Symbolism plays a large role in how we view, understand, and interpret art. At times, viewers may see symbolism in artwork that may be intentional by the artist. That is how natural it is for people to see artwork and immediately look for or notice symbolism. It’s the artist’s way of conveying a broader message without using texts or words to get across a larger point. The candle was used as a symbol in art long before it became a fixture in Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth- century. In the fifteenth-century, the candle was often used in Christian genre paintings, and the symbolic meaning of the candle would change after that time period to represent different themes. The wax candle was and still is a unique tool for artists because as a symbol, its’ meaning and significance are capable of changing depending on the context of the painting. Gerrit Dou, a distinguished Dutch genre painter, had a unique style focused heavily on dark oil paintings where the only source of light was a single candle. Other Dutch genre painters also included wax candles in their paintings but the symbolic meaning of the candle in their paintings was not always the same.
The following series of paintings portray how the symbolic meaning of the candle in art changes depending on the context of the painting as a whole. Overtime, the same wax candle has stood as a symbol for numerous things, and each time, artists have used the candle as integral to the meaning of their paintings.
Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin (Netherlands, ca. 1375-1444 Tournai), ca. 1427-32, Oil on oak, Overall (open): 25 3/8 x 46 3/8 in. Central panel: 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. each wing: 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. The Met, 56.70a-c.
This painting predates all Dutch genre paintings by nearly 200 years. It’s an important painting and starting point as we think about the candle as a symbol because it provides context about a different time period in art history where the candle’s symbolic meaning was predominately associated with the presence of the Divine. The center of this wonderfully constructed triptych shows the Virgin Mary about to learn from the angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus. On top of the round table between the Virgin Mary and Gabriel, notice the snuffed candle. The implication of the snuffed candle is that the Holy Spirit has entered, thus extinguishing the candle.
Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1613-1675), Late 1650s, Oil on panel,
(12 5/8 x 8 3/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.PB.732
Gerrit Dou’s depiction of an astronomer working hard late at night is a classic example of the artist using the technique chiaroscuro. Dou uses the light from the wax candle to create an effect with the light so that it looks like the only place light is coming from in the painting is from the candle. The candle illuminates his face as he studies. It is the only source of light. The glow from the candle symbolizes knowledge as it is passed from the work the astronomer is diligently studying to his mind. This specific type of symbolism is significant because Gerrit Dou uses it multiple times in his Dutch genre paintings.
An Evening School, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, Leiden 1613-1675), ca. 1655-57, Oil on wood, (Arched top 10 x 9 in.) The Met, 40.64
In this beautiful Dutch genre painting of a small evening school, Gerrit Dou creates another scene where the only light in the room is a wax candle. The three students and their teacher are only clearly visible if they are in close proximity to the candle. Because the teacher is the closest to the candle, and therefore the most clearly recognizable, the candle symbolizes enlightenment, and the stronger the glow from the candle, the more enlightened the person is, and the farther from the candle, the less enlightened. The use of chiaroscuro is significant because it makes Gerrit Dou’s Dutch genre paintings easily recognizable. His style was unique and distinguished.
Old Woman Chopping Onions, Gerrit Dou (Dutch, Leiden 1613-1675), ca. 1660-1665, Oil on panel, (12 ¼ x 15 1/5 in.) Huntington Museum of Art
In another one of Gerrit Dou’s Dutch genre paintings, this one dated several years after Evening School and Astronomer by Candlelight, the dark color scheme surrounds the old woman whose face glows in the reflection of the candlelight. The wax candle, as it was burning, often symbolized the passage of time in the seventeenth-century. In this painting, that is exactly what it symbolizes, but as you study the painting, notice the detail of the old woman’s face. The burning candle reveals the wrinkles on her forehead and cheeks. As the candle burns out, so are the years on her life. The candle, in a broad sense, represents the nature of human existence. We are here for a moment, and just like the light of a candle burns out, so do we.
Boy with a Candle and Girl with a Mousetrap, Probably Dutch School, before 1688, Oil on canvas, 64.5 x 89.5 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, DPG413
So distinguished were Gerrit Dou’s genre paintings that others soon tried to imitate his work. The use of the candle and the mousetrap as symbols during the seventeenth-century Dutch genre was common. There are multiple renderings of scenes like this one because Dutch genre painters like Gerrit Dou made the style popular. The mousetrap was an often-used metaphor during the seventeenth-century. Just as the mouse loses his life in attempt to satisfies its appetite, so the man loses his liberty when he gives into the lustful passions of his sexual desire. The candle, also representative of man’s sexual desire, is just as easily aroused as it is snuffed, just like the glow of the candle. This symbolism in this painting is different from the other Dutch genre paintings, and it further demonstrates the adaptability of the candle as a symbol for multiple themes.
Maid with a Mousetrap, Nicolaas Verkolje after Gerrit Dou (Dutch, 1673-1746), ca. 1700, Mezzotint, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Nicolaas Verkolje’s black and white rendering of a similar piece by Gerrit Dou makes use of subtle gradations of light and shade as opposed to lines. His piece depicts a maid, holding a lit wax candle and a mousetrap, and a young boy, both leaning over a table and smiling. A common scene depicted during the period, the thing to note about this particular rendering is the style. The symbolism is not that far off from Boy with a Candle and Girl with a Mousetrap, but the medium and style are different from other Dutch genre paintings. It is worth noting this particular piece because as artists, like Verkolje, imitate Gerrit Dou’s work, they experiment with the style and medium, but notice the symbolism and subject matter are largely the same. This is significant because it makes a broader statement about society’s uniform understanding of the candle as a symbol for specific things during the period.
The Penitent Magdalene, Georges de La Tour (French, Vic-sur-Seille 1593-1653 Luneville), ca. 1640, Oil on canvas, (52 ½ x40 ¼ in.) The Met, 1978.517
Notice that this is not a Dutch genre painting. The symbolism of the candle however, is still just as significant and integral to the meaning of the painting as all the Dutch genre paintings of the same period. The mirror, associated with introspective thought or reflection, is symbolic of Mary Magdalene’s introspective look into her own personal spiritual health. The glow from the flame of the wax candle signifies enlightenment, not unlike many Dutch genre paintings; however, a key difference is that the enlightenment represented by the candle in this painting is a spiritual enlightenment. Notice the change in the symbolic meaning of the candle from the Merode Altarpiece to La Tour’s painting. They are both scenes depicting biblical figures, but the same wax candle means two totally different things in the context of each individual painting.