Still life paintings often adorn the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs. It was believed that the foodstuffs and other items depicted there would, in the afterlife, become real and available for use by the deceased. Similar paintings, more simply decorative in intent, have also been found in the Roman frescoes unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The popular appreciation of still life painting as a demonstration of the artist's skill is related in the ancient Greek legend of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.
Especially popular in this period were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, or lavish banquet tables with fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life's impermanence. A skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. Often some of the luscious fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade. The popularity of vanitas paintings, and of still life generally, soon spread from Holland to Flanders, Spain, and France.
The French aristocracy of the 18th century also employed artists to execute paintings of bounteous and extravagant still life subjects, this time without the moralistic vanitas message of their Dutch predecessors. The Rococo love of artifice led to a rise in appreciation for trompe l'oeil (French: "fool the eye") painting, a type of still life in which objects are shown life-sized, against a flat background, in an attempt to create the illusion of real three dimensional objects in the viewer's space.
With the rise of the European Academies, and their formalized approach to artistic training, still life began to fall from favor. The Academies taught the doctrine of Hierarchy of Subject Matter, which held that a painting's artistic merit was based primarily on its subject. In the Academic system, the highest form of painting consisted of images of historical, Biblical or mythological significance, with still life subjects relegated to the very lowest order of artistic recognition.
Artists in the United States, largely unburdened by Academic strictures on subject matter, had long found a ready market for still life painting. Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), eldest son of Revolutionary era painter Charles Willson Peale, was the first American still life specialist, and established a tradition of still life painting in Philadelphia that continued until the early 20th century, when artists such as William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto gained fame for their trompe l'oeil renderings of collections of worn objects and scraps of paper, typically shown hanging on a wall or door.
When 20th century American artists became aware of European Modernism, they began to interpret still life subjects with a combination of American Realism and Cubist-derived abstraction. Typical of the American still life works of this period are the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, and Marsden Hartley and the photographs of Edward Weston.
Much Pop Art (such as Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans") is based on still life, but its true subject is most often the commodified image of the commercial product represented rather than the physical still life object itself. The rise of Photorealism in the 1970s reasserted illusionistic representation, while retaining some of Pop's message of the fusion of object, image, and commercial product. Typical in this regard are the paintings of Don Eddy and Ralph Goings. The works of Audrey Flack add to this mix an autobiographical Feminist message relating to cultural standards of female beauty. While they address contemporary themes, Flack's paintings often include trompe l'oeil and vanitas elements as well, thereby referencing the entire still life tradition of Western art.