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
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