Symbolism in art – Still life


February 27, 2014BlogNo comments

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Still life paintings are the least ‘happening’ paintings among other types of paintings like landscapes, portraits or history paintings as they don’t give you a quick reason to look twice at it.

But, if you know that many artists have used still life paintings purely as a way to deliver their messages to the viewer in symbolic ways, a whole new level of curiosity opens up for you in the still life in which the inclusion of every object is deliberate and nothing is random.

Though, as reminded in the previous post of the series, not every artist intends to insert symbolic meanings. Most still life paintings are made for the joy of the art itself. But, many of them do intend to add symbolism.

At the end, as critics, we are free to judge and decipher any art pieces in our own ways.

 1. Skull

A skull simply foreshadows the inevitable death. The only reason to put a skull among the other things in a still life is that the artist wants us to remind that, at the end, death will devour everything. Nothing will matter anymore.

The intensity and meaning changes according to the context. If the artist has put a skull among the royal things like a sword, a crown and jewels, he wants to remind us that even the wealth doesn’t matter at the end. If a skull is put among book, it even nullifies the importance of knowledge. Thus, a skull nullifies everything which we consider important throughout the life until death looms upon us and we realize what really was important and what really mattered at the end.

Though, on the bright side, skulls could be an indication or an encouragement to achieve things before you die. Artist is maybe suggesting to acquire the things which he represents in the still life or could be conveying us that what really matters at the end.

Though, meanings and interpretations varies. Until, the artist himself clarifies his intentions precisely, the skull could be understood in both ways.

In technical terms, such paintings with skulls or skeletons which indicate towards the certain death are called Vanitas.

Vanitas by Franciscus Gysbrechts

Vanitas by Franciscus Gysbrechts

2. Rotten Fruit

Portrayal of a rotten fruit is very rare in contemporary or renaissance paintings. But, they were used when artist wanted to insert the idea of decay in the painting. It is sometimes accompanied with the aforementioned skulls to add value in the vanitas paintings which portrays the futility or fragility of life. Some artists replace rotten fruit with withered flowers.

Before the death hits in human life, decay happens. The peak of decay is death.

Rotten Fruit by Unknown artist

Rotten Fruit by Unknown artist

3. Bubbles

Bubbles, in still life, mostly represent the shortness of life and the abruptness of death.

As bubbles are fragile and short-lived and also they go off suddenly into nothing. Thus, to represent the uncertainty of life and suddenness of death, bubbles are the perfect example.

In renaissance paintings, cupids are often portrayed making or playing with bubbles.

Here is an example of such painting: Cupid Blowing Soap Bubble by Rembrandt van Rijn (supposedly). For an ignorant viewer who isn’t aware of such symbolism, the painting would make him question that why a celestial body like a Cupid is painted blowing soap bubbles which is quite kiddish activity. But, knowing the symbolic meanings, gives a totally different meanings than the apparent understanding. That’s the fun in symbolism. It’s kind of like an Arcanum.

Cupid Blowing Soap Bubbles by Rembrandt

Cupid Blowing Soap Bubbles by Rembrandt


4. Books

Books in a still life are the reference of knowledge and learning.

Migration of this symbolism to portraits and history paintings could represent the scholarly knowledge of the portrayed person or the epiphany of the portrayed saint in history paintings.

Still Life: Books And Papers On A Desk by Catherine M. Wood

Still Life: Books And Papers On A Desk by Catherine M. Wood

5. Shell

During the renaissance period, in Italy, sea-shells were considered rather an item of value. It wasn’t abundantly available everywhere like today. Only the wealthy people were able to own them and have them in their collections filled with other valuable jewels.

It’s similar to the story of a king of France who ate in aluminum plate while his comrades had to settle down for the old gold plates. It was a time, when the aluminum was a new, rare metal. Real or fable, the story is popular. And it relates with the sea-shells which were once considered valuable in old times.

Other usage of shells in still life or other types of painting represents the meaning of birth and fertility. Such meaning could be seen in Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli.

Jewelry Box by Linda Mann

Jewelry Box by Linda Mann

6. Peeled lemon

In many paintings we see lemons half or fully peeled. This indicates to the notion of ‘good to look, bitter to taste’. The idea also applies to human nature. Sometimes, people with good looks or sweet words aren’t what they seem and could have totally opposite or bitter souls than their general appearance. The idea is also applicable on life, which is, by many people, referred as attractive to look but bitter to live.

Such peeled lemon is often accompanied by sea-food in still life paintings. Both are served together in western countries.

Still life with lobster, salmon, peeled lemon and fruits in a bowl and vegetables in a copper basket on a table by Frans Ykens

Still life with lobster, salmon, peeled lemon and fruits in a bowl and vegetables in a copper basket on a table by Frans Ykens

7. Musical instruments, Fruits, Flowers, Butterflies, Smoke, Watch and Hourglass

All of these objects of still life are listed in one point as they represent a single meaning or meanings which overlaps each other.

Musical Instruments represents brevity and transient nature of life. As the music played from a instrument only lasts for the second it was relayed, we can see the connection.

Fruits, flowers and butterflies also represent brevity of life in the same way of musical instruments.

Smoke, Watch and Hourglass also represent the brevity of life in a manner of short lived smoke which disappears in the thin air without our clear recognition of it. Watch and hourglass both show time and are symbolized for fragile nature of life.

Vanitas Still­Life with Musical Instruments by Cornelis de Heem

Vanitas Still­Life with Musical Instruments by Cornelis de Heem

8. Burning Candle

Burning candle represents the short life of the ‘sensory pleasures’.

The candle is taken as the life itself and the burning process is a man’s attempt and enjoyment of sensory pleasures. He spends his whole life for those enjoyments without realizing that he is actually spending the moments of life which aren’t going to come back. Thus, also an object of Vanitas paintings, a burning candle means to tell us the futility of attempt to acquire the pleasures of life which may or may not satisfy a soul at the end of the life.

Though, according to the context and subject of the painting the meaning could vary.

Still Life with Candle by Ivan Khrutsky

Still Life with Candle by Ivan Khrutsky

9. Bread

Bread relates with Christianity and religious virtues.

On the night of The Last Supper, Jesus gave the wine and the bread to apostles saying “This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Thus, bread has been attached to the religious meanings in still life paintings.

Breakfast Piece by Willem van Aelst

Breakfast Piece by Willem van Aelst

10. Silk

Sometimes silk is inserted in a still life painting. Specially, purple silk. It was a boastful inclusion to represent vanity and pride.

Silk was the most high quality and expensive clothes in old times. They were afforded only by wealthy people. Purple color was rare and expensive as well. Thus, purple silk clothe is perfect representative of excessive pride.

Still Life - An Allegory of the Vanities of the Human life by Harmen Steenwijck

Still Life – An Allegory of the Vanities of the Human life by Harmen Steenwijck



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