Symbolism in Still Life Painting

On the surface, symbolism and still life painting seem like something of an oxymoron. Can flora and fauna or man-made items like drinking glasses and jewellery really have a deeper meaning when they are so commonplace in the world? At first glance, the inanimate subject matter might not appear to mean very much at all.

Many of the great masters of still life practised meticulous care in selecting their themes. Often, the everyday objects depicted in 19th century still life paintings were chosen to highlight the artist’s skill in creating light, depth and colour. But besides the aesthetic elements, the subject matter was frequently of great personal significance and wider symbolism.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Take, for example, Van Gogh’s dazzling Sunflowers, created in 1888. It is arguably the most iconic still life painting of the 19th century. The rich yellow tones and famously flat rendering are revered by art enthusiasts across the globe. The painting is also believed to be Van Gogh’s proudest work. But what lies beneath the illustrious oil on canvas?

On a human level, the bold oeuvre illustrates a fleeting period of happiness in the life of a terribly troubled soul. It is well documented that Van Gogh was considered a failure and a lunatic in his lifetime, but Sunflowers was painted while he prepared his Arles guestroom for the arrival of his hero Paul Gauguin. For Gogh, the symphony of gold represents a rare moment of optimism.

Paul Cezanne’s Pyramid of Skulls

When Paul Cezanne painted his eerie Pyramid of Skulls in 1901, little did he know the skeletal canvas would become one of the finest 20th century’s still life paintings. Emphasising the cranium with a palette knife, he worked with a purposefully unblended patchwork of bone coloured tones and highlights for a three-dimensional effect.

Working in isolation in his twilight years, Cezanne had become weary of life. After his beloved mother passed away in 1897, his own health started to deteriorate. The close-up depiction of the stacked skulls confronts us directly, just as Cezanne was contemplating his own demise. Penning letters alluding to his own mortality, he confessed: “I might as well be dead”.

As well as being a thing of beauty, a still life painting can be a great conversation starter about broader symbolism in art. If you’d like more information about our huge range of interior paintings for sale, why not contact us today? Our friendly team will be happy to discuss any of the pieces in our collection with you.

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