Symbols of Power in Art

Dezmond Carter

Art 335

Book Review draft

Symbols of Power in Art By Paola, Repelli. (Los Angeles,CA: J. Oaul Getty Museum, Getty Publication. 2011. Print)

The Symbols of Power in Art, constructed and assembled by The J. Paul Getty Museum and author Paula Rapelli, has proven to be a miraculous book. Serving more as a survey, rather than an in-depth literary resource, this book visually shows, rather than describes, how “power” was depicted through a series of visualizations. These visuals can be categorized via paintings, tapestries, and of course, “symbols” that were then idolized and praised throughout the centuries. This book genuinely introduces what “symbols” actually are and how they were used to symbolize power in six scholarly chapters.

For starters, this book opens up with a generic study of symbols and exemplars, which by definition mean, a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or serves as a typical example or excellent model. With in this chapter, the reader is educated on terms, such as “Lion”, “Crown”, “Purple” and “Caesar”, just to name a few. Following each term a series of pictures are displayed and further explained as to what and how each subject became recognized as a symbol of power. For example, although we all may know what a crown is, or even seen one from watching television or movies—most would fail to realize the difference in variations. On pages 21-25, Paula Rapelli, lays out several photographs and vector images, depicting crowns of respective regions and the materials that distinguish its sovereignty. I.e. “ The crown of a n Italian prince is surmounted by eight gold acanthus leaves or fleurons set atop points that alternate with pearls…” while “the crown of an Italian noble’s crown is only surmounted by eight pearls” (pg 25).

Each page is coupled with a one to two page long summary that briefly describes each of the subjects within the running head. Followed by these pages are images and/or portrait with callouts to further describe phenomenal historical feats. The use of this feature is very ideal and has beneficiary motives that bring light to symbolism that would otherwise go unnoticed. Examples that populate the book can be found on pages 26 and 28, where the Getty Museum not only describes what a Scepter is, but provides contextual references of how it came to be and how its perceived — based on geo-location, religion, and time. According to the authors, “ a scepter is a staff made of fine wood or richly decorated gold, held by a king; but in ancient Greece, the scepter was a long staff used by the elderly as an aid in walking or by shepherds to lead their flocks”. Further development of the scepter soon came to identify with the Christian iconography of the “Good Shepherd”. Societies outside of Europe, a scepter appeals as a rod that indicates social rank and is exhibited during ritual ceremonies. This book definitely takes into account every last bit of detail, going as far as to mention the origin of the word, related concepts and area of diffusion. The pages that follow depict historic examples of how “scepters” were displayed. In these paintings, call outs are found useful when explaining its significance and its impact.

The resourcefulness offered from this book can make all the difference when applying it to a magnitude of assignments that include, but are not limited to; case studies, research papers, and scholarly essays. Within this book, exclusive information can be found on a surplus of rulers, paintings, and how their influences impacted the century. Skipping over the section titled medieval sovereigns, pages 160-161 exists a brief description of Ivan the Terrible. Here you can find a one-page summary of the most iconic Czars to ever influence history. The book describes Ivan to be a “good ruler”, despite his ominous title. In fact, on page 161, to the left of a gesso that’s been photographed and documented, it claims that the term “terrible” other wise referenced as terrifying, can be misleading. The book further explains that not only does the term refer to the character in power, but explains that it was a necessary virtue of a Czar. Supporting facts highlight his action(s) that allowed for him to “organize the first nucleus of a permanent standing army, found the port and city of Archangel, introduce printing to his territories, and began commercial exchanges with the West.”

While this book serves as a great reference and provides phenomenal visuals, the source would be better applied if compiled with additional primary sources. There is no doubt that the material within this book is beneficial; however, majority of the information is summarized and/or condensed within a couple of pages before moving on to the next subject. Even with the incorporation of in-depth callouts to appeal to the countless signs of the symbolism, the book doesn’t necessarily concern the, ’s whose paintings were incorporated and their history. This book has been previewed and critiqued by a league of scholars that are other than the original artist. So instead of getting a truly understanding of the craftsmen, we get a series of blurbs that single out features that are only relative to the term. Rapelli, stays focused on the subject being sure to capitalize on the term(s) and their influence(s).

As mentioned before, recommendation of this book does come highly; but however, it has grievous fallbacks. This book certainly lives up to its name, but can be as convenient as watching a 20 minute documentary on an exemplar an/or key figure that takes a full two hours just to introduce. With that being said, there’s definitely information that’s that can be useful, but thee is also information that’s bound to be left out. This point is highly emphasized throughout its shortened summary’s and lack of accredited artists and symbolic determination.

In conclusion of this book review, Symbols of Power in Art is a great secondary source for those participating or studying to pursue a higher education within the field of Art or Art History. It can be argued that writing a lengthy report based solely off of the research provided with in Symbolism of Power in Art would truly prove to be difficult. Thus it would be most beneficial to find additional first primary sources to further expand one’s overal knowledge


A.M. Cassandre

Classified as a painter, commercial poster artists and typeface designer, Adlophe Mouron Cassandre was a very successful and popular artist due to his techniques in Surrealism and Cubism. As he progressed, his style became closely associated with Art Deco, which can be described as, “a fusion of various early 20th century styles”. It compiled the stylized curves of Art Nouveau and the geometric abstraction of Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism (

Elements of Art Deco consisted of unexpected combinations and patterns that always placed the decorative style of an object before its functional qualities. However, Cassandre believed that by designing a poster, it meant, “solving a technical and commercial problem in a language that can be understood by the common man” (artyfactory). With this sense of thinking, he was proclaimed to be one of the greatest poster designers of the 20th century, and a trailblazer for design.

Most of his designs possessed bold, dynamic, shapes, complimented with lines and forms that were brought together by fashionable/complimentary text. His talents didn’t just stop at the layout of his design, but transpired into how he executed his usage of colors as well. In majority of his designs he saturates his art with a vast amount of black, weather it be in the background, throughout the text, or simply used for the border. In each of his designs he either guides the eyes of the reader or limits eye movement to highlight the focus or inner message of the poster.

A great example of this design can be seen within a print that was created for a cabinetmaker, titled Au Bûcheron. In this design “a starkly drawn, well muscled black figure posed against a radiant yellow background, holds a woodsman’s axe upraised to the full length of his rippling arms.” (


In addition to the usage of black, Cassandre pays godly attention when applying highlights. Instead of simply demonstrating simple strokes of a contrasting color, this artist creates a harmonious gradient that allows readers to strengthen their visual perception of texture/material. This example can also be seen in arts titled “UNIC” or “Pathe”, where cassandre angelically displays a sheen and slickness to the surface area that implies the shape, direction and material based off how large and the direction of how the gradient persist.


Work Cited

Who Put the “S” in Symbolism

According to textual findings pulled from the book, the term Symbolism was a French movement where artists, and poets, alike, would support art forms that enticed the minds and the tempted senses. As a result, this allowed the audience to be able to “escape into a dreamy world of visionary elements prefigured by Victorian Romanticism”. While brief in description, the definition alone was enough to fuel my investigation as to what it is, and how it became to be.

My search began on a site titled The Art Story. Here, I learned that in opposition to impressionism, Symbolism was both an artistic and literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity rather than realism. It’s even accounted for that Symbolists combined obscure religious thoughts that were centered on, and/or about the occult, the dream world, evil and death. The site goes on to describe the numerous characteristics of Symbolism, as well as its journey throughout civilization.

Tainted in secrecy through the works of writers, Symbolism was brought forth by Jean Moreas in 1886, when he published a manifesto by the name of Le Figaro  ( This manifesto served as a guideline for other poets and artists, such as Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin and opened doors for more artists to contribute in the movement. According to The Art Story, Symbolism was simply a reaction against moralism, rationalism, and materialism of the 1880s. Information pulled from explains that, “Painters of this era believed that art should reflect emotion or an idea rather than represent the natural world.” Examples of these thoughts  are emphasized  in Gauguin’s uses of Symbolism and how he sought to escape from civilization through a world that was less industrialized.


Here we have an example of a Polish artists by the name of Jacek Malczewski who pulled from European mythology to composite a young women as the god of death. Rightfully naming this pieces Thanatos, he decoratively symbolizes this woman of supernatural powers by placing a scythe in the hands of a robust female figure. Even in her posture and flowing garments, it all comes together to “evoke association with the entanglement of sensuality and spiritual element” (

Most late nineteenth-century artists experienced the sociopolitical and moral upheaval that was prevalent at the time, resulting in the manifestation of symbols and subjects that would best define/ resembled their decadence. This is what it meant to be a Symbolist. Later Symbolist ideas would appear in the work of Expressionist.

  1. “Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works.” The Art Story. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  2. “Jacek Malczewski.” Culture.Pl, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  3. “Jean Moreas.” Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  4. Myers, Nicole. “Symbolism.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.