The reduction of the genre of still life to its title produces a problem between languages.  In English, the name ‘still life’ carries certain connotations.  The word ‘life’ produces the idea of movement; the subject is living and has been captured or stilled within the painting.  The title creates the idea that ‘still life’ is a captured moment, perhaps a ‘snapshot’ of one’s Sunday dinner.  This name is entirely misleading, the still life genre often depicts fish, animals, plants, and commodities – all of which are dead.  The name still life is ironic, because life that has been stilled is death.  As French artist, Manet would have used the French title nature morte, which literally translates to dead nature.  The genre was previously known as vie coye, which roughly translates to ‘silent life.’ (1) The distinction between still life and dead nature is important.  Manet was certainly aware of the English title ‘still life,’ and this becomes apparent in the strange dichotomy in the painting between life and death.  The central image of the fish with its tail suspended in time embodies the living/dead aspect.  The fish looks like it is dead with its mouth gaping and eye bulging, yet the broad sweeping brushstrokes and tail flipped into the air, mentioned earlier, suggests movement and thus life.  This embodiment of the tension within the title of the genre is an aspect of painting unique to Manet.

Édouard Manet, Fish (Still Life), 1864
oil on canvas, 32.1 x 73.4 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago

Throughout the long history of still life painting, both French and Dutch artists repeatedly used the motif of the fish. Often an idyllic fish is depicted, its silvery scales meticulously painted as it harmoniously blends with the other objects placed within the frame of the canvas. The still life titled Fish by Edouard Manet is oppositional to this pre-defined way of representation. The large fish becomes the dominating focal point with its mouth gaping open and eye bulging. While gazing at the painting, viewers unintentionally wrinkle their nose; Manet was able to capture with paint the essence of the smell of rotting fish.


adapted from Donna Hay

10 green onions, sliced
1/2 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 red chili, sliced
1 TB olive oil
2 TB oil infused with chili
10 saffron threads
1 TB boiling water
1 can crushed tomatoes
6 c fish stock
1/2 tsp smoky paprika
2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
100 g fresh prawns with the shell
300 g assorted seafood (mussels, calamari, clams, fish)

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and cook the green onion, garlic, fennel and chili for about 6 minutes, until soft. Meanwhile, place the saffron threads in a bowl of 1TB boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes.

After 6 minutes, add the tomatoes, fish stock and saffron with the soaking water. Bring to a boil and add the paprika, soy sauce and salt. Simmer for 10 minutes.

Add fish and seafood to soup and cook for about 2 minutes, until fish and prawns turn opaque. Remove from heat and top with chopped parsley and a fresh squeeze of lemon. Serve with crusty bread to sop up the broth.