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Still Life

Historically, 'still life' was a category of painting typically featuring objects such as fruit, flowers, insects and/or countless collectables. Some objects were invested with symbolic value, e.g. the flower can be a metaphor of life and death – beautiful in bloom, but quick to fade. Paintings were traditionally small in scale to hang in people's homes rather than in public spaces.

In recent times, still life appears in art in various forms from the abstracted (simplified but still recognisable) to the entirely abstract (not recognisable as anything in reality, but perhaps reduced to its essential shape or basic form). Still life can even be represented in the form of the 'found object' (an actual vase or table, etc.) and assembled and documented to become 'art'.

Still Life, Flowers and Insects (c.1720–1730)

attributed to Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 61.2 x W 54.1 cm

As well as being a mother to ten children, Rachel Ruysch was a very successful still life painter from the Netherlands. Ruysch's father was, among other things, a botanist, and his daughter helped him catalogue botanical samples. It is no wonder she developed an acute eye for minute detail.

Unlike the rest of Europe, the Dutch elevated still life painting and such was the value of a tulip in the region that 'tulipmania' became a phenomenon. The tulip, originally from Turkey, became particularly symbolic of luxury and status. The variegated feature of the tulip that steals the show in this composition was actually caused by a virus, increasing its rarity and value even more. Flower arrangements like this could be enjoyed at face value or understood in terms of marvelling at God's creation – their beauty being only short-lived.

Tip: if you'd like more insight into the painting before teaching the lesson, an audio description is available, which has been developed for students with blindness or visual impairment to take part.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Still Life, Flowers and Insects

Still Life, Flowers and Insects c.1720–1730

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) (attributed to)

Glasgow Life Museums

Show your students this painting and ask them: are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the vase of flowers. Is there anything unusual or interesting about this flower arrangement compared to any they have seen in real life?

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.

For students with blindness or visual impairment, an audio description of the painting is available to be listened to during this stage.

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version by clicking here.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • How have these flowers been painted? Do they appear realistic or not?
  • Can you spot anything other than flowers?
  • Are all of the flowers perfect?
  • If you were transported into the painting, what might you be able to smell and hear?

Suggested activity: flower symbolism

Firstly, you may wish to remind or introduce your students to what a symbol is by asking them what some common symbols might represent, such as a heart, a tree, or a snake. You may wish to use emojis to demonstrate this.

In the seventeenth century, artists presented a selection of specific flowers with symbolic meanings which viewers of the painting were likely aware of.

With your students, discuss the following flowers in the work and what they may symbolise. Can they guess the symbolic value of any they recognise?

  • rose – love and romance (read more about rose symbolism on Art UK)
  • honeysuckle – happiness and affection
  • forget-me-not – true love and devotion
  • poppy – sleep, peace and death
  • tulip – true love

During Ruysch's lifetime, tulips also symbolised wealth, status and luxury with the rise of 'tulipmania' leading to tulips costing more than some houses at the time!

Discuss why Ruysch may have chosen these flowers with these particular meanings? What might the quality of the flowers and the presence of insects suggest or symbolise?

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):




Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Stage 4: bespoke questions

To support those teaching The Superpower of Looking for the first time, this additional stage can be used when teaching the first lesson in each category.

During this stage, you can introduce knowledge from the context box while asking these bespoke questions on the painting. If you've already covered any questions through previous discussions, feel free to move on.

If it's required, guidance on what to look for can be found below the sets of questions.

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison and Art & Design activities

Watch the following film, Big Bang (2006), by the artist Ori Gersht. Ask your students:

  • At the beginning of the film, how does the health of the flowers compare with those in Ruysch's artwork?
  • Could we call Gersht's artwork a 'still life'?
  • What is the difference between the materials used in Ruysch's artwork and Gersht's? Why might Gersht have chosen to destroy the flowers?
  • Which still life do you prefer? Why?


Film credit: Ori Gersht, Big Bang, 2006. HD film (colour, sound). Collection of Lizbeth + George Krupp. © Ori Gersht


Extend this activity into an Art & Design lesson by looking at the following still from another Ori Gersht film (or pause the film above at various points).

What shapes and colours do your learners see?

Task them with recreating their own abstracted version of a bouquet in collage or painting using only circles and ovals (ellipses) – a very two-dimensional (flat) contrast to Ruysch's three-dimensional (illusionistic) painting.

Comparison example

Example from a Y5 student comparing the two works

Example from a Y5 student comparing the two works

Cross-curricular activity: Science

Extend into a Science lesson focused on parts of a plant and/or how climate change impacts biodiversity.

Ask your students what parts of the plants are visible in the painting? What are they called? What is their function? Can they draw them?

Support discussion by watching the following BBC Teach video which explains some parts of a plant and their function:

Follow up the film by discussing these points:

  • In order to put them in the vase, which part of the plant may have been cut or removed altogether?
  • How might this affect the quality of the flowers on display?

Discover more about plants with further video resources from BBC Teach set in Ivy's Plant Shop


Explore the impacts of climate change on biodiversity using the following resources on our partners' learning pages:

You can find lots more resources about climate change and the environment in our resources round-up.

Alternatively, extend into an outdoor activity exploring your local environment by following our Andy Goldsworthy-inspired Land Art lesson plan.

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