Table of contents:
- 1. Fruit
- 2. Memento Mori
- 3. Candles
- 4. Flowers
- 5. Seashells
- 6. Mirrors
- 7. Insects
- 8. Musical instruments
- 9. Dead animals
- 10. Silver and gold
Video: Secret symbols in still lifes: What fruits, flowers, candles and other objects can tell
2023 Author: Richard Flannagan | [email protected]. Last modified: 2023-05-24 13:10
Still life refers to a work of art that depicts a group of inanimate, usually trivial objects. Traditionally, still lifes are also full of hidden symbolism - a pictorial language that uses an ordinary object to convey a deeper meaning. The most famous examples of still lifes are the immaculately detailed and richly symbolic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Nevertheless, regardless of the period, still lifes still remain one of the most popular genres in the 21st century, which attract the attention of both the viewer and critics. So, let's take a look at some of the objects that are commonly found in still lifes throughout history and what they symbolize.
Fruit has been one of the most common still life subjects for centuries. The fruit basket offers the artist not only a variety of colors and textures, but also a variety of religious and mythical symbols. For example, in Christianity, apples mean temptation and knowledge in relation to the Old Testament story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The grape symbolizes the themes of pleasure and lust associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Pomegranates are associated with Persephone, the Greek goddess of spring and queen of the underworld.
The still life of the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio depicts an ordinary fruit basket that is dramatically highlighted in the foreground of the composition with utmost realism. Upon closer inspection, some of the fruits are found to rot and be eaten by worms, which may subtly reveal the artist's feelings about the ongoing Protestant reformation and Catholic counter-reformation in Italy.
2. Memento Mori
The vanitas still lifes, celebrated by Dutch and Flemish artists of the 16th-17th centuries, express the transience of life and the futility of materialism. This tradition also served as an excuse for painting beautiful and expensive objects instead of more explicit moralizing subjects. One of the heaviest symbols to appear in vanitas still lifes is the skull, which is a vivid reminder of the inevitability of death. This symbol is called Memento Mori.
The early modern painter Paul Cezanne was known for experimenting with form, color, and perspective in his still lifes. He began incorporating skulls into his compositions during the last decade of his life, possibly indicating a growing awareness of his own mortality.
Another common component of vanitas still lifes is candles, which symbolize the inevitability of the passage of time. The longer they burn, the less they become, until there is nothing left. A lit candle symbolizes light, truth and knowledge. An extinguished candle symbolizes loss and death. In Christianity, a brightly burning candle indicates faith in God or the light of Christ. Oil lamps or other recognizable light sources are sometimes used in still lifes to convey the same meaning.
Vincent van Gogh's post-impressionist still life with the Bible is simpler and darker than his more famous works. Van Gogh wrote it shortly before the death of his father, who was a Protestant priest. The painting depicts an extinguished candle, a Bible that belonged to his father, and a modern secular book. Next to two adjacent books, a candle might hint that the artist tried and failed to become a priest like his father, or it might refer to the impending death of his father.
A beautiful bouquet of flowers in full bloom can mean life, faith, growth and strength. Withering flowers, on the other hand, serve as a somber reminder that life, wealth, and beauty are fragile. Specific flowers also have more specific meanings. For example, poisonous nightshade symbolizes danger or deception, daisies symbolize innocence, poppies symbolize sleep or death, and a red rose symbolizes love and seduction. In the context of Christianity, the red rose symbolizes the atoning blood shed by Jesus Christ, while the white lily is associated with the purity and immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary.
Rachelle Ruysch was a Dutch Golden Age still life painter who gained worldwide fame for her elaborate and microscopically detailed still lifes with flowers. She purposely painted flower combinations that, in reality, could not all bloom at the same time of the year. This is because each Rachelle bouquet has been carefully designed to reveal a breadth of knowledge, whether conveyed in specific types of flowers or their flowering state.
In addition to being associated with femininity, seashells can also symbolize birth and good luck. In Christianity, shells also symbolize baptism and resurrection. Scallop shells are especially associated with Saint James, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, and the concept of pilgrimage. Oysters were especially popular in Dutch Golden Age still lifes and were not considered a luxury food at the time. Like other shells, they symbolize birth and fertility. Pearls are a symbol of purity and perfection. Hidden between oyster shells, the pearl represents hidden knowledge and awareness.
Clara Peters' still life with oysters and seashells in the foreground is one of the many 17th century banquet compositions in existence. Viewers of such pictures could simultaneously enjoy the sophistication of the feast and reflect on the moral or religious messages that each menu item symbolizes.
In ancient times, it was believed that the human soul is contained in its reflection. Mirrors have been included in various paintings throughout history. They can represent either truth and self-confidence or vanity and distortion - the difference depends on who is looking at their reflection. A broken mirror is widely considered a bad omen. For the talented artist, glass objects and surfaces represented the ability to skillfully convey complex visual effects of transparency and reflection. Also, since mirrors were once prohibitively expensive for most people, still life patrons may have wanted to show off their wealth.
Roy Lichtenstein's Still Life with Mirror explores the centuries-old tradition through the lens of late nineteenth-century pop art. Liechtenstein's still life objects, including a mirror and a fruit basket, are traditional symbols that viewers are encouraged to view in the modern context of mass media and pop culture.
Insects are often integrated into still lifes with flowers and food, including Vanitas paintings. As a group, insects symbolize greed or decay, but certain types of insects have their own associations. Butterflies symbolize transformation, and in Christianity, resurrection. Dragonflies are the opposite of a butterfly, symbolizing worldly life and death and often depicted as hunting smaller insects. During the early Renaissance, snails were associated with the virgin Mary's immaculate conception, as snails were believed to reproduce asexually.
In this Dutch Golden Age still life by Balthasar van der Ast, many tiny insects appear throughout the composition. While their inclusion and placement may seem like a coincidence, it is actually very deliberate. Each insect pays attention to the impending rotting of fruits and flowers, which, due to the invasion, is already in full swing. The inevitability of decay and death is further emphasized by an overturned basket and a dragonfly hovering ominously above the stage.
8. Musical instruments
Musical instruments have been considered luxury goods for centuries. Although they were often included in still lifes to show the wealth of the patron's talent, musical instruments could also carry a deeper meaning. In general, music represents leisure or celebration. In vanitas still life, the violin can remind viewers of the threads of time and that all beautiful things must someday come to an end. Broken or missing violin strings can indicate discord or death. Flutes have long been associated with the drunkenness of Bacchus, as well as with the sins of lust and laziness. The curved shapes of many instruments, such as the guitar, parallel the organic and seductive shapes of the human body.
Pablo Picasso's cubist mandolin and guitar boldly defy most of the conventions of still life and its traditional iconography. However, it is still worth considering the symbolism of Picasso's stringed instruments - they can represent the noise of modern life or the transience of the rapidly evolving art world of the twentieth century.
9. Dead animals
Paintings of dead animals became a very popular subgenre of still life in the seventeenth century - a fact that often baffles viewers in the twenty-first century. During the Dutch Golden Age, sport hunting became less exclusive to the wealthy and international trade became more abundant. As a result, still lifes with highly detailed hunting trophies and exotic animal carcasses were in very high demand and fit into other iterations of the vanitas tradition. When depicted as dead animals alongside other food items, they could also represent the culinary specialties of a particular region or patron saint.
In this early seventeenth-century Spanish bodegone, Juan Sanchez Cotán uses dead game to demonstrate humanity's conflicting tendencies for the dark and the beautiful. Such paintings can also represent the pleasure and satisfaction of hunting, the fascination of obtaining goods, or the fragile relationship between humans and nature.
10. Silver and gold
The inclusion of precious metals in still lifes can showcase an artist's skill in accurately depicting reflective textures or a collection of expensive items of a patron. In vanitas still life, gold and silver jewelry can heighten the tension between materialism and morality. In religious contexts, gold can indicate that something is precious, sacred, or durable. Like a mirror, silver can reflect a person's soul for positive or negative reasons. Gold and silver objects in still lifes can also have nationalist significance, either representing the characteristics of a person's homeland or showcasing their cultural experience in international trade and travel.
The Late Baroque Still Life with Silver by Alexandre-François Deport is a richly detailed composition of the luxury items that belonged to the owner of the painting. The deport was often commissioned by royals and elites to paint decorative still lifes of their vast collections of objects, highlighting the wealth of the patrons and the distinctly French taste.
Read also about how an artist Sergey Andriyak managed to "tame" the watercolor, creating a series of magnificent multi-layered still lifes that delight the eye and, arousing interest, make you pick up a brush and start creating.