to grow out of shadows and paper. Back to front, the eggplants roll forward on an up-tipped plane. A nudge could tumble them into our lap.
An Eastern Approach
Creating form and space out of an empty flat expanse is the fundamental strategy of realism and the essential means of drawing in Western art. Perspective creates the illusion of space in order to place and hold solid objects. In traditional Western perspective, everything — form, space, orthogonals, relative scale — derives from a real or imagined “station point.”
Chardin’s still life follows the rules. The station point determines eye level, and eye level is clearly positioned just above the foreshortened rim of the mug. Chardin also teases the rules — contrary to the principle of size diminishing with distance, he puts a big apple in the back.
Traditional Chinese brush painting depicts form and space by various means that do not correspond with Western perspective, which organizes an image around a single point of view. In Sheng Guo’s Thousand-Year-Old Peaches, each object creates just enough space for itself. The rest of the paper is flat, white and blank, receptive to poetry.
Pictures and Poems
Full Western perspective is at odds with the Eastern tradition of picture and poem as equal partners in a work of art. Calligraphy is flat and abstract, so form can’t be too round — flat and round won’t sit well together in illusionistic space.
Guo clearly delineates the curve and volume of the peach basket. But he breaks the handle so that the sprig of leaves appears to overlap it. In the gap, flat paper and implied form exist simultaneously. At this point, the handle and twigs look like calligraphy, like flat abstract drawing.
Chardin would have shaded the peaches to round the volumes and then painted cast shadows to situate them in space. Guo’s painting is more like Demuth’s — the beauty of pure color is more important than fully realized volume.
Guo models the peach skins so subtly that the two peaches bleed together. To distinguish them without shading, and to preserve the poetic vision of beauty, Guo flops a leaf between them. A bit of peach peeking through the weave in the basket sets it in place — no need for shadows. Guo’s compositional tricks suggest just enough.
Contrary to the expectation that things appear smaller with distance, Guo puts the bigger peach in back (like Chardin!) just because he needs a big peach there for balance. At 6 and 7 inches in diameter, both peaches really are big. With no table or background and nothing to show relative scale, they look larger than life.
Guo’s poem describes peaches as big as a dŏu — about the size of a basketball. The message in many Western still lifes — vanitas still lifes, in particular — is that beauty fades and mortality is just around the bend. By contrast, Chinese imagery is meant to bring good fortune and long life into the home.
Smile at the giant peaches, and bask in the poem’s blessing:
Peaches from a thousand-year-old tree are as large
as a dŏu—
Old saints pick them to brew wine;
One sip of this wine can bring a long, long life
And a lingering rosy complexion.
Arranging a composition on a flat surface eliminates volume and depth. In a trompe l’oeil illusion, depth is shallow. Image and picture plane are almost one and the same. In William Harnett’s The Artist’s Letter Rack, words are pictures, and they coexist without spatial conflict.
The arrangement has a haphazard appearance, as if Harnett looked at the wall and discovered a composition. On the contrary — everything is placed just so. The square of ribbons unifies the center, but the sides are not quite parallel — off just enough to introduce dynamic tension.
The cards and envelopes tucked behind the ribbons appear random. But our eyes find patterns, alignments and a hint of radial symmetry. Like cities on a map, each object, knot and stain dominates the surrounding space.
Harnett placed these spots just far enough apart and just close enough together that the gaps between them appear neither crowded nor empty and unconsidered. Nudge something an inch, and the design goes out of whack. Background stains and woodgrain, like white noise, carry the rest of the space.
True randomness is hard to create. To naturalize a bed of tulips, gardeners toss bulbs and plant them exactly where they fall. Try to place them randomly, and you’ll make a pattern. Drawing while drunk may be like tossing flower bulbs.
The inscription on Borrow the Spring Wind to Write Prosperity claims it was created in the “Drunken Flower Gazebo.” It’s amusing to imagine the artist drunk, but I don’t buy it. Yes, the composition is eccentric and freewheeling — the pots and baskets lean and wobble, and the spindly trellis can hardly support the blousy mass of peonies. But it’s all poetic conceit. Everything connects and balances.
The visual mass of calligraphy, which was likely the last thing painted, carries the space across the top. Down the left side, the artist signed with a pseudonym: “Cloud on a Mountain Peak.” With his head in the clouds, intoxicated by spring, lounging in the Drunken Flower Gazebo, one way or another he was inebriated. He may have lost his balance, but his composition hangs together.
A version of this article, written by Kenneth J. Procter, first appeared in Artists Magazine. Subscribe here to never miss out on the latest issue.