Art Through Interpretation – Part 1 – Symbolism

In the modern world we are faced with an array of differing visual media, those which enlighten us and those which annoy us. These responses are the result of ones interpretation of them, what we understand of them and how they effect us. The intention of art can be mystifying because of how, without the proper guidance or mindset, will appear pointless. I want to highlight some of the methods artists may use to convey their intentions, making use of work that effectively corresponds such. I will look at artwork from the detachment from reality that is Surrealism to the narrative images of Classical paintings. I want to expand your ability to recognize the intention of artists and what they are doing.

First of all, I want to discuss the importance of symbolism. Not to be confused with references, that always relies on the literal existence of something else, symbols are an important vehicle for conveying less tangible elements for a piece of work. A rose, for example, can symbolize romance due to its passionate red color and its dangerous thorns. A black rose, while similar, has a more sinister connotation evoking death and despair due to its darker features. This extends to settings as well as individual objects. Color is an important factor, just by its presents it can trigger certain emotional responses. Purple, for instance, is associated with royalty because only they could afford to wear it. Here are a few more symbolic interpretations surrounding color:

  • Yellow – Energy, Cowardice, Philosophy
  • Red – Power, Lust, Danger
  • Blue – Peace, Loyalty, Depression
  • Green – Nature, Envy, Healthy
  • Purple – Mourning, Mysterious, Honor
  • Orange – Vibrant, Enthusiastic, Flamboyant

Symbolism Movement

From the 1875s to 1910, Symbolism developed its own movement. The ideas behind it involved mysticism, the melancholic and the perverse. Artists such as Gustave Moreau (1826-98) and Odilon Redon (1840-1915) would create images that seemed dreamlike and dark, that would evoke feelings around religious subjects or present somber moods with some directness. The movements best known work is based around human sadness, such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’s (18224-98) The Poor Fisherman (1881) or George Frederic Watt’s (1814-1904) Hope (1886).

Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I want to take a look at Watt’s Hope painting, as I think it conveys many things through symbolic means. The image contains a young blind woman seated on a globe playing the only remaining string on a broken lyre. The woman leans closely to the broken instrument to here its music. There are multiple perceptions to take on the piece, one being that while the title suggests a positive end, the atmosphere of it seems to be of dwindling hope. The setting looks cold and bear with only smoky wisps accompanying it, and the girl sits uncomfortably on a mound while begging for music from her broken lyre. However you could see the girl symbolizing universal hope, as she may be seated on the globe, and represents the struggles everyone may face to attain something beautiful. These are a mere two ideas, there are many more possable meaning tothe piece.

Religious Work

The Symbolism movement wasn’t the only instance where symbolism was present, as it can be recorded being used throughout history in periods including the Renaissance and beyond. Symbolism has always had a strong presence in religious paintings, as religion itself functions on many symbols. Christianity for instance has the cross to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice, and traditions such as Christmas that symbolize his birth.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais, 1849-50

One of these paintings is Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). Being one of the first scene paintings produced by The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848-1900) by John Everett Millais (1828-1910), who wanted to depict the holy family in a realistic environment that was unsaturated by idealization. By doing this, certain elements that had been used so frequently to symbolize divine characteristics were deemed unrealistic and would detract from the artists intention of a humble origin story. This meant that they would need to be implemented more discreetly. This is what is so fantastic about this image, it’s full of symbols of the young Christ’s future in a way that does not draw away from the domestic scene. In the background there is a triangle that symbolizes the Holy Trinity, Christ has blood on his palm and feet that call to the Crucifixion, which is strengthened by the presence of nails on the table and planks of wood in the background. You also have the young John the Baptist carrying a bowl of water to clean Christ’s wound, another preconception to future events.


Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434

Symbolism is also present in portraiture, as can be seen in Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) double portrait of a wealthy merchant and  his fashionable wife. While nobody is truly certain of what exactly this painting is for, all can agree on the present symbols that the man is a wealthy merchant because of his expensive fur coat, which may of been his product because of the value of fur at the time. Also, his wife wears the fashionable clothing of the time, that is filled with intricate detail and is made with a lot of material. There is also the decorated environment that symbolizes this, such as the red cloth on some of the furniture, symbolizing power and importance. It also symbolizes passion, to copulate for a baby perhaps. This idea is further implemented  by the green dress the woman is wearing, as green is the color of fertility. You could suggest that the manner in which she holds the dress also indicates fertility, but apparently this was something women did with this sort of dress anyway, but I wouldn’t put it passed the artist to hint at pregnancy. You can also detect a holy presence in the picture; there are miniature details of the Passions outlining the mirror in the background, and some speculate that the single lit candle symbolizes gods presence. Until recently it was officially understood to be a painting that captured the marriage of the husband and wife, but now its meaning is undetermined. It could be that the image in a memorial to the woman, as the couple’s hands may be drifting apart. Or it may very well a simple double portrait that has information regarding the husband.

Still Life

Still Life: An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life by Harmen Steenwyck, 1640

Still life, while usually disregarded as true art due to their perceived simplicity, became integral to an artists success during the the Protestant Reformation and in countries that adopted Protestant ideas such as Holland and Spain. This was a change that meant depictions of holy figures, such as St Peter or the Virgin Mary, was sacrilege. This meant that patrons of this faith would be far less inclined to commission for religious works, and the Protestant churches, who beforehand used to be their main patrons, were now lost. The reason that still life thrived in this time is because they did not traditionally depict holy figures. They consisted of physical objects, those of which followed a certain theme, like breakfast or hunting. But for those who still wanted artwork that related to religion in some way, there was vanity paintings. These works would not contain direct items that had clear religious implications, instead they used symbolic meaning behind certain items to convey religious attitudes. They would present objects of earthly pleasures, in contrast to symbols of death and heavenly ascendance. They might contain the decay of fruit to symbolize the decay of ones piety through such indulgences, and inevitable end we all face. These vanity paintings were invented to stir people onto the right path to heaven. Here are a few more examples of items and the symbolic meanings they held:

  • Books – Knowledge, Luxuries
  • Shells – Fertility, Wealth
  • Produce – Sustaining life
  • Silk – Wealth, Luxuries
  • Blades – Military, Craftsmanship

Composition would also play a part in these works. In Harmen Steenwyck’s (1612-56) painting, shown above, he displays all of the objects on the right side of the painting diagonally and has a shaft of light come down in the empty space. This light is directed towards the symbolic objects, which in doing so symbolizes ones spiritual existences in contrast the the physical realm and its vanities.


In the wake of Freudian psychoanalysis (in early 1900s); artists, poets and writers from around Europe came together to create work concerning the human mind that contradicted the logical expectations of the conscious. This group were called the Surrealists. Andre Breton (1896-1966),  their leader, concluded that the the unconscious and the conscious could be combined to create a “super reality” – Surrealism. They experimented with how their own mind could be altered in order to gain greater access to the unconscious. The work produced by the Surrealists were strange, scary and confusing. The images created are considered dreamlike given there strong association with the unconscious and that they sometimes even resemble dreams. But they do hold symbolic meaning, hidden in a code of mental filtering that is best understood through psychoanalytical dissection, you can create your own picture of certain aspects of the artist, perhaps secrets about their childhood or intimate desires.

Salvador Dali (1904-89) was a prominent figure of the Surrealist art, as he was one of its most famous and controversial members. He always attempted to go against the logical and made shocking statements that went against much of what surrealists valued. Dali’s work, specifically between 1928 and 1933, relied on the “paranoiac-critical method”. Essentially another way for him to access his unconscious, but this method also allowed him to make use of his conscious state at the same time. It allowed him his precise artistic style (using his conscious) while inspired by his unconscious. This is interesting, because it allows for the abstract thoughts of the unconscious to be rendered into a readable manner.

The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 1931

The Persistence of Memory is one of the results of this combination, and given the paintings title along with its subjects, you can see that there’s a connection. Although, like many Surrealist works, the meaning is almost never straightforward, especially with Dali, it’s known that he creates work that includes visual identity through two disparate objects. In this case it appears that Dali has attempted to make a connection with time and melting. This could have a somewhat literal meaning, symbolizing how time can simply melt away before you know it, or the flowing eternity. Or it could symbolize a physical description of Einstein’s theory of relativity, about how time is subject to changing dramatically anywhere in the universe, a subject that was being discussed around this time. Besides the pocket watches, there appears a flat portrait of whom might be Dali, equally as flexible as the watches, there seems to be a fixation with himself and time. This portrait also seems to stretch off into the darker side of the image and is lacking any sort of mustache. Perhaps Dali is showing concern about his future, this is supported be the be the ants that are eating one of the timepieces. He was highly ambitious, so the idea of losing it all must have plagued his mind.


Symbolism, as you can see, exists throughout almost all art, if not intentional it’s psychological. Unfortunately most of us lack the required knowledge to pick out some of the less obvious symbols. Leaving us only the written work of others to rely on if we are struggling with our reading of art. But provided the examples I’ve provided, you should find that artists are communicating far easier. Remember that sometimes you may need incite to the artist and the environment they lived/ live in. You may also find that other media such as films, books, games, theater and music may also contain symbolic messages; if you are interested in subjects than I suggest you look into the YouTube channel Wisecrack at, they have a series that deals with this subject and has quality writing.

The great 19th century writer Thomas Carlyle (On Heroes and Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History – 1840) writes that Symbolism is “a concealed revelation, something we can see visibly, but the true meaning is deeply hidden and can only be unlocked if one contemplates and considers. However once unlocked, true revelation of that meaning of the symbol, is revealed.”