Last Updated on November 13, 2023 by asifa
Fish artists have been obsessed with fish paintings for various reasons; fish symbolizes peace, positivity, and etiquette. Its significance transcends centuries and culture. Fishes have been a part of motifs since ancient civilizations. From religious symbols of Christianity to a medium of sacrifice in ritual worship, fishes have been ubiquitous.
Due to its vivacious symbolisms, fish images traveled from the early Christian era and found their way into the Renaissance artworks, after which even the bourgeois subjects started illustrating fishes into their paintings. Painters, mainly belonging to the 20th Century, took a keen interest in the symbol of fish.
‘A Good Pool, Saguenay River’ (1896) by Winslow Homer, ‘The Sacred Fish’ (1918) by Giorgio de Chirico, and ‘A Spell’ (1940) by Nicholas Roerich are some of the many famous paintings encapsulating the everlasting rarity of fish paintings. Let us look at some of the more renowned fish paintings that have given credibility and worth to the usage of fish as symbols in artworks!
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Big Fish Eat Little Fish (1557)
This eerily evocative and soul-stirring allegory by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder depicts the haunting reality of life: the strong always overpower the weak. The drawing has in its forefront a father and a son seated in a rowboat, wherein the son (presumably) is lacerating the stomach of the big fish to pull out a smaller one.
The water has fishes shimmering inside it, the trees have them suspended from its branches, and the air has them flying amok. The land is conspicuously displaying fishes as if Bruegel wanted his analogy to stare us in the face.
The image of the smaller spilling fishes from the stomach of the big fishes symbolizes the greed and avarice of the riches. It also highlights how the rich section climbs another step of the ladder while crushing the poor further into the ground. The father asking the son to “behold” the gruesome scene is the testimony of the pragmatism and emotional detachment that the rich carry.
The Golden Fish (1925)
Suspended at the center as a symbol of light amidst the darkness stands a goldfish. Its glowing red and golden body stands out in the dark sea, creating a contrast to the bold blue waves and plants. The other fishes, painted in bright red and aggressive purple, seem to fly away from the goldfish as if overwhelmed by its potency.
Whether Paul Klee, through his ‘Golden Fish,’ was trying to depict the inner light of every dark individual, or the inability of an individual’s light to cast away surrounding gloominess, we aren’t sure. However, the eerie, murky sea seemingly does represent a hidden, mysterious underworld that may entail the secrets unknown to humanity.
Created by the Milan-born painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Water’ is an oil on panel painting that makes a complex metaphor, analogy, and allegory of the water element in the form of a female portrait. The lady is composed entirely of aquatic animals, pearls and shells, (giving her a royal look), arranged asymmetrically in complex movements and curves.
Arcimboldo uses dark colors to highlight the portrait while keeping the background equally, if not more, dark and grim. While the glimpses of red and orange do stand out, the overall artwork has a dim touch to its tone.
The size of the aquatic animals is contrastingly different from the real world, giving the painting a unique and exclusive touch. Finally, completing the series of the ‘Elements,’ the ‘Water’ puts a final touch to the ‘Air,’ ‘Fire,’ and ‘Earth.’
The Gulf Stream (1889)
Following his adventurous exploration in the Bahamas, Winslow Homer illustrated his voyages through his many oil paintings, one of the most famous beings, ‘The Gulf Stream.’ Homer described the struggle and distress of a solitary black man as he faces his almost demise when his boat becomes dismasted and adrift due to the force of the strong current and finds himself falling prey to the dangerous, awaiting sharks.
The vivid and stark textures of the water painted by different shades of blue bring out the wrath of the Atlantic current rather strikingly. The shark swimming over the boat justifies the horrified face of the man.
Painted just after his father’s death, Homer may have tried to hint at the mortal and limited life humans take for granted. The painting is also an attack on the tradition of slavery and American Imperialism. Furthermore, the power and vigor of nature is perhaps the critical message that Homer is trying to convey.
The Gulf Stream (1889)
Wrapped up in the essence of Art Nouveau style and symbolism, ‘Goldfish’ by Gustav Klimt was a spiteful act of reciprocation to the criticisms he received for his paintings: Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence.
His earlier paintings carried the same theme of a nude woman submerged in a body of water among weeds and fish. Following the hostile reaction, Klimt retaliated by drawing not one but four naked women, beautifully amalgamated into one another, flowing through the water.
The love for water and the obsession with fishes will always bring artists and art lovers back to the famous fish paintings. Suffice to say, one wants to own such masterpieces as much as one loves to look at them.
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