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 Francisco de Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream and Jasper Johns, Ventriloquist.

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 Janet Fish’s Kara alongside Francisco de Goya’s Still Life with Golden Bream 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? Look closely at and describe the various objects on the table. Think about their color, texture, and form, as well as their placement in relation to each other.
  • What words would you use to describe the woman’s pose and the expression? How does her expression set a tone within the painting?
  • How are the objects connected within the composition through the use of color?
  • Notice how the artist includes both bright color and more muted tones. Is there a recognizable pattern to which objects are bright and colorful and which are muted? What does this juxtaposition of color add to the tone of the painting?
  • The artist considers this work a still-life painting. Is this what you expect a still-life painting to look like? Why or why not? How would this work be different if the artist had not included a figure and just painted the objects on the table?
  • Reflect back on your first reaction to the work. What do you notice first, the figure of the woman or the array of objects on the table? What do you think is the main subject of this painting?
  • What visual clues does the artist use to emphasize the equal importance on the figure of the woman and the objects on the table?

  • Using visual clues, can you figure out what time of year this painting is meant to depict? Consider the clothing of the figure versus the bouquet of flowers. If not, why do you think the artist would want to confuse viewers?
  • When the artist began to include human figures in her still-life paintings, she stated, “The danger with my work now is that people might focus on the story.” How does she prevent a narrative from forming within her composition?
  • Consider the gifts that will soon be wrapped on the table. Are they what you typically think of as gifts? How does the juxtaposition add a feeling of uncertainty to the image?
  • What other juxtapositions does she include that intently confuse the viewers?
  • How does the artist visually invite viewers into the work? How does she encourage viewers to then consider their own experiences and ideas?
  • How would we view this painting differently if the artist had not included a name (Kara) as the title?

The painterly realism of Janet Fish’s art captures the effect of light and atmosphere on unusual still-lifes. In Kara, the artist composes a scene that is reminiscent of a film still rather than a portrait. This carefully composed painting allows the viewer’s own life experiences to complete the story.


In a light-filled room, a somber and reflective woman looks up from the open letter in her hand. She sits at a table strewn with everyday objects of contemporary life: a vase of flowers, a book, a bowl of candy, gloves, and shoes. The table and flowers extend beyond the edge of the canvas, suggesting life beyond the immediate scene, while gift wrap and ribbon propose future occasions or things to come.


This still-life provides a sense of place and the everyday by including more of the world and space around carefully selected objects. Fascinated with objects’ abilities to reflect and refract light, Fish often includes luminous, reflective glassware in her artworks. The artist also focuses on the packaging of objects and how light interacts with various surfaces. Kara can be viewed as a study in textures, ranging from wood to glass and cloth.


Here, the figure of the woman is painted as just another part of the composed scene. Fish attempts to avoid communicating particular messages; instead, she juxtaposes contradictory elements to create confusion and ambiguity within the scene. The artist stated, “When the figure gets into the painting, in some ways it makes it easier. The figure demands so much attention. The eye goes right to it, so in some sense that makes organization of the painting easier. On the other hand, there’s a complication, because the figure gives out so many messages.” Through a shared attention to detail within the figure and the object, Fish creates an image that is both a still-life and a portrait. Brilliant light, color, and movement unite the objects in the composition and present them as if they are clues to an untold story.


While it is natural to want to create a narrative from the scene, Fish includes several road blocks that impede viewers from doing so. There are no visual clues to indicate a particular time or place. The wool sweater and thick gloves point to a winter scene, but the bright and colorful bouquet refers to spring. Bright pops of color in the candy and the unused wrapping paper contrast with the dull brown of the shoes and gloves. The shoes, resting on tissue paper, and the gloves, with their tags still attached, appear to be gifts that will soon be wrapped. The contrast of the functional yet unexciting gifts with the bright and colorful wrapping paper creates a tone of ambiguity. This feeling is enhanced by the faraway look on the face of the figure as she rests her chin on her hand and gazes into the distance, as if dreaming of another place.


The large scale nature of Fish’s works can be traced back to her early study of Abstract Expressionism, but her attention to detail is reminiscent of 17th century Dutch still-life paintings. Just as Dutch artists carefully composed their scenes, Fish selects, arranges, and rearranges the objects in her compositions. The striking difference between Fish’s work and more traditional still-lifes is her modern and monumental approach. Rather than just capturing a singular moment in time, Fish’s canvases often represent an amalgam of changing light conditions that she observed throughout the day.

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