The Power of Symbolism in Art

In our past articles we have touched upon the subject of symbolism, especially when taking a look at food and drink in still life paintings. However, you have probably noticed that still life is not limited to just the representation of food and drink; many other objects are depicted to make up paintings that are not just aesthetically pleasing but are full of meaning – or subtle connotation.

William Gowe Ferguson – Still Life with game birds & implements of the chase on draped stone ledge

What is Symbolism?

The term symbolism is defined as the use of items, words, gestures, or actions that are representational of certain qualities or ideologies that may be interpreted consciously or even subconsciously by the viewer or reader of the work. How the piece is interpreted can depend on a range of factors; from religious background, race, era, and even individual personality.

Symbolism in Still Life

Symbolism is a huge part of still life art in all mediums, although, some still life pieces are purely decorative. In some cases, the symbolism is controlled by the artist; they want their work to ‘say’ something particularly, on the other hand, some symbolism is born purely out of the interpretation; meaning that some viewers may get something completely different from the same artwork as another. Of course, whether symbolism is intended or not is only ever going to be truly known by the artist of the work in question.

In a previous article, we looked at the connotations of fruit in still life paintings; we found that many of the objects used here held religious or mythical connotations. Now, we’re going to take a look at what other objects used in this style of art could, or are known to mean.

Joseph De Belder – Still Life with Arum Lillies

Still Life Symbolism

Skulls – The depiction of a skull could represent several things,perhaps the most obvious option and universal is death. This positioning of the skull can alter how the painting is read; for example if the skull is displayed in the foreground of the painting it could be read as warning.

Musical Instruments – these items were considered to be extremely luxurious, therefore if an instrument in excellent condition (such as a flute) was depicted, it would be read a symbol of wealth – this would certainly be more prevalent in more historical 18th century still life art. On the other hand, a damaged or old musical instrument could represent loss of wealth or be representative of a family heirloom.

Purple Silk/Material – in many paintings you will see purple silk or material; this will often soften the imagery however, it can also be representative of royalty and luxurious living – especially if the material is purple. Other material such as white cotton, especially when displayed with wine and bread can hold spiritual and religious connotations.

Books – Books are a universal representation of knowledge and learning often referring to power and educated status.

Lilies – Flowers often represent life in paintings; however, the lily often refers to death as it is the traditional flower used at funerals.

Objects from Overseas – Paintings with oriental vases and sculptures refer to travel – again this refers to status and creates an exotic connotation.

A Powerful Tool

Much of the symbolism used in still life art represents status, especially when we look back in time; of course, some more modern still life paintings are used more as a social commentary. Symbolism is a powerful part of art and a tool that both artists and viewers can use; subconsciously and consciously. One painting could have many different meanings to many different people – that is the beauty of art, it is never rigid.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
This entry was posted in still life. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *