Symbolism in Art

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WAG-304---Love's-Palace-bloHave you ever wondered what something in a painting means, or what the artist intended to say?

Take the image on the left, a detail from J.M. Strudwick’s 'Love’s Palace' (in the Drawing Room at Sudley House). Can you see the bubble? Do you know what it means?

Some paintings mean nothing more than what you are looking at, for example a landscape painting. Many times a landscape artist is simply painting a beautiful view. They want to show the viewer what they saw, nothing more and nothing less. However, artists often want to tell a story, adding little clues and symbols to add meaning. They may add roses to show love, or a lily to show purity. A lute in Renaissance paintings may be played by angels, symbolising the wonderful music of the Heavens.

Have a look at John Meluish Strudwick’s painting below. There are lots of cherubic looking figures with wings, knights on horseback and several figures of young women amongst others. But what does it all mean?

Love’s Palace is based on a poem by G.F. Bodley (1827 – 1907), and Strudwick gives us Love, enthroned, in the centre of the painting surrounded on both sides by groups of other figures. The detail with the bubble is from the left hand side of the painting. In art, because of its fragile nature, the bubble is often seen as a symbol of the brevity or transience of life. Strudwick wrote about the three women below the bubble, saying:

“…two of whom are watching a bubble as it floats in the air, the bubble has burst for the third girl and she is in grief. A little winged love tries to comfort her, but in vain as yet”.

With things like the bubble or the lyre with its broken strings or the inclusion of the three Fates (the figures seated on the steps) Studwick seems to have given us a painting about love and life – its sorrows on the left hand side, and its joys on the right hand side.

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A good way to learn about the works in the collection, and the symbols contained within the paintings, is to come along to one of our talks and tours. More information can be found on our What's On page, which also contains links to what's happening in our other venues.

All our talks and tours are free, just turn up on the day. Group tours are also available throughout all National Museums Liverpool venues, please see our Groups page or call us on 0151 478 4788 for details on how to book a group visit and tour.