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Art theme: 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'.

Contextual background for teachers

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.

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

An audio description of the painting is available to listen to. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

Nudge questions

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

  • What do you notice about these flowers? Have they been painted to look realistic or not?
  • Are all the flowers perfect?
  • Can you spot anything other than flowers?
  • What might you be able to smell and hear if you were transported into the painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.


  • Head outside to be inspired by nature. Encourage students to sketch the plants and flowers they discover in their sketchbooks.
  • Try flower pressing to create students' own floral compositions. You might like to use these flower pressing ideas from the Natural History Museum.



  • Listen to Edvard Grieg's Butterfly or Der Schmetterling (1886). Does the music remind students of the flight of a butterfly?

  • In eighteenth-century Europe, women were often overlooked as composers, just as in the world of painting. But there were women composers in Rachel Ruysch's time. Listen to Sonata No. 1 in D Minor (1707) by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. Can the students tell if it's written by a woman?

  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.



  • Touch flowers, petals, leaves and models of butterflies and other insects.
  • Experiment with a torch to illuminate flowers in a vase in different ways.



  • Mime the movement of a beautiful flower growing.
  • Move like a butterfly flying around and admiring the flowers or an insect crawling amongst them.



  • Listen to The Story of Vanessa the Lost Butterfly, based on another Dutch flower painting. What story would your students tell about the insects in the painting Still Life, Flowers and Insects?

  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'flower'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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