In France they're called "nature morte." In Italy, they're known as "natura Morta." The Dutch call them "still-leven," which may account for the English designation, "still-life." It's interesting that the French and Italian terms translate to "dead nature," while in Northern Europe, the emphasis is on life, albeit still life. Nineteenth century academic tradition had it that this painting genre occupied the lowest levels of esteem in the painting hierarchy beginning with history painting and migrating downward. The feeling was that, while such paintings were art (just barely), they were utterly devoid of creative capital, the work of imitators and copyist--any artist with a modicum of technical know-how and a bit of patience and eye-hand co-ordination to spare. Yet as a type of painting, Pliny, writing in the first century CE, indicates that this same artistic genre dates back almost to the very beginnings of art in the Western world--at least as far back as ancient Greece.
For this we have more than just the Romans' word for it. We also have their efforts at imitating this most imitative of painting genre. Thanks to a certain hyperactive volcano and no small amount of its lava ash, archaeologists have discovered still-life renderings in the frescos of Pompeii almost 2000 years old. Writings indicate that they were "in the Greek manner" in which case, it would seem that from the very beginning, "tromp l'oeil" was their primary aim and the standard upon which they were valued as art. Roman wall paintings often featured illusionistic shelves laden with fresh fish, or nails from which hung dead fowl not unlike the nineteenth century work of American artists, William Harnett or Frederick Peto. Roman art also records similar efforts in rendering decorative plant life, marble and wood grain, as well as carved architectural features.
At the dawn of the Renaissance, along with the rediscovery of the Roman knowledge of one-point perspective, came the peripheral, often symbolic, use of various inanimate objects in religious works. The apple stood for original sin. The gourd was a symbol of the resurrection. Carlo Crivelli's The Annunciation with St. Emidius, from 1486, despite its religious aims, is an exquisitely decorated (if somewhat cluttered) showcase for both his perspective and still-life talents. He seems also to have rediscovered tromp l'oeil.
But as with so much in art, it took the Dutch, and their groundbreaking switch from religious to secular patronage for the development of what we now think of as modern still-life painting. What the church eschewed as materialism, the merchant Dutchmen seemingly embraced as enthusiastically as life itself. Transitionally, Flemish painter, Jan Brueghel, usually remembered for his domestic genre scenes, in 1606 painted for the Archbishop of Milan (but not his church) an incredibly detailed floral bouquet that may well be the oldest "modern" still-life in existence. Painted over the period of a year, it contains flowers from various seasons, apparently added as earlier blooms faded. And though they seem to have gained their lowly placement in the hierarchy of painting about this time, the Dutch still-life, whether flowers, food, or valuable objects, occupied the time and efforts of a sizeable number of professional artists, and seem to have become the primary emphasis for many Dutch female painters such as Anne Valleyer-Costa. Her 1767 Still Life with Ham, Bottles, and Radishes looks appetising even today.
It wasn't until the latter part of the nineteenth century with the Impressionist and Postimpressionist rebellion against all things academic, including their damnable painting hierarchy, that the still-life began to take on a new life of its own. Renoir explored them, and more prominently, CÚzanne, Matisse, and Picasso, reversing the common perception that such art was merely the "imitation of life." Their work, such as CÚzanne's Still Life with Plaster Cupid, painted in 1895, sought not to imitate nature, but to use objects and their natural shapes, colours, and textures as a means to explore art design and composition. The result was a natural bridge from the real world into the exciting, but frightening frontiers of abstraction. That road lead eventually, not just to painting still-life objects, but to collage, and using them as a part of the still-life painting itself.
Later in the twentieth century, Audrey Flack merged Dutch vanitas elements of still life with CÚzanne's design emphasis, Picasso's collage sensitivities, and the hyper-realistic gifts proffered by photography into a type of brightly coloured still-life painting light years beyond Brueghel, CÚzanne, or Picasso. Her World War II Vanitas, from 1967, layers what appear to be magazine cut-outs (painted) next to shiny, tromp l'oeil still-life treasures, over a painted black and white photo of starving holocaust survivors. The result is a sort of merger of traditional "dead nature" and "still life" elements into an art that is neither. It's an art, like all the best art, combining aesthetic beauty with a consummate mastery of medium and message.