Symbolism: for learning and entertainment

Do you ever look at a painting and think: beautifully painted, but what does the representation actually represent? We call that field symbolism in art or Iconography. Can symbols, themes or stories be recognised, or is there a hidden and deeper meaning to be unravelled? Often, this is not as simple as it seems, as different interpretations of imagery are possible. A good example of a painting that can be interpreted in different ways is the eighteenth-century genre painting Bubble-blowing man and woman (1771) in a window by Dutch painter Louis de Moni.

Innocent performance?

At first glance, we see an innocent depiction of a young couple in a domestic interior. The eighteenth-century viewer, however, knew better. The empty birdcage hanging on the wall to the right is an erotic motif for captured love. The verb 'birding' was equivalent to copulating at the time. In addition, a 'fowler' was a matchmaker or whoremonger. The fact that the birdcage is empty may be associated with the woman losing her virginity.

Louis de Moni, Bubble-blowing man and woman, 1771

A vanitas still life

Yet De Moni did not want to show only the pleasures of earthly existence. In fact, this painting also contains symbolism referring to the transience of life. For instance, under the birdcage we see a rose bush, with one rose in bloom and the other already wilting. The life cycle of plants was a very popular motif within vanitas still life. A vanitas still life was meant to remind the viewer that everything in life is fleeting and empty. Another symbol that can be associated with the finiteness of life is the bubble-blowing man. This imagery is known in art history as gay bulla (literally translated: man is like a bubble). According to Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536), there is 'nothing more fragile, fleeting or empty than human life, which therefore resembles a bubble in water, rising as quickly as it disappears'. So the young man in the painting is not happily blowing bubbles as we know it today, but carries an important message: despite the pleasures of earthly existence, human life is as fragile as a bubble.

As this example shows, you can understand a painting better if you know more about the symoblique or imagery. Ostensibly, this looks like an innocent, homely interior, but if you know more, it reveals hidden messages. The painting is meant to remind viewers not to lose themselves in temporary earthly lusts but to focus on the eternal, pious life. 

vogelkooi, roos, luchtbel
Details: birdcage, rose and wilting rose, bubble

This blog was written by Dewi Lenselink. She is an art historian specialising in seventeenth-century painting and a secondary school teacher.

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