Still Life by Diego Rivera

Still life paintings have always been quite a popular theme among artists of all periods, but modernity introduced new ideas and tendencies into this sphere. The Still Life (1916, oil on canvas) painted by Diego Rivera is a perfect illustration to this process when new principles changed the nature and main message of the still life making it a very complex and multidimensional work of art. This essay will be devoted to the analysis of the content and message of this painting by Rivera. It will prove that using a variety of Cubism principles the artist managed to offer his personal interpretation of the still life as a genre and ask thought-provoking questions about the profession of a painter.


The painting features several objects that are closely connected with the profession of an artist. On a small shelf there is a sponge and a toothbrush often used by artist to apply paint in some specific way or create certain textures. Between the toothbrush and a sponge there is a maquette of a vase that can be used as a learning aid at artistic schools. Behind the shelf there are several objects that are quite difficult to identify due to their abstract nature, but they are likely to be the canvas used by the artists or prepared for their work. The painting is not large, only 54.9 x 46 cm.

Focusing on the formal analysis of this painting, it is important to highlight that shapes play the most important role in the composition of this work of art. Different rectangular shapes of the canvas and the shelf dominate the layout of the objects functioning as the focal center of the composition. These forms are geometrical and they are perfectly combined with curvilinear shapes of the sponge and the vase. The way Rivera arranges these shapes makes a significant impact on the space of the painting. It is almost completely filled with these objects and they in several places even touch the edge of the canvas.

The nature of the shapes also stipulated the type of the lines used in this painting. They are implied as Rivera prefers not to use contour for the objects he depicts. In most cases lines are straight and slightly diagonal and this arrangement makes the general composition rather unstable. It is also quite difficult to define the angle from which the viewer sees the still life. The lines and shapes are arranged in the way to make several perspectives possible simultaneously.

The texture of the painting is very uneven as in some places the brushstrokes are quite transparent and the background colors shine through the final layer. It is especially obvious at the gray background and the texture of the vase. However, in some places, as, for instance, the bright olive rectangle behind the shelf, the texture is very solid and therefore the shape covered in dense bright color creates a visible contrast with the neighboring objects.

The color scheme used by Rivera at this painting is rather reserved and calm. Different shades of soft brown and gray are the dominant colors here, thus helping the artist to draw the viewers attention towards the objects located on the shelf. These objects are slightly brighter and more saturated than the rest of the painting. The surface of the shelf is dark green that creates an interesting contrast with the ochre stripe on the sponge. This combination is supported by the green side of the vase maquette and the bright olive canvas.

The principles of design that Rivera employed at this painting make it a bright example of modern art. Almost all the objects look two-dimensional and they lack proper shadows. There is certain dark area on the surface of the shelf, but it does not match to the supposed shapes of the shadows that must be there. Rivera makes the emphasis on the vase and the sponge, but the rest of the objects and shapes are not totally subordinate to these two objects. They are quite independent and play a very important role at the painting making it look more abstract and expressive.

The painting is not balanced in the classical understanding of this term. The composition is quite shaky and there is no obvious gravity to correspond to the weight of the objects depicted in this still life. The rectangles behind the shelf are located in various planes and their shapes are so different that it is logical to assume that the viewer looks at them simultaneously from different places. Moreover, the right side of the painting seems to be more overloaded with different objects and shapes than the left one.

However, despite obvious imbalance in the composition, Rivera does not damage the unity of the painting with his innovative approach. All the elements of the still life are perfectly matched together and each of them makes the neighboring ones more expressive. For instance, the white toothbrush creates an impressive contrast with the color of the shelf, thus attracting the viewers attention towards this object. The painting is also varied as Rivera combines different shapes and colors and this technique prevents the work from looking monotonous.

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This painting was created by Diego Rivera in 1916 when he lived in Paris and communicated with many influential artists of that period Chaim Soutine, Amedeo Modigliani, Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso . Under the impact of Picasso who was actively developing a new artistic movement that critics called Cubism, Rivera also began introducing similar forms into his art. Most of elements and principles described above perfectly correspond to special Cubism syntax used by Picasso in his works. In this painting Rivera, as all other Cubists rejected the idea that art should be a realistic copy of the nature. He also did not use any traditional techniques of modeling the objects with corresponding light and shadow making them look three-dimensional. Almost all the objects, except probably the vase maquette, look rather flat, although it would be a mistake to say that Rivera completely rejected these notions here. The usage of multiple vantage points is also a feature common among Cubists . Another aspect of Cubism as it was understood by its creator Pablo Picasso was a new approach to dealing with space. The artists of this movement often used open forms in their paintings that could be broken by other elements . It is seen in Riveras Still Life when the canvases cross one another as they were not supposed to do in the reality.

Rivera often referred to the theme of still life in his oeuvre, especially at this period for example, Still Life with Garlic Press (1918) or Still Life with Apples (1918). However, this painting tells much more about Riveras identity than others. Painting the objects connected with his profession Rivera revealed his attitude towards the activity that was very important to him since his childhood. He is said to paint the walls of his house when he was a little boy and his parents chose not to suppress his talent and allowed him to do it . Rivera always saw himself as an artist and was determined to develop his skills as much as he could. His gargantuan energies and bravura talents as an artist made a very important part of his identity as many of his contemporaries acknowledged . Therefore, it is obvious that the objectes Rivera depicted at this still life were crucial for his own personality. It is also important to highlight that during his time in Paris Rivera was not deeply engaged in the political turmoil of Mexico and the USA as he was later in his life, and art was his only major interest .

Rivera did not have much success among critics and public during this period as many other Cubists . There is no evidence of particularly negative reviews on this work of art, but in general these still life paintings by Rivera did not attract much attention at this period. However, in about a decade the situation completely changed and Rivera became one of the most influential artists in Americas. He painted murals for the Rockefeller Center, San Francisco Stock Exchange, Detroit Institute of Arts and many other places. In 1931 a large exhibition of his works was organized at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and his still life paintings were also an important part of this event .

All things considered, The Still Life by Diego Rivera is a very important work to characterize the early period of his oeuvre when he was interested in the Cubism principles. For this purpose he mainly employs two-dimensional shapes, special color schemes and multiple vantage points. This work of art reflects many ideas developed by Cubists, but does not completely imitate the work of Picasso and other representatives of this movement. Rivera shows his own personal approach to the genre of still life and includes many elements important for his identity as an artist into this painting.