Still Life with Dead Birds and Mouse, Jean Baptiste Oudry
Still life painting doesn't get ya going, am I right? If you think of traditional still life, you probably think of it as something for old people to hang on their walls. A piece of decor that pulls a room together, fruits and flowers artfully matched to the upholstery and promptly forgotten. A museum gallery you would rather not spend time in.
In that way, nothing has changed. Still life was looked down upon from its 17th century beginnings in the Netherlands. The style didn't seem to require any originality of thought. All that seemed necessary to create the visual illusion of reality was strong hand-to-eye coordination and sophisticated technical skill.
And buyers of Dutch still life were of another class. They were merchants and businessmen or "new money." Their art market functioned outside the traditional patronage of churches and cathedrals and depicted secular subject matter. They wanted paintings that were pretty to look at but small enough to be hung at home.
What I'm about to tell you will change the way you view these paintings forever. You see, what makes still life painting really interesting is that the objects depicted are seldom neutral. The simplicity of the composition is somewhat deceptive because many of the objects carry overt symbolic meaning. These symbols shape underlying themes that can then provide meaning from painting-to-painting.
Vanitas (Latin for vanity) is a distinctive theme of still life painting and it is most often attributed to painters who worked in the Dutch town of Leyden. Its subject is the “momento mori”, to remind the viewer of death, the fragility of human life and the brevity of earthly existence. The artist might include a skull, timepiece, or snuffed out candles as symbolic reminders of the passage of time. Items like books or musical instruments (precious at the time) warn of the futility of worldly pursuits.
In the Oudry still life (above), we see that the sands of time have run out. Two birds, both likely (but not certainly) dead, traditionally represent the resurrection of the soul after death. The bee and butterfly are symbols of hope, and, by their delicate nature, a reminder of the fragility of life. The mouse is considered to be a very fertile animal, and so became a symbol of lechery and destruction. Here, he waits to devour these gentle creatures at the hour of their death.
I could go on for days. Next time you visit a museum, check out the still life gallery and take a second look. Pay attention to the small stuff. The objects chosen and the subtle contrast between them. A good dictionary of symbols in Western art is very helpful to have with you. This one is a favorite of mine .