In order to lend more thoroughness to our examination of this genre, we will look at one painting, at least, in detail. This painting, then, is called Still Life with Parrots, created by Jan Davidsz de Heem during the late 1640s. (By the way, so many people crack jokes about titles such as "Still Life with Parrots" for its apparent lack of originality. It is important to remember that many paintings were produced without being given distinct titles, and ones such as this are probably names bestowed on the painting by patrons, critics, or other people, not the artist).
What do we see here? The painting contains a lavish variety of foods, ornate utensils, and a pair of parrots around an extravagantly prepared table. Everything is expensive: expensive silverware, exotic food, expensive parrots, etc. Nevertheless, it doesn't matter how enviable these objects are; the fruit is going to go bad if it is left around and not eaten. The tablecloth appears to be falling off the table, so perhaps the food will simply fall onto the floor before it goes bad anyway. There is an extraordinary wealth of objects in this painting, but they are all being ignored. Insects (specifically butterflies, which do not live very long) have their pick at the goods, and, somewhat randomly, there are a couple of parrots just hanging out amidst the scene. Do you think the parrots are bickering over the food? The one on top looks down slyly from its perch and holds something, an unidentified object, in its beak. Perhaps these animals know something we don't.
Because the objects are so expensive and rare and because they are so brightly colored, the painting becomes something of a "visual feast" to the viewer. The dark curtain in the back contrasts with the bright food, and everything in the work draws your eye across the canvas in a curvy line. There is an "s" curve: starting at the lower right corner, the objects sway upwards in the line of a letter S, leading your eye through the entirety of the work. This is a masterful way to construct a painting, because our eye is able to absorb all the incredible imagery of the work in a flowing motion that is almost as graceful as the delicate brushstrokes de Heem used to paint it.
The food, as I said, is all left out to rot or be eaten by the animals, indicating a thematic focus on the mortality of this world, but the food items also serve to connote spiritual teachings. The lemon has been peeled away to demonstrate the stretching out of this earthly life's term to its last bits. The wine reminds us of Christ's last supper with His disciples. The expensive, exotic shells, representations of the economic vivacity during this time, also bring the viewer back to fundamental ideas about vanity and the futility of riches, the vanitas theme epitomized. If you take to examining still lifes to any great quantity you will soon become familiar with the exhaustive list of symbolic imagery conveying religious ideals or stories, often sort of random connections like a certain flower representing the Virgin Mary and things of this nature.
The beauty is stark in this painting, with vivid colors and an abundance of items set on the stage like a collage. Everything about it shouts of the vibrant majesty of all that there is in life to enjoy—it's just that the artist makes the point to his viewers that these things don't last very long. The food will rot; the birds will fly away; the black curtain will close on the scene. Death is the pervading, imminent truth in most of these paintings. It oozes from the canvas as baldly as the glistening oils themselves, shiny, cracking, breaking down through the passages of time, hanging somewhere on a museum gallery wall. Says the king in Shakespeare's Richard II: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
What of the setting? Past the table, a good three-quarters of the background is covered by a large, impending curtain of black. That dark, ominous veil comes over the painting like a shroud, again probably indicating the vanitas message of imminent mortality, but there is a patch of openness beyond it as well. We see a kind of porch area with a Doric column, and it's overlooking a grand view of the sea and a bright horizon over it. Many miles away, this area of the work shows itself as a very small portion of the canvas, a few dots on the grand surface that extends almost as large as 5' x 4'. Nearer to the viewer and the scene is a sky of tempestuous and foreboding clouds, dark, threatening, and implying the oncoming of a storm. You may have thought the curtain was bleak with its black undertones of death, but the scene behind it appears just as grim. However, de Heem adds the tiny bit of light almost in the center of the painting, next to the column: the bright horizon line above the sea that can either denote the hopeful rising of the sun on the dawn of a new day or the descending of the sun to foretell the arrival of night. The meaning remains ambiguous.