Brush and Palette

One of the longest-running, little-known traditions in Western art is the use of visual metaphors for the tools of the artist’s trade, most commonly brush and palette. Daggers and swords, which are long and thin like a paintbrush, are often used to symbolize brushes while the accompanying battle or fight depicts, unseen by the unsuspecting viewer, the artist’s own creative struggle. Palettes are suggested in circular objects such as shields, plates, or flat surfaces such as tables. A bunch of flowers, often circular, can also suggest the many different colors on a palette. And, although Michael Fried has noted similar symbolism in Courbet’s paintings and recently in Caravaggio's too, visual metaphors for the tools of an artist's craft have been used in paintings since at least the early Renaissance.1 Here, for the first time, we show how common they are in art of the past six centuries and how crucial to the meaning of the work too.

1. Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (University of Chicago Press) 1990; Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio, A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton University Press) 2010

1. Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (University of Chicago Press) 1990; Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio, A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (Princeton University Press) 2010

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