Art Thesis by Athena Taylor

The Art of Painting, Vermeer

An example of art analysis from a psychoanalytic view is Gilbert Rose’s (2004) interpretation of a painting by Vermeer as a visual code of ego states and unconscious desire. Rose translates Vermeer’s image of a female model holding a trumpet in her hand, and a possible self-portrait of the artist’s hand as a bulbous mush, as an unconscious expression of the artist’s “forbidden wish for sexual fusion condensed with its own punishment, his mushed hand.” (Rose, 2004, p. 419).

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

A recent film that beautifully captures the lush colors and richness of Vermeer’s paintings can be seen in the  following video clip based on Tracy Chevaleir’s novel, a fictionalized account of Vermeer’s life. Chevalier was compelled to write about who this ‘girl’ might have been in Vermeer’s masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring.  The film vividly depicts scenes of the central character Vermeer mixing his own famously expensive lapis lazuli pigment and painstakingly slow painting process. The film’s intense sexual undercurrents shared between the artist and the character playing the model with the pearl earring, parallel Rose’s analysis of conscious and unconscious desire painted symbolically in Vermeer’s work.



This particular reading of visual cues revealing unconscious meaning is open for debate but it is helpful in considering the layers of analysis that can be explored in looking at a painting by an artist as exquisitely gifted as Vermeer. Images are a language with their own symbols and syntax, similar to the written word. Paintings and poetry are able to use metaphor to convey meaning. Rose’s interpretation could be considered speculation, as the ambiguity of art can most likely only inspire educated guess work but the possible meanings are what make art interpretation an infinitely fruitful exercise.

Echoing the exquisite detail and aesthetic beauty of Vermeer’s style is the Symbolist art movement which occurred more than 200 years later.

Symbolism was an art movement that began in 1885 and reigned through to 1910. The Symbolist movement was a reaction against the literal representation of objects and subjects, where instead there was an attempt to create more suggestive, metaphorical and evocative works. Symbolic artists based their ideas on literature, where poets such as Baudelaire believed that ideas and emotions could be portrayed through sound and rhythm and not just through the meaning of words. Symbolist painter styles varied greatly but common themes included the mystical and the visionary. Symbolists also explored themes of death, debauchery, perversion and eroticism. Symbolism moved away from the naturalism of the impressionists and demonstrated a preference for emotions over intellect. The Symbolist period contributed much to the development of the abstract arts of the 20th century, and is a crucial step in understanding consecutive periods. Famous Symbolist artists include Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and Gustav Klimt.

Unlike Vermeer who painted scenes from every day domestic life, however suggesting symbolically deeper psychological states as we have argued; the Symbolists painted themes that expressed spirituality, the imagination and dreams. The Symbolists were exemplified by Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau whose works are rich in metaphor for unconscious and archetypal meaning in art.

La caída de Ícaro (The Fall of Icarus), Odilon Redon, 1.900

Considering more contemporary art, the symbols (often occult) of some abstract art provide a window into understanding the human psyche and the cosmic principles governing the universe. Symbolist paintings directly addressed these issues and were explored by artists and poets who were part of the Symbolist movement. Maurice Tuchman, in his essay Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art (1986, pp. 17-57) analyzes the concept of synesthesia which is the combining of experienced physical states. The Symbolist artists believed this was a manifestation of a cosmic law. They were intrigued with the possibility of intermingling senses and more specifically with painting’s approximating music. Statements of meaning by artists are especially moving, for if they are able to articulate the deeper significance of their work than we can gain even more insight into the infinite conscious potential of the universe. For instance, the Symbolist painters were interested in laws of duality and correspondences. (p. 124).

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau, 1864

The French poet Baudelaire shared, with the other artists of the Symbolist movement, a fascination with limitless space. He saw his poetry and the art of Delacroix as mediums for projecting their ideas onto other minds (Tuchman, 1986, p.17). Tuchman also analyzed the shapes and content of specific works and provides definitions for their formal elements. For instance, according to ancient occult spiritual doctrine, complementary/contrasting colors and simplified or straight, or quietly undulating vertical or horizontal lines signify spiritual purity.

Woods near Oele. / Bos bij Oele, Piet Mondrian, 1908, oil on canvas. 128 x 158 cm

He interprets Mondrian’s painting, Woods Near Oele,1908 as an illustration of male-female polarity, which is symbolized as opposing vertical and horizontal lines. There is documentation that in 1909, Mondrian became a member of the Dutch chapter of the Theosophical Society, so he would likely have been aware of occult theories on the divine relationship between the male and female forces in the universe and how their union brings about a communion with the underlying cosmic spirit. For instance, the mysterious color paintings of Mark Rothko are akin to the altar pieces of medieval art. Perhaps Rothko has symbolically distilled an image  down to describing the essence of the universe.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko 1956

Interpreting a work of art can be a thrilling adventure and having a background in the many art movements and the social sciences gives a deeper understanding of an artwork’s possible meanings.



Rose, G. J. (2004). Aesthetic ambiguity revisited via the artist-model pair and neuroscience

Psychoanalytic Psychology, 21(3), 417-427

Tuchman, M. (Ed.). (1986). The spiritual in art: Abstract painting 1890-1985, New York: Abbeville Press.


Additional works:

Between Couch and Piano by Gilbert J. Rose

Read more of Athena Taylor’s art thesis Here


Athena attained her MA in Psychology at Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. She is also an artist and designer, where you can find her work on her website Athena’s ARTfest.

4 responses to “Art Thesis by Athena Taylor”

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