Bodegones and Still Life

Bodegones and Still Life

Bodegones, also known as still life, are works of art that represent flowers, animals, food, and man-made objects arranged in a certain space. Although the origins of the still life go back to the images of objects and food found in ancient Egypt, Herculaneum and Pompeii, it is not until the 16th century, when it appears as a secondary subject, as second-class art, but that in the 16th century XVII came to be recognized and respected as a pictorial genre.

The word bodegón was coined in Spain, although it has spread throughout Latin America since colonization. We will start with Mexican colonial painting, where the "bodegón" genre was also cultivated, but on a much smaller scale than in Spain.

The 19th century saw the rise of "bodegón" painting in Mexico, undoubtedly due to the impulse it received at the Academy of San Carlos. It is enough to browse through the Catalogs of the exhibitions that were held annually in said school to realize how favored the genre was among painters and amateurs. Mainly the women took pleasure in producing the so-called Dining Tables. To name just a few, Pu Cervantes and Juliana San Tontán , were recognized for their bodegones, in which they represented food, pans, jugs, canneries, among other elements, with ample artistic skill on a table.

But according to history, the painter who most distinguished himself in the genre was Agustín Arrieta from Puebla. Born at the beginning of the century in Santa Ana Chiautempan., Arrieta excelled as a still life painter, and it is that with great mastery he painted glass objects, transparent and colored blue, yellow and green, even dark red; slender liquor bottles, with their glasses and goblets in pressed and engraved glass, as well as manufactured objects such as the hammered copper saucepan, tureens, brass jugs and bronze candlesticks. The edibles range from seeds to fruits and ornamentals such as flowers. If there is a defect to be found in Arrieta's still life, it is that he tends to accumulate too many objects on a single canvas, and not always aesthetic ones, which sometimes makes his good taste as a painter questionable.



Augustin Arrieta.

Mexican Still Life with Pigeons, S.XIX


Constant companions of the still life, and often inseparable from them, were the "vases and fruit bowls", names generally given to paintings with compositions of flowers and fruit. The painters of the Viceroyalty did not cultivate the genre of flowers and fruits as the main subject of their paintings, but only as a decorative complement to some works of a religious nature. Very well known are the paintings that represent images of Christ Crucified, in which, at the foot of the cross, there are vases with bouquets of roses, lilies and other flowers, symmetrically placed in pairs. But not because they are a conventional ornament, these vases are no longer meritorious works of art, although, in many cases, of popular art.

But it is not only in easel paintings that flower decorations stand out. They can also be found as decorative motifs in some old buildings, such as the Church of Tepotzotlán, on whose vaults borders and other ornaments of flowers and garlands were painted in tempera. But what was accessory in vice regal painting became the main subject of many paintings at the beginning of the 19th century, and during a great part of that century innumerable vases and fruit bowls were produced in Mexico.


For the 20th century in Mexico.

Well known are the "cupboards", belonging to the theme of bodegones or also called "Mexican still life", full of festive decoration and occasionally accompanied with religious details. For the 20th century, the work of the Mexican Armando Ahuatzi , born in 1950, stands out, showing the richness of the traditions and customs of his regional culture, and the pre-Hispanic and colonial stages, are projected with great virtuosity by the artist. Despite the fact that his still life seem to be taken from two centuries ago, his canvases are valid for the sense of reference that unites the current viewer with a past time that modernity inevitably tries to erase.

His pieces are striking thanks to the riot of tropical colors typical of Mexico, his still lifes contain a variety of fruits and characteristic Mexican colors.


Baskets with fruits and dishes from Mexico. Peaches, anón, pomegranates, pears, and other fruits of the Aztec country are elements in the still life of Armando Ahuatzi. 

This artist has an objective when painting his still life, and that is that his fruits transmit that taste for flavors and colors, that call the attention of the viewer who observes them. The abundance in his still life is another characteristic that is obvious.

Peaches and figs with Mexican tableware
Still live of Mexican popular culture, between the past and the present


It can be said that still life with these traits never proliferated so much in other Latin American countries, with the exception of a slight resemblance to Cuba, where the religious is replaced by a strong ritual.

The 19th century saw a flourishing of ornamentation in Cuba, especially in the industrial arts, making this period a very important moment in American artistic development. This predilection for the art of decorating, common in South America, can be approximated to the analogous tendencies of the American medieval arts.

Colonial painting had to submit, and the artist sought an outlet for his original imagination in ornamentation. There hides the plastic invention. In the 19th century, while painting fell into conventionalism and academic formalism, the industrial arts ensured the persistence of an independent and original artistic expression.

In Cuba, the epic struggle of ornament against the neoclassical style takes very interesting forms. The dominant function of the ornament is affirmed: it spreads in front of the view in the interiors of the houses, catches the eyes by its diffusion in the balconies and balustrades of the facades, and introduces, as its ally, the tropical flora, in the enclosure of closed architecture. The palms and vines in the patio with the shadows they cast, in harmony with the wrought iron doors and windows, make the geometric lines of the architecture completely disappear under a varied embroidery and moving shapes where the imagination can play at ease.

Amelia Peláez 's painting is a conscious example of the dominant role of ornament in relation to the subject of still-life and that of the elements of Cuban ornamental art of the last century.

(...) In her own studio, Amelia Peláez accumulates vestiges of the colonial past: Corinthian columns, screens, sculpted armchairs and other objects that remind her of a precise stylistic language at each look (...). In the works of Amelia Peláez, kinds of ornaments coexist. Those that constitute a stylized imitation of architectural or decorative objects of the last Cuban century, and those that are entirely free.

Still life, oil on paper, 1958.


Amelia Peláez uses these attributes on purpose, in her arrangement of lines and colors. He builds, with their help, ornamental screens parallel to the viewer. The color and chiaroscuro suggest the filtering of light. The surface of the painting thus appears to be the optical result of the superposition of spaced surfaces. And from time to time, the color planes are perforated by pure white, which is direct light from the most remote distance. There is then, instead of the dynamic and unlimited space of the Baroque, an adaptation of the idea of Cuban decorative art, that is, that of a limited, static space, defined by perforated screens parallel to the plane of the painting. This character of frontality is so peculiar in the works of Amelia Peláez. It also results in this impression of calm and restraint that emerges from them.

It is curious to see how many traits already defined in Baroque art have been preserved through still life, and how at the same time the style has changed and human vision has been revolutionized. The idea of form (volume or surface) has developed without interruption in European art, following in the footsteps of Chardin, until reaching the moderns.

In the American continent, it is the overall rhythm that concerns artisans and artists with almost no concern for the form or its renewal. This ensemble rhythm, primitively baroque idea, arrives in persistent antagonism with classicism, to a new form of expression. Amelia Peláez's painting is a symptom of it.

In the case of Colombia, painters such as Ricardo Borrero Álvarez, Ricardo Gómez Campuzano, Roberto Pizano, Miguel Díaz Vargas, Santiago Cárdenas and Fernando Botero , among others, who adopted still lifes as ways of expressing techniques, customs and everyday life.

In the case of Botero, this pictorial genre that he emphasizes the everyday, it is one of his favorites . This type of still paintings, which give the artist more compositional freedom than landscapes or portraits, caught the attention of this artist, who sought to give them his particular style.

It becomes evident in this triptych of colorful flowers (paradoxically) very alive, where once again, the immensity and the volumes appear as protagonists . Still life is one of the constant themes in his work, through which he has been able to develop his personal style . The artist successfully ensures that the viewer, looking at a painting of something as simple as a pear or a bowl of oranges, has no doubt that it bears the signature of Fernando Botero .

If we head towards Argentina we can find Emilio Pettoruti, 1892-1971, who through the aesthetics of Futurism and Cubism humanizes objects.

Among many, a small painting stands out whose importance goes beyond the work itself: Coparmonica, 1937, belongs to an extensive investigation by the artist in order to study something as simple as a glass from the futurist perspective and linking his later belonging to cubism. It is notorious how when dealing with the subject of still life, he contrasts the sobriety of Pettoruti's painting with the ornamental ritual of most of the reviewed authors.

Coharmonica , 1937


"Red wine", 1940


In Puerto Rico we find figures like Francisco Oller y Cestero (1833-1917) with his traditional bodegones with native fruits and vegetables . Oller appears with a premonitory close-up view of the traditions and their uniqueness of plant roots (which would be taken up in a sovereign way by Mirna Báez, her notable and absent compatriot.)

Works that can be considered as pictorial statements were his still lifes of coconuts, bananas, mameyes and guavas, local fruits through which he conveyed his sense of belonging in Caribbean art.

Francisco Oller, "Coconuts" (1893)


Still Life with Guanabanas, 1891, 20 1/2" x 31 1/2", Oil on canvas
Musical Arts Corporation Collection



Today bodegones are the convergence of digital tools and artistic techniques; all achieved, thanks to the historical journey that the development of these techniques has reached, based on the vision of transmitting serenity. If you want to get closer to the current situation of bodegones in Latin America, you will enjoy the work of the Cuban artist Luis Enrique Soca.

His bodegones is where roses, lemons, apples, and other fruits keep the beauty but also the symbolism of a hyperrealist language.

Soca makes incredibly realistic paintings, however, he is not limited to one genre, he also paints landscapes and creates calm spaces accompanied by pianos, which in turn give the scene musicality.


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