The Hidden Symbolism In Still Life Paintings

The Hidden Symbolism In Still Life Paintings

Still life painting is a genre of art that features manufactured and natural inanimate objects, such as fruit, flowers, vases, bowls and cloth. While the inclusion of inanimate objects may seem simplistic, the placement and composition of these objects can be highly intricate and require great skill on the artist's part. The items included in the work and their order can hold deep symbolic meaning, allowing the viewer to enjoy the painting with a greater understanding of the artist's intention. This blog post will explore several well-known still-life paintings and share some hidden meanings behind the subjects
Still life painting is a genre of art that features manufactured and natural inanimate objects, such as fruit, flowers, vases, bowls and cloth. While the inclusion of inanimate objects may seem simplistic, the placement and composition of these objects can be highly intricate and require great skill on the artist's part. The items included in the work and their order can hold deep symbolic meaning, allowing the viewer to enjoy the painting with a greater understanding of the artist's intention. This blog post will explore several well-known still-life paintings and share some hidden meanings behind the subjects.  

Spiritual Elements in Still Life Paintings 

Osias Beert's Still Life With Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls is a captivating example of the Baroque era still lifeThe photo showcases two delicate Chinese porcelain bowls filled with strawberries and cherries and a pewter plate full of olives. Several ornate glasses are arranged around the display, and a beautifully decorated knife rests in the foreground. This tableau has been designed so viewers can see all objects without obstructions.
The dragonfly and butterfly bring a layer of spiritual meaning to this otherwise commonplace scene. The butterfly symbolises salvation and resurrection in battle with the dragonfly. At the time, flies were seen as a creature of the devil. The strawberries and cherries are said to be the sweet fruits of eternal life and symbolise the human soul these insects are fighting over.

 

Still Life With Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls - Osias Beert
Still Life With Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls - Osias Beert   

 

Contextualising Food In Still Life Paintings

Dutch artist, Floris Van Dyck's Still Life with Fruit, Nuts and Cheese shows us a bountiful table laden with a delicious feast. It's an opportunity for the artist to show his incredible talent in bringing a variety of textures to life, including creamy cheeses, delicate curls of fruit peel, and plump and juicy grapes and olives. But what would these particular foods have signified? Holland was a key figure in international trade in the 17th century, in a time known as the Dutch Golden Age. Various clues indicate this feast would have been enjoyed by a wealthy member of the upper classes. The tablecloth was made of silk damask, a very expensive material at the time. The table is set with imported china dishes and expensive pewter plates. The olives in the centre of the table would be imported from the Mediterranean. The large wheels of cheese stacked atop each other remind the viewer that cheese was a popular Dutch export (and remains so today). The passage of time was a popular motif in still life paintings (see our vanitas blog for more details), and this is indicated by the cracked nuts and ribbon of apple peel. The apple represents love, knowledge, wisdom, pleasure, and death. It is frequently used in religious works to symbolize temptation and original sin. 

 Still Life with Cheese, Floris Claesz van Dijck, c. 1615

 
Floral Symbolism In Still Life Paintings  

One of the most magnificent floral still life painters was Rachel Ruysch. Rachel Ruysch was a Dutch still-life painter who worked for over six decades. She invented her own painting style, which led to international fame during her lifetime. Her paintings were highly prized, and 17th-century documents reveal her paintings were more costly than Rembrandt's and her impressive 'impossible' bouquets depict beautiful flowers in stages of bloom and wilt. The impossible bouquets were so called because these types of flowers could never be in bloom at the same time. In her work, we see various flowers: Cistus, poppy, Viola × wittrockianaCalendulaCalystegiaDianthus caryophyllusRosaDianthus barbatusSaxifragella and Iris. The iris often symbolises the Christian Trinity and this is placed at the top of her composition. The rose symbolises the Virgin Mary, and white poppies signify sleep and death. 

Ruysch's highly detailed depictions of tumbling flowers initially delight the viewer with their colourful beauty. Still, closer inspection reveals the bouquet is wilting in parts and is home to insects who feed on flowers, such as the green bottle fly, bee beetle, wasp, damselfly and the burying beetle. The inclusion of these realistic elements could indicate that the artist is painting an accurate depiction of flowers and insect behaviour as they indeed are, or it could be a statement about the fleeting, transient nature of life and earthly pleasures. 

 Still life with flowers on a marble slab by Rachel RuyschStill life with flowers on a marble slab - Rachel Ruysch

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