The apple in art

20 Oct 2013 05.50 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

The apple has been a constant subject of artistic fascination through the ages. Its wide locus of cultivation, extending throughout Asia and Europe, has meant that the apple has appeared in the history, mythology and art of various cultures and religions.


The Norse believed in a tree of golden apples cultivated by the Gods that granted them eternal youth and immortality. The Greeks saw golden apples to be a symbol of power and wealth and they were coveted by Gods and mortals alike in the myths of Atlanta and the Trojan War. While Christians believe that a tree of forbidden fruit (commonly depicted as an apple tree) was at the heart of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.


Hugo van der Goes, “The Fall”, 1467-68, oil on oak

In Hugo van der Goes’ “The Fall”, the apple tree takes centre place, framing the slight figure of Eve. Use of perspective by van der Goes places the tree and Adam, Eve and the Serpent in the foreground of the image, while a lush garden rolls through to and over the hills in the background. The apples are red and green and are within plucking distance of the picker (in this case Eve), showing the scale of the apple tree to be consistent in size with those of today. The symbology of the apple represents sin, knowledge and immorality – a bite of which was enough to lead to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.


Guiseppe Arcimboldo “The Summer”, 1563, oil on linden wood

Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s self-portrait “The Summer” invokes a collection of summertime fruits, vegetables and grains painted on overlapping angles to create the impression of the artist’s face. The apple that makes up the cheek of Arcimboldo’s self-portrait looks smooth to touch with a single vertical depression reminiscent of a peach. It is red and a pale yellow-green – consistent with the colouration of contemporary varieties. Read more about Arcimboldo’s symbology of fruits and vegetables here.


Paul Cézanne, “Still life with apples and pastries”, 1895, oil on canvas

Paul Cézanne’s post-impressionist painting “Still life with apples and pastries” references the movement away from the portrayal of classical subject matter towards a modern depiction of the everyday. In stark contrast to the still life banquets of the Dutch Masters, the fruits sit unadorned on a bare wooden chest beside a simple ceramic plate in front of a wall covered in a sky blue floral wallpaper print. The brightly coloured apples – here red, yellow and in-between – are painted with collections of small brushstrokes placed side-by-side to build fields of potent colour. The freshness and ripeness of the fruits are emphasised by their radiant hues and Cezanne’s  roughly tactile brushstrokes.


René Magritte, “This is not an apple”, 1959, oil on unilite

René Magritte’s oil painting “This is not an apple” shows the influence of the surrealist movement on the depiction of fruit in art. Here a stylised green apple – full of colour and vibrancy is layered over a pink background accompanied by the phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pomme” (“This is not an apple”). Reminiscent of an advertisement with an accompanying slogan, Magritte’s work challenges the viewer’s perception of reality. The apple is withdrawn from any connection to the natural environment – it is not on a tree or in a traditional dining setting – instead it floats above a paradoxical extract of text. The statement “This is not an apple” contrasts with the obviousness of the painting’s subject, forcing the viewer to ask questions like “What am I truly seeing then?” and “Is this art?” The apple then is used by Magritte as a symbol of everyday reality, chosen for obviousness as a decipherable visual symbol (heightening the sense of confusion and juxtaposition of the image as a whole).


The apple then because of its universal cultural relevance – which can be attributed to its widespread cultivation – has become an ongoing symbol in art.

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