Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 5–23 | Cite as

Introduction to fish imagery in art

  • Peter B. Moyle
  • Marilyn A. Moyle


Fish have been the subject of works of art for at least 14000 years and appeared in ‘primitive’ art from many cultures. In ancient civilizations of the West, fishes were a constant, if infrequent, motif. Fish designs in ancient Egypt were common and showed little change for 1500 years. Decorative fish designs of the Greeks and Romans (often with mythological significance) were adopted by early Christians as religious symbols. With the development of printing, the non-religious depiction of fish became more widespread and realistic paintings of fish, especially still lifes, appeared during the Renaissance. This still life tradition reached a peak in 17th century Netherlands. After 1750, fish images appeared in many different contexts. Realistic painters showed the agony of newly-caught fish, dramatic marine scenes with fish, and occasionally freshwater fishes in their habitats. In the twentieth century, fish were painted by many modern artists, including Matisse, Picasso, Klee, Masson, Beckman, Soutine, Magritte, and Thiebaud. Some of these artists' fish images are pleasing, others are violent or ambiguously symbolic. In contrast, contemporary nature artists tend to paint live fish in idealized settings, a style with roots in 17th century still lifes and oriental brush paintings. In Japan and China, fish have been an important theme in art and their use has been highly symbolic. A survey of fish images in art shows that artists, like scientists, create mainly in the context of historical precedents.

Key words

Mythology Fish symbols Copley Courbet Homer Picasso Klee Masson Beckman Still life 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter B. Moyle
    • 1
  • Marilyn A. Moyle
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Wildlife and Fisheries BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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