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Still Life

File:Johannes Vermeer - A woman asleep 1656-57.jpg


Still life painting is an underrated art form these days, associated perhaps with childhood and beginners’ painting classes: the first attempts at painting a fruit arrangement underneath a window.

RT, who has never attempted the genre, suspects that more is going on here. To start with, still life is damn hard. To judge by the number of still life photographs and drawings (not so many paintings) that work as photography or drawing, but fail in a broader sense, some deeper requirement of the genre usually goes unmet. RT thinks this requirement might be entering completely into the moment. Could still life be the haiku of western art?

Yes and no. For one thing, Far Eastern art, with its many landscapes and paintings of natural subjects, is founded on the notion that nature is heaven; in western art, there is an earthliness, a separation from the divine, that is always implicit. It is this separation, this longing, that gives the western still life its richness and poignancy–it is the human world, with its difficulties and joys, that the still life seeks to capture. With apologies to Robert Frost, it is most us.

To conclude this reflection, RT offers a painting by that great master, Jan Vermeer, A Woman Asleep, painted in 1656-57. In Vermeer’s work, everything falls away except the truth, its beauty fragile and transient, forbidden and irresistible.   RT


Painting: WikiCmns; Public Domain.


  1. December 17, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Beautiful ! Did you know that when Vermeer became famous after he was dead, some guy who was a good painter faked a bunch of paintings as undiscovered Vermeers and he had a friend who was a respected art critic ? Those 2 guys conned a lot of sales out of important people before WW2., including Hitler !
    Also this painting called a still life is unusual for our time, because modern painters never put a figure and still lifes together. In my humble opinion, its the figure that gives the painting the sublime quality.
    Vermeer (sigh) I love him.

    • December 18, 2012 at 12:24 am

      CL: Would it be a Vermeer without the figure of a woman thoughtfully placed in the arrangement? She is asleep, not awake and on guard, ready to offer any who might pass into the room a bite of her fruit. The door is part-way open; we could slip into the room without waking her. Just what role did women play in Vermeer’s conception of salvation? RT

  2. December 17, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    What appeared to be a ‘simple’ still life painting was usually stuffed full of symbolism. So the viewer not only enjoyed the verisimilitude (?sp?), but also the unravelling of the message behind the placement of the objects. Here, for example, what may we deduce about the echoing of the stoppered vessel with the dark-capped girl? The material cloth disclosing the pale round object on the table and the cloth covering the girl’s breasts? The plums and apples in the dish the same colour as the girl’s dress? The empty chair, the empty table in the room beyond? Empty chair, hanging coat, empty room. We naturally first focus on the left of the picture, gravitating first to the figure, then the objects on the table. Everything is happening on the left edge of the canvas ( the past). But all the lines of perspective point towards the doorway and the emptiness beyond. That chairback is strange, ( or is it a fire screen? Five of diamonds. It is a visual balance for the figure. Does it echo something else? That object on the table. Not sure,but is it a candle-snuffer? That too is pointing at the door. The artist has placed, coloured, chosen these artefacts in the same way a poet, or an orator, chooses words. Then, behind the visual clues there may well lie an allegorical intent as well, a moral or religious theme. We want to look at the beauty of the face, the delightful patterns of the rugs, the ripe roundness of the fruits, but every time we are drawn towards that uncertain doorway. The only way out for our eyes is through into that unprepossessing space, from the familiar to the unknown, from the comfortable to the uncomfortable, dreaming of an uncertain future, failing to take opportunity, sleeping on the job, who has gone out, who will be returning?… Cunning monkey, that Vermeer!

    • December 18, 2012 at 12:12 am

      SL: thank you for your thoughtful (and doubtless correct) analysis. I was totally seduced by the panoply of gorgeous images on the left; I never got to the empty room, solemn, still, and perfect, but also forbidding. or is it the empty tomb, offering a way out? Vermeer converted to Catholicism, didn’t he? Where did his heart really lie, with the allegory of temptation or the sensuousness of his work (even the light is gorgeous!)? RT

  3. December 19, 2012 at 10:02 am

    The cleverness of Christian dogma is that you can be so wrong even when you appear to be right! Ambivalence is a survival strategy ( except if it leads to the stake). Sex or salvation, fertility or chastity – sleeping in daytime, work undone, surely anathema to North European Protestantism! But the nice thing is, wondering about all these possibilities makes us look even more closely at the art in front of us…

  4. December 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    SL: and these are real-life choices…who says art is irrelevant?

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