Q&A: What does symbolism mean in a art painting?

January 28, 2013 | By

Question by jay78_er: What does symbolism mean in a art painting?

Best answer:

Answer by Shell B
The term Symbolism means the systematic use of symbols or pictorial conventions to express an allegorical meaning. Symbolism is an important element of most religious arts and reading symbols plays a main role in psychoanalysis. Thus, the Symbolist painters used these symbols from mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul.

Not so much a style of art, Symbolism was more an international ideological trend. Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly. Thus, they painted scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner.

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Edwin Hall - The Arnolfini Betrothal. Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck's Double Portrait (Book Cover)
betrothal arnolfini jan van eyck
Image by Cea.

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Comments (2)

  1. masterpiece

    symbolism is basically when something represents an idea or thought. For example: A dove symbolizes peace. The Bald Eagle = freedom. Our flag symbolizes our nation. etc… I think you get the idea. So in art, something like a bleeding heart could symbolize hurt, heartache, loneliness, betrayl, etc.

    hope that helps.

  2. samanthajanecaroline

    Symbolism – A form, image or subject representing a meaning other than the one with which it is usually associated.

    Here are two paintings particularly famous for the symbols included in them:

    Jan van Eyck (Dutch, died 1441), The Arnolfini Marriage [The Betrothal of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami], 1434, oil on wood panel, 81.8 x 59.7 cm, National Gallery, London. The bride to be has placed her right hand into the left hand of her fiancé to symbolize their intention to wed. Some of the other symbols: a dog symbolizes love and fidelity, a pair of white slippers in the lower left symbolize the sanctity of marriage, fruits on the windowsill symbolize fertility and original sin, a candle burning in daylight acknowledges faith in God as well as his all-seeing eye. A convex mirror hangs on the wall behind the bride and groom. In this mirror is a reflection of the backs of the principal figures, accompanied by those of the painter and another man who witness the betrothal. The frame of the mirror contains ten medallions portraying scenes from the life of Christ. See convex, Dutch art, frame, and mirror.

    Hieronymus [Jerome] Bosch (Dutch, 1450-1516), The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych), c. 1500, Prado, Madrid. Creation of the World, depicting the third day of creation, the two closed outer wings (or shutters) for this triptych, each is 220 x 97 cm. Garden of Earthly Delights (Ecclesia’s paradise), the central panel, 220 x 195 cm. Left wing: The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden), 220 x 97 cm. Right wing: Hell, 220 x 97 cm. Detail from right wing. Bosch worked at a time when symbols constituted a basic visual language. Although contemporary scholars don’t always agree on interpretations of his paintings, the list below suggests possible meanings for some of the symbols found in this example. See more of his paintings in articles about altarpiece and Gothic.

    Meanings for some of the symbols in Bosch’s paintings symbol meaning
    black birds unbeliever; death or rotting flesh
    breasts fertility
    closed book the futility of knowledge in dealing with human stupidity
    ears gossip
    eggs sexual creation; key symbol of alchemy
    fish false prophets; lewdness
    flames fires of hell
    flying monsters devil’s envoys
    fruit carnal pleasure
    funnel deceit and intemperance; false alchemist or false doctor
    ice skater folly
    keys knowledge
    knives punishment of evil
    mussel shell infidelity
    owl great learning
    pig false priest; gluttony
    rabbits multiplication of the race
    rat lies against the Church; filth; sex
    spheres alchemical apparatus

    Here are other works in which symbolism has been given importance:

    China, Emperor’s 12-Symbol Robe, 18th century, Ching dynasty, silk, metallic thread, 63 1/2 x 56 3/4 inches (161.29 x 144.15 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. The emblems reserved for the emperor’s ceremonial robes were the twelve imperial symbols seen on this garment: sun, moon, constellation, mountain, pair of dragons, bird, cups, water weed, millet, fire, ax, and the symmetrical “fu” symbol. See Chinese art and costume.

    United States of America, One Dollar Federal Reserve Note, 1988, recto and verso, engraving on paper (a cotton and linen blend, with red and blue minute silk fibers running through it), 2 5/8 x 6 inches. This design is similar to all one dollar bills produced from 1957-present. See articles about symbolism on the one dollar Federal Reserve Note, numismatics and currency, recto and verso.

    Or it can stand for the following;

    An art movement which rejected the purely visual realism of the Impressionists, and the rationality of the Industrial Age, in order to depict the symbols of ideas. Influenced by Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it thrived in France in the late nineteenth century, its influence spreading throughout much of Europe. Rather than the precise equivalents of ideas or emotions, its symbols were meant to be more mysterious, ambiguous suggestions of meanings. The work of one group, including Piérre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824-1898), Gustave Moreau (French, 1826-1898), and Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916), took a literary approach, employing some of the imagery of Symbolist writers, including such icons as severed heads, monsters and glowing or smoky spirits, synthesized from elements of Bible stories and ancient myths. Later, the imaginative incongruities in these works were to influence the Surrealists. Another group, taking a formal approach, in which linear stylizations and innovative uses of color produced emotional effects, included Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) and the Nabis.

    Examples of Symbolist works:

    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824-1898), Sleep, 1867 or 1870, oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 41 3/4 inches (66.4 x 106 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Beheading of St. John the Baptist (La Décollation de St. Jean Baptiste), 1869, oil on canvas, about 48 x 64 inches, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England. This was exhibited in the influential Armory Show of 1913.

    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Ludus pro patria (Patriotic Games), oil on canvas, 13 1/8 x 52 7/8 inches (33.3 x 134.3 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Inter artes et naturam (Between Art and Nature), oil on canvas, 15 7/8 x 44 3/4 inches (40.3 x 113.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Shepherd’s Song, 1891, oil on canvas, 41 1/8 x 43 1/4 inches (104.5 x 109.9 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

    Gustave Moreau (French, 1826-1898), Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864, oil on canvas, 81 1/4 x 41 1/4 inches (206.4 x 104.8 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. See mythology and sphinx.

    Gustave Moreau (French, 1826-1898), The Unicorn, 1885, oil on canvas, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris. See horn.

    Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele, 1898, and The Peacock complaining to Juno, 1881.

    Arnold Böcklin (Swiss, 1827-1901), The Island of the Dead, 1883, oil on wood panel, 80 x 150 cm, Nationalgalerie, Berlin. See Romanticism.

    Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916), The Light of Day (Le Jour), Plate VI from “Songes”, 1891, lithograph, 8 1/4 x 6 1/8 inches. This was exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913.

    Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916), Profile of a Woman with a Vase of Flowers, c.1895-1905, oil on canvas, 65.5 x 50.5 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

    Odilon Redon, Madame Arthur Fontaine (Marie Escudier), 1901, pastel on paper, 28 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches (72.4 x 57.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

    Odilon Redon, Etruscan Vase with Flowers, 1900-10, tempera