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Get Creative at Home: Symbolism in Portraiture

Learn how artists use symbols to communicate without words, and try creating your own symbolic artwork.

By Melissa Katzin, Manager of Family Programs, High Museum of Art

Symbols have been used throughout art history to illustrate the invisible. From ancient art to modern art, we can find hidden meanings within artworks that tell us more about what, or who, we’re looking at.

In art, a symbol is an object or item that represents an idea or a feeling. Colors can be symbols, like yellow to denote happiness (check out our post on how landscape artists use color symbolism). Objects are often used as symbols too, like a rose for love and romance, or a lion for strength or rulership (think “king of the jungle”).

In European art of the 1400s and 1500s, symbols were used for religious purposes. Look closely at Madonna and Child with Two Angels, St. Francis and St. Louis of Toulouse by Paolo di Giovanni Fei from ca. 1375. On the bottom right is St. Louis of Toulouse, wearing a brown robe with a blue cloak. Who is he?

Painting of Madonna and child flanked by saints in an arched frame.
Paolo di Giovanni Fei (Italian, ca. 1345­–1411), Madonna and Child with Two Angels, St. Francis and St. Louis of Toulouse, ca. 1375

All of the items, patterns, and objects we see on and around St. Louis of Toulouse tell us more about him. He was originally a French royal, but he decided to become a monk instead. The crown at his feet illustrates him giving up his royal status, and the brown robe he wears is what Franciscan monks wear (as seen on St. Francis on the right). Even the pattern on his blue cloak is symbolic of his story — the pattern is the fleur-de-lis, which was a symbol of the French royalty.

Portraits have often contained symbolic images to reveal something about the subject that would be too hard to paint. Consider Sir Peter Lely’s Portrait of a Boy in a Hunting Costume.

Sir Peter Lely (English, 1618­–1680), Portrait of a Boy in a Hunting Costume, ca. 1675

Why do you think the dog is included in this portrait? Dogs are usually a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness — what does this tell us about the boy? The outfit that the boy wears is unusual, even for 1675. It’s probably a costume for a shepherd or even the mythological character Adonis, who was a symbol for handsome youths.

Look closely at the portraits below. Each contains one or more symbols that tell us about the people in the paintings. What symbols can you find? Consider everything from the objects that are included to the colors used, their poses, and even the settings — anything might be a symbol!

What do you think they say about the subjects?

Ralph Earl (American, 1751–1801), Portrait of David Baldwin, 1790. Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723–1792), Portrait of Lady Jemima Yorke, ca. 1761. William James Hubard (American, 1807–1862), The Angler (Portrait of Charles Lanman), 1846

Get Creative at Home

Modern artists continue to use symbols in their artwork, such as Adolph Gottlieb in Masquerade. Masquerade was part of a series Gottlieb made, called Pictographs. Masquerade is divided into squares that each contain a masked face or a made-up symbol. The faces are similar to African and Native American masks, which Gottlieb was influenced by. What do you think some of the other symbols could mean?

Adolph Gottlieb (American, 1903–1974), Masquerade, 1945

Create your own symbolic artwork!

Consider what’s important to you. What do you love? What would you want a stranger to know about your personality or your feelings? On a piece of paper, write out some of these feelings or ideas. What items or objects would you use to illustrate each of them? You can use a common symbol (like a book for reading), or you can make up your own!

Charline von Heyl (German, born 1960), Idolores, 2011. Jonathan Lasker (American, born 1948), The Value of Pictures, 1993

Draw out your symbolic self-portrait! Use pencils, paint, or any other medium. Your symbolic self-portrait can be traditional, like Portrait of a Boy in a Hunting Costume, or more abstract, like Masquerade.

Try getting your friends and family to create their own symbolic self-portraits! Then, gather up the portraits and try to guess whose is whose.

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High Museum of Art

High Museum of Art

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