Appreciating the Still Life: Quotes from the Critics

In Bloom: Painting Flowers in the Age of Impressionism (on view July 19-October 11) is a celebration of still-life painting, particularly the floral still life. In another blog we listed some quotes on the subject from the artists themselves. Here, we discuss what contemporary critics thought of the still life.

In the traditional hierarchy of genres, the still life was considered the lowest register of artistic production, below history painting (complex paintings that tell a story), portraiture, and landscape. Because of the seemingly inert quality of the subject matter, many critics considered these paintings to be mere imitations of nature. By the mid-1800s, however, still-life paintings were gaining considerable attention and approval from both critics and the public.

The following five quotes are from writers and critics that help give us some insight into the shifting attitude toward these nature-morte (literally translated from French as “dead-nature”) paintings:

  • “Aren’t flowers alive? They have their breath and their health; they are gay and brilliant, or sad and dull; they are in constant motion, although it may be imperceptible, as they turn toward the light, separate to allow importunate branches to pass, droop in response to thirst, swell and spread in the caress of a beam of light. Flowers are not nature morte. There is no such thing as a nature morte.”—nineteenth-century art historian and critic Théophile Thoré
  • “Artistic perfection places any genre above distinctions of ranks.”—Mercure de France, October 1765
  • “ . . . Even if the painter of flowers need not make the same studies to make or conquer the same difficulties as the history painter, does that mean flower painting is a lower or more limited genre?”—a review of the 1817 Salon
  • “(The) poor fabricators of still lifes, who have been so violently disbarred just when they least expected it . . . [T]hey are multiplying at an alarming rate. The rats in the Paris sewers are less numerous and less menacing. If the academic order ever crumbles, it will be because the still-life painters, down below, have gnawed away, one by one, at its foundations.”—Critic Jules Castagnary, writing about the Salon des refusés in 1863
  • “How charming it is, how very pretty, but after all, it’s nothing but an apple, a cherry, a glass of water.”—Comments of a critic on Henri Fantin-Latour’s still lifes of 1862

Henri Fantin-Latour (French, 1836–1904), Chrysanthemums (detail), about 1889. Oil on canvas; 38-3/8 × 36-5/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust. 33-15/2. Photo: Jamison Miller