“Vegetarian” painting: still lifes of European artists

Today we will present several works of outstanding masters of the past, whose still lifes are known to almost everyone. The theme is food. Of course, in the still lifes of past centuries, non-vegetarian elements are also depicted – fish, game, or parts of slaughtered animals. However, it must be admitted that such still lifes are much less common – perhaps because the canvases painted in the still life genre were intended primarily to decorate living rooms, and visitors to this space at home were waiting to see something harmonious and peaceful on the walls. A still life with apples and peaches could be sold much more successfully than a still life with fish. This is only our humble guess, but it is based on the obvious fact that the aesthetic of non-violent, neutral and “tasty” works of art has always attracted the public to a greater extent.

Artists, depicting fruits, nuts, berries and vegetables, hardly adhered to the ideas of vegetarianism or fruitarianism – nevertheless, the still life genre sometimes occupied for some of them the main part of their creative career. Moreover, a still life is not just a collection of objects; there is always hidden symbolism in it, some idea that is understandable to each viewer in his own way, in accordance with his perception of the world. 

Let’s start with the work of one of the pillars of impressionism Auguste Renoir, who bathed in the rays of glory during his lifetime.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Still life with southern fruits. 1881

The writing style of the French master – unobtrusively soft and light – can be traced in most of his paintings. We are very impressed with this exclusively vegetarian work, depicting a large number of fruits and vegetables.

Speaking once about creativity in painting, Renoir said: “What kind of freedom? Trying to talk about what has already been done hundreds of times before you? The main thing is to get rid of the plot, avoid narrative, and for this choose something familiar and close to everyone, and even better when there is no story at all. In our opinion, this very accurately characterizes the genre of still life.

Paul Cezanne. An artist with a dramatic fate, who received recognition from the public and the expert community only in his old age. For a very long time, Cezanne was not recognized by numerous admirers of painting, and his colleagues in the shop considered his works dubious and not worthy of attention. At the same time, the works of contemporary impressionists – Claude Monet, Renoir, Degas – were successfully sold. As the son of a banker, Cezanne could have a prosperous and secure future – provided that he devoted himself to continuing his father’s business. But by his vocation, he was a real artist who gave himself to painting without a trace, even in times of persecution and complete loneliness. Cezanne’s landscapes – the plain near Mount St. Victoria, the road to Pontoise and many others – now adorn world museums, including. Like landscapes, still lifes for Cezanne were a passion and a constant subject of his creative research. Cezanne’s still lifes are the standard of this genre and a source of inspiration for artists and aesthetes to this day.

“Still life with drapery, jug and fruit bowl” Cezanne is one of the most expensive works of art ever sold at world auctions.

Despite the simplicity of execution, Cezanne’s still lifes are mathematically verified, harmonious and fascinate the contemplator. “I will stun Paris with my apples,” Cezanne once said to his friend.

Paul Cezanne Still Life Apples and Biscuit. 1895

Paul Cezanne. Still life with a basket of fruit. 1880-1890

Paul Cezanne. Still life with pomegranate and pears. 1885-1890

Creation Vincent Van Gogh very versatile. He carefully worked on all his works, studied topics that were not touched upon in the work of other masters of painting of that time. In letters to friends, he describes with childish spontaneity the charm of olive groves or grape plantations, admires the work of an ordinary hard worker-sower of wheat. Scenes of rural life, landscapes, portraits and, of course, still lifes are the main areas of his work. Who does not know Van Gogh’s irises? And the famous still lifes with sunflowers (many of which he painted to please his friend Paul Gauguin) can still be seen on postcards, posters and posters popular for interior decoration.

During his lifetime, his work was not sold; the artist himself told an interesting incident in a letter to a friend. A certain owner of a rich house agreed to “try on” one of the artist’s paintings on the wall in his living room. Van Gogh was delighted that the moneybags found it appropriate to have his painting in the interior. The artist gave the rich man his work, but he did not even think to pay the master even a penny, believing that he was already doing the artist a great favor.

The image of fruit for Van Gogh meant no less than the work on the surrounding fields, meadows and bouquets of flowers. 

Vincent Van Gogh. Basket and six oranges. 1888

Vincent Van Gogh. Still life with apples, pears, lemons and grapes. 1887

Below we present a portrait of Van Gogh painted by his friend, an eminent artist. Paul Gauguin, with whom they worked together for some time on some still lifes and landscapes. The canvas depicts Van Gogh and sunflowers, as Gauguin saw them, settling next to a friend for joint creative experiments.

Paul Gauguin. Portrait of Vincent van Gogh painting sunflowers. 1888

Paul Gauguin’s still lifes are not so numerous, but he also loved this genre of painting. Often, Gauguin performed paintings in a mixed genre, combining a still life with an interior and even a portrait. 

Paul Gauguin. Still life with a fan. 1889

Gauguin admitted that he paints still lifes when he feels tired. It is interesting that the artist did not build compositions, but, as a rule, painted from memory.

Paul Gauguin. Still life with teapot and fruit. 1896

Paul Gauguin. Flowers and a bowl of fruit. 1894

Paul Gauguin. Still life with peaches. 1889

Henri Matisse – an amazing artist, who was praised by S.I. Schukin. The Moscow philanthropist and collector decorated his mansion with unusual and then not entirely clear paintings by Matisse and gave the artist the opportunity to calmly engage in creativity, not worrying about his financial situation. Thanks to this support, real fame came to the little-known master. Matisse created slowly, very meditatively, sometimes very consciously simplifying his works to the level of a child’s drawing. He believed that the viewer, tired of everyday worries, should immerse himself in a harmonious environment of contemplation, moving deeper from worries and anxieties. In his works, one can clearly see the desire to get closer to the purity of sensations, a sense of unity with nature and the primitive simplicity of being.


Henri Matisse. Still life with flowers pineapple and lemon

Matisse’s still lifes once again proves the idea that the task of an artist, no matter what genre or direction he works in, is to awaken a sense of beauty in a person, to make him feel the world deeper, using simple, sometimes even “childish” image techniques. 

Henri Matisse. Still life with oranges. 1913

Still life is one of the most democratic for perception and the most beloved genre of painting for many. AT

We thank you for your attention!

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