Ancient Egyptians painted still lifes inside the tombs of the pharaohs: sustenance for their journeys to death. Familiar subjects for European artists were bowls of fly spotted fruit and tables laden with carcasses of rabbits and fowl, set in rooms with somber walls. Until the Impressionists, still life paintings tended to be unappetizing; they caution against gluttony and remind us that the life of the flesh is fleeting.
Still life, taken literally, must mean death--life gone still. The foods presented repel us and scold us for being creatures that feed upon living things. Food is not a temptation but a memento mori.
Or am I wrong? Has buying meat in plastic wrap rather than on the hoof made me squeamish? Did people of another age look at the oysters on this platter and salivate?
I confess, I look away when I see a still life. Even the cornucopias make me think of dying.
Willem Claesz Heda Still Life with Gilt Goblet (Netherlands, 1635) Click on the picture for a closer look.