Art tells a story. No matter what form it takes, it is born from the creativity and imagination of an inspired soul and there is a message to be read, an ethos or essence to convey. The artist pours hours of effort and talent into creating something that is not just beautiful, but fundamental to them: to their experiences, memories, passions…
Perhaps this is why symbolism is so often invoked. More than being just a compositional element, the birds and beasts we so commonly see in still life painting have an intricate meaning behind them, one that we can use to unravel the story at the core of the art.
At one time, a common theme in still lives was harvested foods. These represented the fruits of human agriculture and toil and were an ode to the labour and perseverance of our species. For those who lived close to the sea, fish were used in the same manner; we see this particularly in the work of the Flemish masters.
The butterfly was used to represent the soul. A religious symbol, it would often reference the resurrection of Christ.
Usually depicted in pairs, birds were another hallmark of religious beliefs, and commonly symbolised the resurrection of the soul after death.
Like butterflies, bees were a sign of hope. With their delicate, gossamer wings, they were often included as a reminder of the fragility of life, but its beauty nonetheless.
Another animal with a story to tell was the humble mouse. Terrifically fecund, it came to depict both lechery and destruction; strong messages for such a small species.
Monkeys were frequently depicted in Renaissance era paintings, where they alluded to chaos. A mirror of mankind, they were seen to represent a species little more evolved than they, trapped by earthly and sensual desires despite their supposed enlightenment. In paintings where they held an apple, this symbolised the inevitable fall of man.
Cats are enigmatic creatures, and to still life artists, they represented lust and illicit love, even prostitution. Considered beautiful and mysterious, they were regarded as the perfect incarnation of those who could not, or would not, play by the rules.
Later, in 19th century still life paintings, they would cease to have such a lurid role, coming instead to symbolise simple companionship and contentment.
The next time you look at a still life, see how many of these elements you can identify, and try to unravel the message behind the mysterious and the mediocre alike.
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