Jug and Bottle

Peter Campbell

Of all the gratifications painting offers, the pleasures which come by way of pictures of pots, bowls, fruit, game, bread, bottles and so forth are the least explicable in terms of other appetites. Still-lifes do not charm topographically, arouse erotically or excite physiognomicaily. They do not, despite often showing food, do as much as they might to make the mouth water. The greatest of them are celebrations of frugality. Cézanne’s apples, Chardin’s peaches and Morandi’s jugs rebuke the gleaming succulence of the lobsters and fish, the rich crumbling pies, even the crisp linen, which make the paintings of 17th-century Dutch masters the ancestors of photographic illustrations in cookery books – although, to be fair, those illustrations also find models in the work of painters who turned, not to the splendour of the feast, but to the coolness of the larder. The surfaces of the greatest still-lifes are more often floury or waxy than glazed; the objects are solidly there, sparingly translucent. They may glow, they do not glitter. Matisse had to have the real thing – girl or oyster – in front of him when he painted. And it had to be fresh: for one still-life he renewed his oysters every day and had a boy on hand to water the fish for another. The results are delicious, but only metaphorically mouthwatering.

It isn’t surprising that even in the 18th century Chardin’s still-lifes seemed more worthwhile than most pictures of love, terror, martyrdom, noble effort, sublime storms or sweet fading skies. Good bread is better than second-rate cake. It is, however, surprising when Diderot praises them in a way which makes you think he found them as serious, as memorable as even the best cake. It is easy now to say that the notion of higher genres, the idea that subject-matter sets limits on ambition, is nonsense. We have become used to pictures of the ordinary. We find a Degas woman washing herself easier to take than a saint in ecstasy.

But we still have hierarchies – although they are cruder – and other categories of picture rank above still-life. Size alone has a great effect on what we judge to be serious. The aesthetic of engulfment, achieved in pictures which almost fill the field of view, from Monet’s waterlilies through to Pollock and Rothko, rightly persuades us that big pictures have special qualities. Still-life, which is best in pictures that are quite small, has much the same problem getting serious attention now as it did when it was up against full-size gods and nymphs. Indeed, in the past still-life painting could convincingly rebuke less frugal genres. Like a puritan at the feast, it could make them seem too emotional, too playful, too expressive. Sometimes you can wish Chardin wasn’t there; the Quakerish probity of his jar of olives, his copper pans, his dead partridge makes you a little ashamed when you want to wipe a tear with Greuze or pat a bottom with Boucher.

Still-life reproaches high ambition, yet has immodest ambitions of its own. It outdoes all other kinds of painting in doing what belongs to painting alone. This has always been clear. In an ancient fable about competing artists, the contestants do not elicit tears of pity or shudders of fear with pictures of Dido or storm-shrouded hills. One paints fruit which looks so real that birds peck at it. The other responds with a picture covered by a curtain. When his rival reaches to pull it back he finds that the curtain is the picture. Forget the silly side to the story: painting hardly ever really tries to fool the eye. But note the acknowledgment that painting is, at heart, about painting, and that in all genres grand subjects are liable to serve less well than humble ones. Velázquez’s kings and queens seem to have engaged his skill less than his dwarves. The landscape of home – look at Constable, Cotman or Cézanne – has produced better pictures than the landscape of travel. Even Turner was better, or at least more original, in England than abroad. And the subjects of still-life, the objects used or eaten every day – they, too, are humble.

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