The still life has been a staple subject of western art for centuries. For the early art academies, it was thought to be one of the lowest genres of art since, like landscape, it did not contain the human figure and thus could not inspire the viewer to higher endeavour. Dutch painters in the seventeenth century turned to still lifes and landscapes as subjects, precisely because they did not contain figures which their Calvinist society regarded as idolatrous. However, their acknowledgement of the transience of natural life acted as a reminder to the viewer that life is fleeting and that God is good, but his judgment is stern.
In later centuries, the still life became a vehicle for artistic expression. Here the artist has compressed the cactus into the shape of the paper, the bright red of the flowers contrasts with the olive green of the cactus and the related tones of the background.