Still Life: Alchemy and Archetype / by Sam Abelow

"Still Life: Alchemy and the Archetypal Masculine, oil paint on linen canvas, 24x30

In the process of an ambitious project, a diptych on five-foot-tall canvas, I took a three-day break to complete this still life. It all began one afternoon in late August when I stopped at the Westport Farmer's Market on the way back from a run. With the flowers in hand, I quickly set up the still life, and proceeded to execute the composition in a particular style.

The Influence of The Post-Impressionists

This style, known as Cloissonism or Synthetism, was developed in the late 1890s by famous artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Other lesser-known proponents were Maurice Denis, Cuno Amiet and Emile Bonnard, who have all influenced me greatly. The use of strong colors, visible paint strokes and thickened shapes, broadly outlined seems to come naturally to me.

I also find that this aesthetic blueprint allows me to paint with the pace and relaxed mood I desire; it is unfettered by strict realism, and allows for much artistic interpretation. Furthermore, this template is ideal for an artist who seeks to represent everyday objects or figures while charging them with personal, or universal (that is, archetypal) significance.

Symbolism in a Still Life

Books on Alchemy

While on the surface this may seem like a simple still life, it is in fact rich with symbolic meaning.

Although it was the flowers which sparked the project, the painting really centers on the mood and importance of my studies over the summer. At the time of this painting, I had just finished Marie Louis Von Franz’s Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, and had been re-reading Edward Edinger’s Anatomy of Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Both of these books are fascinating, cunning works in the tradition of Carl Jung.

The green book is Von Franz; the red book is Edinger.


Simultaneously, the image of the horse remained mysterious and yet potent for me. On the larger diptych that I had been working on, there was a man and horse. My grandmother had gifted me this antique Chinese horse statue before her death in 2013. While in a hasty mood, inspired to make a still life composition, I instinctively thought of the horse and placed it next to the flowers and books.

For me, the horse represents the requirement of assertiveness and action in the world. Because I see the horse as a domesticated creature, it corresponds to the power being brought into the civilized world. It is symbolic of an attitude of assuredness and confidence.

The Great Work

The entire painting has the feeling of blue. This represents the intellectual study that is integral to psychological development. The reading of psychological material helps me to conceptually understand my own developments, and therefore integrate more of what the horse represents.

The flowers tie this all together. Their wonderful vitality represents the blossoming of the transcendent personality into incarnated life. In other words, it is the bringing of the psychic potential — the most of our selves — into the actuality of life. This is the ultimate goal of such psychological work — described as The Great Work in alchemical tradition.

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