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Nature Morte

September 16, 2020
abstract painting with geometric figures
Oronzo Gasparo (Italian/American, 1903-1969), Cubistic Still Life #2, 1932, watercolor, 18-1/2 x 13-1/4 inches, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Millman and the Gasparo Estate, 1973.291

Still life works at the UW Art Museum underscore why the genre continues to be an important vehicle of expression.


By Nicole M. Crawford 

The still life is classically defined as a work of art depicting inanimate, typically commonplace objects that are either natural, such a food and flowers, or manmade, such a books and vases. Also known by the French term nature morte, the still life remains an academic tradition of art in all mediums. As an artistic genre, it has served as a means for artists throughout the centuries to assess and experiment artistically—and as a means to express often profound ideas on time, life and nature. The University of Wyoming Art Museum’s permanent collection has a number of historic to contemporary examples of the still life in a variety of mediums—including painting, photography, drawing and printmaking.

The earliest known still lifes were created in the 15th century BCE by the Egyptians, who created funerary paintings of food. Discovered in ancient burial sites, these images included depictions of crops, fish and meat. During the Middle Ages, the still life was adapted for religious purposes by incorporating objects such as coins, seashells and fruit into the borders of books surrounding depictions of biblical scenes.

Historically, still life paintings were depicted in highly detailed realism that were deeply imbued with religious meaning. As artists during the Northern Renaissance in the 17th century began to separate themselves from spiritual imagery, the focus of still life subjects shifted to items of everyday life. Flowers and all types of food and drink were portrayed as studies of the objects themselves, without hidden meaning. Artists experimented with color, simplified the perspective and introduced multi-colored backgrounds, signaling a major change from the religious symbolism of early still life paintings. 

However, artists during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) took the still life further by including objects that symbolized the sin of vanity, such as items of precious metals or the abundance of food, and the transience of life, with depictions of hourglasses and extinguished candles. Often employing trompe-l’oeil techniques of hyperrealism in order to create an optical illusion of three-dimensionality, artists explored the boundaries between image and reality.

In the 12th century, still lifes became perfectly suited for the development of cubism, with explorations in geometric spatial organization. American modernists interpreted still life subjects with a combination of realism and cubist-derived abstraction that reveals both the physical structure and the emotional subtext of the objects. 

Pop art embraced the still life genre and explored the idea of the multiple through the depiction of objects as a commodity, rather than a simple analysis of an object. Today, the still life is an important vehicle of expression in capturing themes of contemporary life while paying homage to the early traditions of painting.

The artworks in the Art Museum collection explore aesthetic and conceptual artistic strategies that challenge the view that the still life is simply an art of imitation and underscore why the genre continues to be an important vehicle of expression.

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