Why Were So Many Women Artists Still Life Painters?

From the Italian Renaissance to twentieth-century modernism, women artists have had a long, complicated association with the still life genre.

Feb 19, 2024By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
women artists still life painters
Photograph of Vanessa Bell, via Charleston; with A Vase of Flowers by Margareta Haverman, 1716, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


As with all artistic genres, still life paintings by male artists outnumber those by women. That being said, however, the still life genre has – more so than any other – attracted women artists to incorporate it into their artistic practice, whether out of necessity (as they were effectively barred from other forms of painting) or by active choice. Here, we will take a closer look at the still life genre and why so many women artists throughout history have based their practice around the still life genre.


A Short History of the Still Life Genre

Still Life with a Glass and Oysters by Jan Davidsz de Heem, c. 1640, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Though the still life genre is perhaps most commonly associated with the Dutch Golden Age of painting, during which there was a prodigious output of still life artworks, the history of the still life, in fact, goes much further back, with early examples of the genre being found on ancient Egyptian tombs.


Perhaps the first flourishing of the genre within Western art, at least, was during the latter part of the Italian Renaissance when the painter Caravaggio popularized the still life (or natura morta) with his Basket of Fruit around 1600. Not long after Caravaggio’s groundbreaking still life was painted, such women artists as Fede Galizia were also working within the genre, testifying to women artists’ longstanding association with still life painting. In fact, of Galizia’s 63 attributed works, 44 are still life paintings, including the earliest signed and dated Italian still life of all time.


Taught by her father and living and working in Milan, Galizia was situated in the epicenter of the Catholic Counterreformation and scientific advancement. Her still life paintings, including her late work Still Life of Apples, Pears, Cucumbers, Figs and a Melon (c. 1625-30), therefore drew on contemporary scientific knowledge (the microscope had recently been invented in 1590) while blending this knowledge with religious symbolism.


A Vase of Flowers by Margareta Haverman, 1716, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Later in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age gave rise to a further flourishing of the still life genre. By the 1620s, there was an increasing demand for still life paintings in the Netherlands. Works by male artists during this period of art history “reproduced elements of domestic space while wholly sainitising it of the ugly, lowly and uninteresting spectre of femininity,” according to Rebecca Birrell; “Instead, food articulated wealth, or mapped the trade routes taken to the table; in darker moods, possessions spoke to the brevity of life” (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 9).


Though it depicts a flower arrangement rather than food, Hans Bollongier’s 1639 Floral Still Life offers a good illustration of Birrell’s argument. Bollongier’s artistic arrangement of tulips, roses, and anemones is both exuberant and balanced – despite the inconvenient fact that these flowers do not all bloom at the same time.


His inclusion of tulips, however, is of particular interest. So-called tulip mania had played a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age when tulip bulbs became luxury commodities and thus signifiers of wealth and status. Bollongier’s Floral Still Life, however, was painted just two years after the Dutch stock market crashed, an event which left many people bankrupt following speculation in tulip bulbs. Floral Still Life thus flaunts wealth and status while pointing to the ultimate transience of earthly riches. Tulips are also on display in Margareta Haverman’s 1716 A Vase of Flowers and would later feature in Dora Carrington’s Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug.


Why Were So Many Women Artists Still Life Painters Throughout History?

Vase of Flowers and Conch Shell by Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1780, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While the aforementioned Margareta Haverman studied with Jan van Huysum before attending the Académie Royale, for women artists such as Haverman and Anne Vallayer-Coster (a fellow French artist and student at the Académie Royale), the genre considered best suited for women artists to study was the still life – which, incidentally, was then considered the lowest artistic genre. As a result, even after women had gained admission to artistic academies, they were still only permitted to produce paintings that an enthusiastic amateur might have produced in the drawing room. As Rebecca Birrell explains:


“Still life […] became the remit of artists who, because of their gender, were denied access to essential lessons on anatomy. They excelled in these representations […] but for artists who were serious about their craft and eager to professionalise, it was not enough. Accusations of amateurism could never be meaningfully thrown off if women remained unable to draw the human form, without which none of the higher genres (religious or history painting or portraiture) could be attempted. Despite entering art schools in increasing numbers, women found themselves painting more or less the same subjects as their forebears under the same aegis of politeness and religious dogma.” (See Further Reading, Birrell, p. 8).


Nonetheless, the practice of painting still life was not without its advantages for some women, as Birrell herself concedes. Moreover, Dora Carrington – who studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, where she was not only permitted to paint nudes but won prizes for doing so – continued to produce still life paintings, suggesting that something (be it convenience or preference) continued to draw her to the still life genre.


Self Portrait by Dora Carrington, 1913, the Jerwood Collection, via Art UK


The practice of painting still life certainly was convenient, as Birrell states, “for women without the time, money or confidence to hire models or occupy a studio, its subjects were readily available, and once domestic duties called, the objects were small enough to be stores (or concealed) with ease” (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 8). Nonetheless, “still life largely continued to represent a form of failure, bondage and thwarted ambition,” Birrel argues. And it is certainly true that, in the eyes of the artistic establishment, Carrington failed to live up to the promise she exhibited at the Slade, not through a lack of talent, but rather a lack of ambition. After graduating, she rarely exhibited her work, and when she did exhibit, she preferred to do so anonymously.


It is also true of Carrington that her interests were fairly domestic and thus were naturally in alignment with the still life genre. She remarked (perhaps somewhat archly) that “a kitchen & a larder gives a certain revelation to a female’s character,” planned menus according to the taste and dietary requirements of Lytton Strachey (with whom she lived), and both impressed her hosts and outed herself as a member of the lower middle classes when, in 1915, she managed to cook a leek successfully while staying at Asheham House with various members of the Bloomsbury Group. The extent to which still life painting was an active choice or a somewhat tawdry compromise on the part of women artists, therefore, remains up for debate.


Speaking Back to Still Life Painting: Vanessa Bell & Women’s Art in the 20th Century

Still Life with Apples in a Bowl by Vanessa Bell, c. 1922, via Christie’s


Vanessa Bell’s interest in still life painting – and her belief that it could offer her a viable, truly modernist mode of painting – was piqued when the economist (and fellow “Bloomsberry”) Maynard Keynes arrived at her home, Charleston Farmhouse, bearing paintings purchased from Edgar Degas’ studio sale in Paris in 1918. Most of these paintings he had acquired with state funds in a bid to protect these invaluable artworks during the First World War, but he also purchased four with his own money. Among these four was Les Pommes by Paul Cézanne, which inspired Bell to paint her own still life with apples, adding her own vibrant artistic style to the composition.


Unlike Carrington (indeed, unlike most women), Bell was not burdened with domestic labor. She kept servants throughout her life, meaning that her house was cleaned, her meals made, and her children cared for by other women. For Bell, therefore, the still life genre need not be tied exclusively to the home but could be made to signify beyond the domestic sphere. Her 1914 collage Still Life (Triple Alliance), for instance, offers explicit political comment on the outbreak of the First World War from Bell, who (like many other Bloomsbury Group members) was a lifelong pacifist.


Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses by Paul Cézanne, c. 1890, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


That is not to say, however, that Bell sought to escape the domestic altogether in her work. In fact, at Charleston, Bell, and Duncan Grant set about transforming their home into a habitable work of art. As such, Birrell writes, “[t]he home would not be an obstacle to her practice, a source of drudgery and distraction, but a prompt – a means of recontextualizing and thinking through her ideas that demanded constant invention and adaptation” (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 225). Just as a still life recontextualizes quotidian, domestic objects and asks us to reconsider them as part of a compositional whole, Charleston can be seen as Bell’s greatest experiment with still life writ large – that is, as a still life come to life.


Women artists have a long and storied history with the still life genre. Relegated to the practice of still life painting – considered the lowest genre of painting by the artistic establishment – that same establishment could then deride the lowliness of their compositions compared with those of men and so conclude that women artists were inferior. Forced to keep to the domestic sphere under a patriarchal society, these artists’ proficiency with still life painting was in part a result of their oppression – yet it also allowed them to express the materiality of their daily lives in art. As Birrell observes, the still life genre speaks to “the smallest and most basic components of how some women lived” and so seems to offer “histories of women’s lives compiled by way of the objects that bore witness” to those lives (see Further Reading, Birrell, p. 3). Regardless of why so many women artists took to still life painting, they more than proved their proficiency within the genre and thus their artistic talent, even through adversity.


Further Reading:


Birrell, Rebecca, This Dark Country: Women Artists, Still Life and Intimacy in the Early Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2022).


Garabedian, Maya, “Old Mistresses: Tracing the Origins of Still Life,” https://www.mutualart.com/Article/Old-Mistresses–Tracing-the-Origins-of-S/73210A36A14C79C4.


“Three Women Artists You May Not Have Heard Of,” https://www.nga.gov/stories/three-women-artists-you-may-not-have-heard-of.html.

Author Image

By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.