Do You Shy Away From This Painting Approach?

20 Jun 2013

Figurative realism and allegory go hand in hand. Allegories—complex narratives built on layers of symbolism—are what allow works by Caravaggio, Titian, Bernini, Dürer, and Vermeer to carry resonance and remain intriguing centuries after they were created. Even though the power of storytelling is well known, allegory isn't always an easy sell in our contemporary world, which may explain why some artists shy away from it. The stories and references can seem esoteric and irrelevant, and yet the appeal of allegory for practicing visual artists is a long line of exemplary works to learn from. Oil paintings that utilize tight and effective compositions, teem with visual interest, and support complex narrative scenes.

The Allegory of Painting by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67.

The Allegory of Painting
by Johannes Vermeer, 1665-67.

Employing allegory in one's fine art oil painting can start with something as simple as a symbolic representation—a skull standing in for mortality; a blooming flower as a sign of spring; an apple as sensual temptation—or employ an extended metaphor like those found in Greek mythology, biblical stories, epic poems, parables, and even children's fables. The allegory can be a simplistic reference or one that is understood on literal and figurative levels.

Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, 1514.
Melencolia I
by Albrecht Dürer, 1514.

Homage to Rembrandt: Bathsheba, by Patricia Watwood, 2001, oil, 46 x 46. Collection of the artist.
Homage to Rembrandt: Bathsheba,
by Patricia Watwood, 2001, oil,
46 x 46. Collection of the artist.
The successful use of allegory in contemporary artwork comes down to utilizing the history and points of reference that allegories provide while giving them a contemporary appeal. For Patricia Watwood, an established contemporary artist and guest blogger on Artist Daily, that means opening the lines of communication. "A lot of artists make multifigure compositions that are somewhat inscrutable and illustrate private narratives," the Brooklyn-based artist says. "I was more interested in finding a narrative that the public could know and respond to. Even if they had to Google the allegory itself, they could see how I presented the story in my oil paintings and start to understand what I was trying to communicate and what I value."

Watwood has found that an exploration of allegory helps her workshop students understand the importance of creating a composition that is well thought out. "It's very inspiring to them to create a complete environs, adding and taking away elements and props to create very different effects," the artist says. "A setup can become classical or contemporary, depending on how you use certain elements to create a narrative story. It allows them to try compositions in different ways with different effects."

When artists embed a complex allegory in a painting, they allow viewers to evaluate an artwork on many different levels—personal, art historical, philosophical, and cultural. That's a rich mix, one that gives works of art staying power. They are more than beautiful or well-executed objects. They are deliberately composed, thoughtful wrought, and smartly referential.

There are hundreds of artists whose works reinterpret allegories that have been with us for centuries. Right now, many resources that feature these artists and their deeply resonate works are available at crazy good sale prices at the North Light Shop. So delve into our rich art historical past as well as the best of what contemporary artists have to offer. It can serve as inspiration for all of us to take strong next steps in our own practices. Enjoy!


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robz wrote
on 5 Jul 2010 8:21 PM

One of the interesting things about Patricia Watwood is how she often mixes the personal  and the historical, in terms of allegory. I would imagine that we realists painters should consider mixing the personal and historical with many other aspects of painting, as well.

on 21 Jun 2013 6:01 AM

Nice piece.  And quite a mouthful too!

on 21 Jun 2013 7:13 AM

I almost can't paint without having a theme, whether allegorical or narrative, in mind (unless I'm en plein air). But I've found it's hard to connect with an audience (and my allegories and narratives are in the classical, humanist tradition), in part because galleries aren't always sure their customers will get it (and they'll be intimidated if they don't). But once upon a time allegorical/narrative painting was the pinnacle of the artist's practice, and it was directed toward public art (even private patrons had a public dimension to their lives and collections). So, it would be great if there was a community of artists who were interested in classical allegory, but we'd also need to connect to an audience....

on 21 Jun 2013 11:16 AM

I am striving to be a contemporary allegorist.  As you mentioned in your post it is extremely difficult to find training in this area which incorporates imaginative realism with allegory and requires a high level of technical skill to get many things right including perspective, lighting and the distinct detail of the allegorical elements that is so important to make the composition work.  These paintings can include figurative or animal, landscape and still life elements all in one painting!    I do wish more information, classes, videos were available on the topic of composing and painting effective allegorical works.

Maybe  Interweave/North Light could fill this gap!?

on 21 Jun 2013 11:27 AM

One aspect of the Old Master tradition that isn't so much acknowledged, and it has to do with allegory, is that artist's mostly weren't depicting actual people doing allegorical things; instead, they were painting idealized (classical) figures who stood for abstract concepts. That means that Realism per se is somewhat antithetical to allegory--and Courbet knew it. His realism was an attack on the whole idea of allegory. In other words, we've been through this before, and we need to distinguish between realism (real people doing real things) and allegory (idealized people doing allegorical things).

PaulHarman wrote
on 21 Jun 2013 3:57 PM

Great article and examples. Painters of this era Caravaggio, Titian, Bernini, Dürer, and Vermeer painted from life, and created their scenes to tell their stories.  They painted with absolute acuracy and paid great attention to values and light in their paintings. So different from the teachings from art schools today that deplore realism, accuracy and detail and want artists to let the pertson figure out what he/she intended. Few could paint in this style today because there are so few teaching the old school ways.

on 22 Jun 2013 4:11 AM

Titian sometimes painted from life, but it's hard to imagine him posing a figure like his Bacchus from Bacchus and Ariadne and painting him from life. And antique sculpture was at least as important as live models for artists' subjects. Yes, there was a realist strain in the Old Master tradition, but there were many, many more who drew from life as a tuning exercise but painted from their knowledge of the live figure something more idealized: Raphael, Veronese, the Carracci (see Goldstein's book), Reni, Cortona, Poussin, Pozzo, Gaulli, Giordano, Ricci, Tiepolo, etc., etc. This is a harder tradition to recover, because it requires more than just observation and accuracy, it involves judgment and culture.

on 24 Jun 2013 11:39 PM

Courtney, thanks for this unusual story. And finally, a website that is truly interesting with comments from artists way more advanced than I am from whom I can get inspiration.