So many people are of the opinion that still-lifes are literally the worst genre of painting. Ever. They’re literally the foodie Instagrams of their day. I mean why in the world would some want to carefully catalogue a tables cape of bowls, plates, food, and sometimes bugs????? I felt the same way until I had to teach Rachel Ruysch’s Fruits & Insects in AP Art History and I knew I had to jazz it up a bit. The question was how!
So here are some ways to spice up looking at still-life paintings:
Play an “I Spy” Game
In the attempt to make these boring paintings more lively I decided to play a little “I spy game” in which I would call out things and the students had to find them in the painting. This showed them that there is more than initially meets the eye with these paintings. It also makes the students realize that not all the things really “go together.” For instance, why are there bird eggs in this image above with fruit?
I also play this game while walking around museums with myself or my husband. We each try to find something for the other to “spy.” Honestly, some of these really make me hungry. 🙂 It’s hilarious but I always want wine, oysters, and fruit after staring at too many still-lifes.
Once they are alerted to the fact that some items feel out-of-place, it’s a good time to ask why certain items would be included. In art history (just like your English lit class), the answer is nearly always some kind of symbolism. Here are some quick books and articles on still-life symbolism to use with the students or do research yourself:
- ALICE FRY: Alice Inspiration – Vanitas Paintings and the Symbolism of Objects
- The Metropolitan Museum, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Still-Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600-1800
- Art Seed: Vanitas Still Life’s and their symbolism
- Bridgeman Images: Vanitas – symbols of death & decadence
- ThoughtCo.: Vanitas Painting
- Art in Context: Vanitas – A Reminder of Human Mortality Through Vanitas Paintings
- Food and Feasting in Art
This is a good small-group activity in which students take 1-2 still-life paintings and try to beat each other to “crack the code.” Why don’t you try it with the two images above? How many symbols can you find?
Hands On Activity
A great way to get the kids to really analyze each part of a still-life is to recreate it! I had my AP Art History kids last year use materials I had gathered from arts & crafts store to recreate in 3D Rachel Ruysch’s Fruits & Insects (I went shopping during a huge fall decor sale so everything was SUPER cheap!). They had a ton of fun making sure they got every detail right and this really allowed them some structured (& productive) “fun” time in class.
In the end, art is what you make of it. So if, as the teacher, you enjoy the material the students will too (my kids always know when I don’t like something! lol). You may not have time for all of these in class so pick and choose according to the time allotted and the desires of your kids and hopefully they get into it!
Make Up a Story
With little kids it could also be fun to make up a story about the items left on the table. Tell the kids to imagine there was a group of people around the table and they suddenly had to get up: What were they doing? Who were they? What were they talking about? Why did they gather this still to the table? Where did they have to rush to so quickly that they left their food?
This type of exercise can help kids get into the mindset of a painting and really brings them to life. Especially when “museum fatigue” starts setting in. I don’t have any kids yet but you can be sure these museum games will be in my back pocket when I do!
Here are some more still-lifes from my travels: