Habits of Mind

  • Communicate

Painting Still-Lifes

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking. This Curriculum Connection also includes Jasper Johns, Ventriloquist. and Janet Fish, Kara.  

Curriculum Objectives

  • Explore the importance of object selection in composing a still life
  • Compare and contrast three different approaches to still life creation
  • Create original still life prints that tell stories about the self





With your class, look at Francisco de Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream alongside Janet Fish’s Kara and Jasper Johns’s Ventriloquist. Each is an example of careful object selection for a specific purpose.

Discuss these works together. Do students think that the objects in each tell a story? What mood does each selection of objects communicate, and how does the artist emphasize that message? Inform the class that still lifes are typically carefully planned out, with each object chosen by the artist for its symbolism. Do students consider all three of the artworks to be still lifes? Why or why not?

After discussing the three works, ask the students to create a print depicting objects that represent themselves. Allow the students to gather objects that they think tells a story about their life, and have them draw or photograph the objects. At the end of the project, have other students use questioning strategies to figure out what the others are trying to communicate in their still lifes.


Often we focus on the complex process in a printmaking project and students end up communicating very little in the content. Studying these three artworks first will help students choose a meaningful subject matter for a printmaking project. Additionally, students often view still-life as they would a photograph. They think it is just a painting of pretty objects and do not look for meaning in the artwork. This activity helps them understand how complex ideas can be communicated using inanimate objects in art.

  • What do you notice about this painting? What words would you use to describe the fish? Consider the artist’s choice of color and technique.
  • Describe the shapes and arrangement of the fish in this painting. Do you think you would find this arrangement of fish in nature? How does the unstable, stacked tower of fish present an unnerving image?
  • How would this work be different if the fish were neatly stacked in a row?
  • The bodies of the fish are painted in serene, slivery tones but also feature garish yellows and deep reds. What mood do these colors create within the work of art?
  • Describe the background of this work. Did you immediately notice the diagonal line of waves crashing into a moonlit beach? How does the artist direct the viewer’s attention to the grouping of fish instead of toward the dramatic ocean scene in the background?
  • The artist made use of a technique of perspective called foreshortening when he angled the fish toward the viewer. This trick makes it appears as if the fish’s tail is protruding into a three-dimensional space. What effect does this protruding fish tail have on the space of the painting?
  • The artist attempted to capture the feeling of recently slaughtered fish through his choice of compositional elements, vibrant brushwork, and optical illusions. Do you think he successfully recreated the effect of death and dying on the canvas? Why or why not?

  • How does the artist convey a sense of eeriness and mystery through the simple grouping of fish?
  • The artist had great skill and originality in his application of paint. How did he use paint to convey feelings of death, isolation, and vulnerability?
  • Although the artist uses the same color and technique to depict the carcasses of each fish, how does he capture individual characteristics of the fish as well?
  • Notice the circular strokes of jarring yellow paint that are outlined in a deep red to make up the fish eyes. The artist made use of various elements within the painting to recreate the effects of death and dying on the canvas. How does his portrayal of the eyes give the fish a sign of very recent life?
  • Consider the placement of the fish by the ocean. What if they were painted inside the artist’s studio like more traditional still-lifes?
  • When the artist painted this work, Spain was in a brutal war with France. How does this work reflect this tremulous time period?
  • Why do you think the artist chose to paint fish? What do you think they represent? Explain your answer.
  • This still-life was intended primarily for the artist’s own use and hung in his house until his death. Does knowing this fact change your interpretation of the painting?

One of Spain’s greatest artists, Francisco de Goya is famous for documenting the dark underside of a country ravaged by conflict. While his earlier works included royal portraits and biting satirical caricatures, his later works explored somber themes such as the horrors of war and disease. After a traumatic illness in 1792 left the artist completely deaf, Goya’s work took a turn for the macabre and the bizarre, realms which inspired great creativity and technical skill in him. This painting was created during a time of particularly great political and personal upheaval in the artist’s life. Goya’s home country of Spain was in a brutal war with France, and his beloved wife of thirty-nine years was also dying. During the most violent years of the war (1808–14), the artist worked increasingly in solitude, creating private works that were intended primarily for his own use. These included many masterpieces about the war as well as his haunting still-life paintings, most notably a series depicting dead animals. This painting from the aforementioned series reflects the solemn circumstances of this dark period in the artist’s life.


Illuminated by moonlight and surrounded by the echoes of waves crashing in the background, Still Life with Golden Bream portrays the bodies of six wet, scaly fish piled on a darkened beach. Silver flesh and thick, yellow eyes reflect a ghostly light, which lends an eerie and mysterious feel to the scene. Goya uses a unique composition, vibrant brushwork, and optical illusion to recreate the effects of death and the process of dying on the canvas.


The heap of glistening fish is placed prominently in the center of the painting. Goya stacked and foreshortened (to make something look like it has depth by painting it shorter and in the foreground) the fish in order to create an unstable and unnerving arrangement of bodies. Unorthodox color and paint application further enhance this compelling image. Careful examination reveals Goya’s method of painting the fish. He began by rubbing light brownish and bluish-gray pigments onto the canvas, and then highlighted the underbellies of the fish with a brush heavily loaded with white paint. The details of the gills appear to have been achieved with both a brush and a palette knife. Goya added a yellowish glaze to areas of the composition, as well as accents of red along the gills and mouths of the fish. Although Goya uses the same color and technique to depict the carcasses of each fish, he captures individual characteristics as well.


Goya´s purpose for presenting the pile of fish is ambiguous. There are no fishermen around and no nets to be seen in the painting. The fish are unsteadily stacked on top of one another, each a part of a meaningless heap. Goya´s dramatic circular strokes, consisting of jarring yellow paint outlined in deep red, give the eye of the fish a pulsing, bulging quality, a hint of its very recent life. Yet Goya rendered the fish with great poignancy, symbolically linking their demise with the terrible human slaughter that resulted from Spain’s conflict with France. Despite Goya’s productive career, he painted only about a dozen still-life paintings and none until he was 60 years old. Although the subject of this work is simple—a pile of dead fish—it expresses a gloom reminiscent of Goya´s etching series Disasters of War, which, like this still life, illustrated the atrocities committed by both the French and the Spanish in war and expressed through its somber tone the artist’s detestation of violence.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider