It’s that time of year when, in the northern hemisphere, we feel that strange urge to head for the coast, expose bodies which have spent the best part of the last year concealed under clothing, and paddle in the sea. When we return, in the pockets of our beachware, among grains of sand, will be a few seashells we gathered as mementoes. This weekend I look at paintings featuring those curiously beautiful remnants, from clams and conches to the more exotic.
Many cultures have seen something special in seashells, and they have significant roles in Mediterranean mythology, notably the association of oversized clam shells with the birth of Venus or Aphrodite.
Depictions of the birth of Aphrodite are among the oldest European mythological paintings of which we have records. Apelles of Kos, one of the most renowned of the great painters of ancient Greece, is claimed to have been active around 330 BCE. Among the eight or more major works attributed to him is Aphrodite Anadyomene, in which the goddess Aphrodite rises from the sea on a clamshell. This achieved fame in part because his model for Aphrodite was a former mistress of Alexander the Great, Campaspe, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder.
Although several of Apelles’ paintings were taken to Rome, and it’s claimed that at least one version of his Aphrodite survived as a copy in the ruins of Pompeii (above), all that remains of Apelles’ works are textual descriptions in classical writings. The goddess here reclines on the shell of a clam which would have been large enough to bathe in.
It’s also claimed that a description of Apelles’ Aphrodite Anadyomene was inspiration for its most famous depiction, The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. This is the foundation of the modern canon: standing in an oversized clamshell, Aphrodite has been born as a fully-grown adult. She stands naked and beautiful, her long tresses blowing in the breeze of Zephyros, the west wind, harbinger of Spring, and Aura the personification of lighter breeze. At the right, welcoming Aphrodite to land with clothing is one of the Horai representing the season Spring, and there are Spring flowers blowing across the painting.
Titian’s Venus Anadyomene from 1520 is different in that it excludes other distractions and just shows the goddess rearranging her hair after she has emerged from the sea, and in the background a much smaller clamshell making the narrative link.
Just over four centuries later, Joseph Stella painted several mythical narratives, including The Birth of Venus in 1922. As might be expected, his treatment is completely novel and seems to have benefited from visits to an aquarium. Aphrodite is shown at sea, in the upper part of the painting her upper body above the waterline, and below morphing into an aquatic plant below that waterline, where it finally merges into a helical rather than clam shell.
Another less well-known myth in which seashells have been painted is that of the feast of Achelous, in which Theseus is entertained by a river god in a grotto lined with seashells while he waited for floods to abate.
Hendrick de Clerck’s The Banquet of Achelous was painted in about 1610. The four men are feasting, sat around a table rather than reclining in Roman style. The rock pergola which surrounds them is suitably decorated with shells, and a bevy of bare-breasted young women serves seafood and fruit. In the distance, to the right, nymphs are cavorting in a bay, a delightful reference to the story told by Achelous of the creation of the Echinades, Mediterranean islands.
At about the same time, around 1615, Peter Paul Rubens collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder (father of Jan Brueghel the Younger) in The Feast of Achelous. There are now nine men around the table, and the distant nymphs are nowhere to be seen. Once again, the walls of the grotto are decorated with different types of seashell.
Christian symbolism also uses the clam and other seashells, although their significance is more obscure. They’re sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary, or with baptism, and often used to mark the way for pilgrims, particularly on the Camino de Santiago in north-west Spain. I have yet to see a coherent explanation for these.
Seashells are commonly included in the eclectic combination of symbolic objects in vanitas paintings, such as Carstian Luyckx’s undated Allegory of Charles I of England and Henrietta of France in a Vanitas Still Life. Included here are a globe, the physical world itself, the gall from a tree, a snuffed-out candle, seashells, and coral. He uses another common device found in vanitas painting: an open book, here showing King Charles I, who was executed in 1649, and his wife Henrietta Maria of France, who was deposed as queen of England by the civil wars, which forced her to flee to France in 1644.
Some later vanitas paintings developed the allegory of young boys blowing bubbles, as in Karel Dujardin’s Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, an Allegory on the Transitoriness and Brevity of Life (1663). Like Venus before him, he’s seen standing on a clamshell, although his left foot is actually resting on a bubble, and at the edge of the shell are a piece of coral and a string of pearls, the latter being a product of the oyster.
In one of her first masterly still lifes, Anne Vallayer-Coster brings together a collection of different seashells, in her Still-Life with Tuft of Marine Plants, Shells and Corals from 1769. These include the humble limpet, a large and gnarly clam, and a beautiful conch.
In tomorrow’s concluding article, I’ll look at more recent symbolic uses of seashells in paintings.