Symbols in painting before Symbolism 1800-1860

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first article of this pair, I introduced the use of symbols in visual art, and illustrated that with some examples from the Renaissance to the start of the nineteenth century.

The principles of symbols are apparent from the claimed origin of the term, in the classical Greek word σύμβολον (symbolon), used for a shard of pottery which recorded an alliance between two states. The shard was inscribed, then broken into two, which were given to the two heads of state in the alliance. They were only meaningful when recognised as one of a pair, and when brought together as a pair. So symbols in visual art are only meaningful when the viewer recognises that they are symbolic in nature, and when they can be associated with what they represent.

Whilst nineteenth century painting brought a decline in some aspects of classical art, if anything the use of symbols became more widespread.

The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (formerly called 'Hecate') c.1795 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (formerly called ‘Hecate’) (c 1795), colour print, ink, tempera and watercolour on paper, 43.9 x 58.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

My example from the richly symbolic art of William Blake, The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy was actually made in about 1795, but is more representative of the nineteenth if not twentieth century. For a long time, it was believed to show Hecate, largely on the basis of the three figures, which were thought to form the distinctive triple form of Hecate. If that were the case, it would be the only such representation in which two of the three figures faced inwards, which would contradict their symbolic form.

The next most likely candidate is that the woman seen at the front of the figures is from Blake’s own mythology, Enitharmon: partner, twin, and inspiration to Los (and mother of Orc). She symbolises spiritual beauty. In her ‘night of joy’, she establishes her Woman’s World, with a false religion of chastity and vengeance – which was Blake’s radical view of the 1800 year history of the ‘official’ Christian church.

She is accompanied by symbols of night, including the owl and bat. She also plays the role of Eve, which may explain the head of a snake peering out towards Enitharmon here. The donkey eating thistles symbolises Blake’s rejection of the ‘official’ church, and the two figures behind Enitharmon face in and bow their heads in guilt. The book on which Enitharmon’s left hand rests would then be Urizen’s ‘Book of Brass’, in which his repressive laws are laid down.

Another artist whose work is believed to be rich in symbols is Caspar David Friedrich, from whom I show just two favourite examples.

Caspar David Friedrich, Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), oil on canvas, 90.5 × 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Chalk Cliffs on Rügen (after 1818), oil on canvas, 90.5 × 71 cm, Museum Oskar Reinhart am Stadtgarten, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

In Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs on Rügen, painted after his marriage, the figures might represent his bride (clad in red, symbolising love) and himself, both engaged in studying the chalk clifftop from its edge, but there is a third person: a man wearing a tricorn hat (a recurrent symbol), arms folded, staring out to sea as if the couple were not there at all. It has been suggested that this third figure represents Friedrich the artist.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Stages of Life (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), The Stages of Life (1834-5), oil on canvas, 72.5 x 94 cm, Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig. Wikimedia Commons.

The Stages of Life (1834-5) is set at twilight, and shows five figures and assorted fishing equipment at the water’s edge, with five boats sailing in to the shore behind. Two of the figures are children, who raise a small Swedish flag between them. (Friedrich had been born in Swedish territory, Pomerania, but opted for German nationality and settled in Dresden.) To their right is a young woman, pointing and looking towards the children. To their left is a mature man, wearing a top hat, who is turned towards an elderly man, the closest to the viewer, his back towards us and a walking stick in his right hand. The younger man is gesticulating, his right hand towards the old man, his left pointing down towards the children.

The ships mirror the figures. Closest in to the shore are two small fishing boats under full sail. Out in the deeper water behind them is a fully-rigged ship in the process of furling its sails. Further in the distance is a larger fully-rigged ship, also furling its sails, and on the horizon is the fifth, large ship, its sails still fully set.

This well-known painting has been interpreted as symbolising, in both figures and vessels, the ‘five stages of life’, although it may be even more opaque in its meaning.

In the early nineteenth century, many countries across Europe experienced a rise in nationalism, and the use of national symbols, particularly personifications, became prominent in paintings.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Greece in the Ruins of Missolonghi (1826), oil on canvas, 208 × 147 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. Wikimedia Commons.

In Delacroix’s Greece in the Ruins of Missolonghi from 1826, the personification of Greece walks on the rubble remaining from the third siege of Missolonghi in 1825-6.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831) (1831), watercolor and gouache on paper, 49.6 × 39 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer painted his Allegory of the November Uprising (Polonia, 1831) in 1831, and shows the personification of the Polish nation being brutally trampled on in the suppression of the November Uprising of 1831.

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Liberty Leading the People (1830), oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Marianne, the personification of the French nation, is most recognisably expressed in Delacroix’s famous Liberty Leading the People (1830), where she represents the liberty achieved by the July Revolution of 1830.

Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), The Republic (1848), oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Honoré Daumier later preferred to personify the French nation as a mother nursing children and holding the French tricolour flag. In this, she sums up the ideal of a strong republic, in her fertility, serenity, and glory, as a development of Delacroix’s Marianne.

Christian Köhler (1809-1861), Waking Germania (1849), oil on canvas, 220 × 280 cm, New York Historical Society, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Following the revolutions of 1848, Christian Köhler’s Waking Germania (1849) depicts the personification of Germany reaching for the weapon and armour which she was later normally shown wearing.

Francesco Hayez (1791–1882), Meditation on the History of Italy (1850-51), oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm, Galleria d’arte moderna Achille Forti, Verona, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The usual national personification of Italy is Italia Turrita, characterised by her mural crown ‘with towers’ to represent urban history, and holding a bunch of corn ears, as a symbol of fertility and agriculture. Francesco Hayez has here been more liberal in his interpretation, adding a crucifix and a book, and encouraging interesting speculation as to the reading of his symbols.

As we approach the development of more formal symbolism in the middle of the nineteenth century, some artists created paintings which appear to anticipate features of the later movement.

William Dyce (1806–1864), Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting (1860), oil on board, 36 x 58 cm, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Wales. Wikimedia Commons.

In the autumn of 1860, William Dyce stayed in the Conwy Valley in Wales for six weeks, where he sketched and painted avidly. After his return to London, he painted this in oils, showing the rough and rugged scenery above the valley, a rock outcrop filling much of the left half of the painting. In its centre is an old woman, and to the right a young one, each dressed in traditional clothes, and knitting. A sliver of a crescent moon is visible low in the sky.

The younger woman wears a formal ensemble which had recently been revived and designated the ‘Welsh national costume’, as might be worn for Eisteddfods and other special occasions. They are both knitting stockings from scavenged scraps of wool, an activity which might have been common earlier in the century and performed indoors at home. It had largely disappeared by 1860, and is conspicuously incongruous for such an outdoor location. But deciphering Dyce’s symbols here isn’t straightforward by any means, and as far as I’m aware the reading of this painting remains an enigma.

I hope that these two articles have shown how painting since the Renaissance has used symbols extensively, even well into the nineteenth century. Over the coming weeks, I will start to examine the works of those who identified themselves as, or are now considered to be, Symbolists from the late nineteenth century onwards. I hope you’ll join me.