This is evident from the shadows cast by the carafe and glass upon the wall. Even though made of inert paper, the artist has rendered the flowers so that they seem to grow about the carafe. In fact, all of the elements of the painting refer to each other. The still life genre became fashionable during the secular, post-Reformation world of the 1600’s, when the demand for scenes from everyday life, landscapes and home interiors, had burgeoned. Although they eschewed the saints and martyrs of the old religion, patrons required images imbued with meaning, reminders of the transience and brevity of life. Dutch artists such as Jan Van Huysem painted many of these secular allegories, for example, Flowers in a Terracotta Vase (1736-7). In the painting, over-ripe blossoms droop alongside a bunch of rotting grapes and nearby, a nest is filled with eggs that are about to hatch. This composition is Van Huysem’s comment on the shallowness of beauty, a reminder to the patron that life is a cycle of birth and growth, decay and death.
The still life genre fell from fashion for a century or so, but became popular again in the 1800’s, when developments in painting technology enabled artists to experiment with numerous renderings of light and colour. Several members of the impressionist artist group, to which Renoir belonged, painted still life images. These paintings were more aesthetic than obviously allegorical, for example, Vase of Flowers (1881-2) by Claude Monet. The French term for still life is “nature mort”, which means dead nature, a name that seems to poke fun at the genre. However, the numerous renderings of flowers, growing and in vases, in gardens and floating upon ponds, by nineteenth-century artists are essentially “still life” imagery. In Still Life With Carafe, Renoir is teasing the viewer in a particular way. The painting could refer to The Waterseller of Seville (1618) by Diego Velazquez, in which an old man hands a young boy a glass of water, actually giving the boy the stuff of life. In Renoir’s painting, the floral wallpaper, which seems to be alive, is dead.
In spite of their teasing jauntiness, the paper flowers have never been alive in the way of the lemon half or indeed, the water. Renoir’s painting demonstrates a number of developments in colour and paint in contrast to the beige and brown “earth” colours of the seventeenth-century painting. Renoir has made use of complementary colour to render light and shadow, for example, the bright lemon alongside the blue and pink shadings on the white surface. In addition, he has placed the bluish-white montage of carafe, glass and tablecloth against the red and green wallpaper. But his aim is not realism; in contrast to the barely perceptible water in the Velasquez painting, Renoir has painted the water in the carafe from swirls of light and dark paint, rendering it cool and dense and silvery, almost good enough to drink.