Women & Still Life

Thus the question of women’s equality—in art as in any other realm—devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them. (Nochlin, 1971)

“The art market is not sexist,” Mr. Sewell said. “The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist.

“Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.” (Johnson, 2008)

An audit of the art world shows that every artist in the top 100 auction sales last year was a man, and just 8% of public art in central London was created by women. (Cochrane, 2013)

Perhaps I was naïve to think that in the 21st Century things had moved on for women artists but it seems that progress has actually been pretty slow. On the one hand it seems that there are more opportunities but on the other women are still underrepresented in the major institutions.

Delving into the world of historical Vanitas still life has been fascinating and has prompted this reflection on the position of women in art. I have some familiarity with art history and was aware that most of the artists presented as ‘great’ are men. What I am ashamed to say I wasn’t aware of was some of the women I came across in relation to the tradition of still life painting. Looking at some of the books on still life painting I have used for research for assignment five it would seem I am not the only one!

I am now happy to be acquainted with Fede Galizia, Clara Peeters, Louise Moillon, Rachel Ruysch, Marie Louise Elizabeth Vigee-LeBrun, Maria van Oosterwijck and Ann Vallayer Coster; 17th and 18th Century artists whose work appears to have been prolific and successful. I didn’t necessarily set out to consider the gendered nature of artworks and the artworld, to a certain extent it found me. What most intrigued me was the fact that there were a number of accomplished women still life painters because for the most part it was a form of art they were ‘allowed’ to participate in. It seems that between the Renaissance and the 20th Century, women were not permitted to participate in life drawing which excluded them from the academies and the major art institutions. They were relegated to what was regarded as the lower genre of still life, something more seemly for their gender.

Bryson (1990) argues that because of its low status Still Life is a genre that has been under-theorised, this certainly seems to be the case in relation to women in the field. In looking at the early works of the 17th and 18th Century women I was struck by how familiar they seem and that these objects and forms gave me a way of connecting with them.

The repeated shapes of the things in still life have been decided by consensus over many eras, and feel ‘right’ for the job. As such they create a cultural field far larger than any single individual, or even any particular generation: those addressed by these ancient and familiar forms are only the present members of a cultural family whose roots travel back into a vast preceding cultural community, which is in solidarity with each of the generations behind and ahead.(Bryson, 1990: 138)

In a small way I wanted my assignment to reach back and respect these women and flow forward into the future of the genre.

References and citations

BRYSON, N. 1990. Looking at the Overlooked: Four essays on still life painting, London, Reaktion Books Ltd.

COCHRANE, K. 2013. Women in art: why are all the ‘great’ artists men? Available: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2013/may/24/women-art-great-artists-men [Accessed 18th June 2016].

JOHNSON, A. 2008. There’s never been a great woman artist. Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/theres-never-been-a-great-woman-artist-860865.html [Accessed 18th June 2016].

NOCHLIN, L. 1971. Why have there been no great women artists? Available: http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/ [Accessed 20th June 2016].



Exercise – Project 3 Self-absented portraiture: Nigel Shafran “Washing Up”

Exercise: Review Shafran’s work and consider the following:
• Did it surprise you that Washing Up was taken by a man?
• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
• What does this series achieve by not including people?
• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

Nigel Shafran (1964-) lives and works in London and has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally. He trained in New York as a commercial photographer but his own projects are altogether more personal, particular and focused on the everyday. His subject matter draws on aspects of his life that are close to hand and familiar. Washing Up 2000 is an extensive series of 170 images taken in various domestic settings but mainly at his home. They were taken in available light using a medium format camera.

I imagine the thinking behind the question of the photographer’s gender is that the content of Washing Up 2000 is a very domestic subject and therefore more likely to be the product of a female photographer than a male. I can honestly say it was not something I thought about when I saw the images, I was intrigued by what was on the drainers and realised it has been a long time since I had done the washing up like that. In other words I went to what resonated rather than who the photographer was. I was also struck by the quality of the image and how beautiful the lighting was. I am inclined to agree with Phillips that there is little to be gained in trying to determine a particularly ‘female’ or ‘male’ photography.

“There certainly is a clichéd female style of photography. And there’s a clichéd tech dude who has 2,700 cameras and only talks about depth of field,” says Cara Phillips. “But within photography, there are so many people that fit and defy stereotypes, that going there doesn’t get you anywhere. Ultimately I really don’t think that it’s important.”  In Mitchell, 2009

That is not to say that there are not a combination of cultural, political and social influences on the nature of the images we take, but my sense is that gender is one part of a wider network of psychosocial elements. It is undoubtedly the case that gender may have an affect on access both to opportunities and subjects/contexts and the way others respond to us as ‘gendered’ photographers.

But pictures aren’t taken in a vacuum. The sex of the photographer matters because subjects react to men and women differently. This doesn’t have anything to do with how the photographer perceives the scene, but it can still have a huge effect on the resulting photograph.  Mitchell, 2009

The reaction of others can influence how and if a photographer can gain access and how they behave as subjects in front of the camera but I am not convinced that gender is the sole influence on what a photographer chooses to take, after all there are men and women working in all genres of photography.

In terms of Shafran’s Washing Up 2000 series I think the absence of people allows for a more open reading and potential connection. The inclusion of people in an image can lead to comparison, are these people like me and what do they have to tell me about my own life. This can mean a point of connection or disconnection dependent on your response. In using a still life approach I think the images become more phenomenological, that is they evoke something of the everyday experience that lends itself to interpretation. In conversation with Charlotte Cotton, I think Shafran is speaking of his work as dealing with the phenomena of lived experience and is mindful of not letting too much conscious thought get in the way.

It’s all around us. I think they can be expressions of everything that’s us: how we’ve been brought up, taught or learnt determines how we do things from cutting a load of bread to painting a wall. I think that might strength is in this and if I start questioning it or thinking too much about it, then it’s difficult for me to find my way back to what inspired me.
Nigel Shafran

I find myself remembering my grandparent’s sink and noticing how unlike my own washing up routine (thanks to a dishwasher) this is. I also find myself wondering about the people who have participated in the meals. This is left to my imagination and a phenomenological reading of everyday lived experience. This interpretation would have changed (I can’t say if this would have been and improvement or not because they would have been a different set of photographs) with the presence of people in the images.

An instant photograph can only acquire meaning insofar as the viewer can read into it a duration extending beyond itself. When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future. Berger & Mohr, 1982: 89

As a result of the above ‘reading’ of the photographs I do find them interesting compositions. They give me a wide scope for interpretation and each time I look at them I see something different. There is something beautiful and almost sculptural in their ‘everydayness.’ This is not a subject matter I might have considered yet it is something recognisable and personal, exposing a small detail of everyday life that others seldom see. It sits clearly within a still life genre.

As in traditional still life painting, in which specific objects such as the hour-glass and human skulls were introduced to symbolise mortality and the brevity of life, here the recurrence and disappearance of certain motifs and changing atmospheric conditions within the series suggest the passage of time and the contingencies of daily life. Brett Rogers review of Washing Up 2000


Berger, J., & Mohr, J. (1982). Another way of telling. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative Society.