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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

The Pink Tablecloth (1924–1925)
Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 60.3 x W 81 cm

Henri Matisse often painted traditional subject matter, and this still life is no exception. His innovation was to paint them in new and experimental ways. This still life is abstracted, meaning we can very easily recognise the objects as taken from real life, but their forms have been simplified to such an extent that we no longer find them believable or realistic.

In simplifying shapes and removing the illusion of three-dimensional space, the artist emphasises his use of colour as a decorative tool, and as an expression of mood. Rather than disguise his brushwork, Matisse has announced his mark-making and revealed the process of painting and his feelings through colour and shape.

Spatially, there is a degree of conflict here as some objects follow the rules of perspective (e.g. the ellipsis on the fruit bowl), while others appear two-dimensional because they are not modelled in three-dimensional space. Do any of the objects cast a shadow? The tabletop is slightly angled to indicate recession, but what is the actual effect?

Look, describe and discuss

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

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

The Pink Tablecloth

The Pink Tablecloth c.1924–1925

Henri Matisse (1869–1954)

Glasgow Life Museums

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.

Nudge questions

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

  • Would you put anything breakable or valuable on this tabletop? Why or why not?
  • Is this a realistic painting? Why or why not? Does a painting have to look realistic for it to be described as a good painting? Is how a painting makes us feel more important than how it looks?
  • If you were transported into the painting, what might you be able to smell?
  • How would you describe the mood of this painting and why?
  • Do you think people thought Matisse's painting was very good when he painted it?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

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

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

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 may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

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.


  • Create a still life arrangement. Which objects will your students choose to place in their still life? Students could record their arrangement by photographing it or drawing it in their sketchbook.
  • Create a still life collage by cutting out the shapes of objects from coloured papers, before sticking them down with glue. Students might choose to rearrange Matisse's still life or to include their own choice of objects instead.



  • Listen to excerpts from the ballet suite Les Biches by French composer Francis Poulenc. The music was composed in the early 1920s, like Matisse's painting. How does the music make students feel? Which music would they choose to play on a day filled with bright sunshine? (This performance took place outside London's National Gallery in 2019!)



  • Feel the textures of the objects in the painting: tablecloth, vase, flowers and fruit.
  • What do students smell when they handle objects from the painting? Do these smells make them want to take a seat at Matisse's table?



  • Imagine who will sit at the table in the painting. Invite students to move as if they're using the objects placed on Matisse's table. What will happen in their scene?
  • Take it in turns to mime using an object in the painting. Can other students guess which object it is?



  • In pairs, list the colours found in the painting. What new names would they give to these colours (e.g. cherry blossom pink, peacock blue)?
  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'lemon'.

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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