Skull imagery is pretty cool, but if you think it’s just for tattoos, t-shirts, and Grateful Dead albums, you’re missing out on a lot of great skull artwork. The skull has been a powerful symbol of mortality in important works of art for centuries. Many famous artists have used skull imagery in their art…you might be surprised at some of the artists who have embraced this iconic image.
Skull with a Burning Cigarette, Vincent van Gogh
Yes, this cool dude was painted by none other than Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh created this striking painting while he was a student at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. It’s thought that van Gogh painted this as an f-you to both his teachers there and the academic art world in general.
The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger
One of the most famous skulls in all of art history is in Hans Holbein’s amazing painting The Ambassadors. Look closely, that image at the bottom is a distorted skull, which comes into view when you look at the painting from an extreme angle. Here it is when viewed from the appropriate angle:
For the Love of God, Damien Hirst
This remarkable piece was created by the provocative artist Damien Hirst in 2007. A real skull purchased from a taxidermist was used to make the cast, which was then covered in platinum and diamonds. The teeth are the original skull’s real teeth. There are over 8,600 diamonds on the skull, which is estimated to be worth many millions of dollars.
Girl with Death Mask, Frida Kahlo
The renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo depicts a young girl (thought to be the artist herself as a child) wearing a skull mask. The skull is the most iconic imagery associated with the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. It is thought that Kahlo intended the painting to symbolize the idea of death as the ultimate destiny, even for innocent little girls.
Pyramid of Skulls, Paul Cezanne
Cezanne used skulls in many of his still life paintings (the image at the top of this post is also a Cezanne). His Pyramid of Skulls is perhaps the most famous. Art historians think that Cezanne was drawn to skulls not only because they symbolize mortality, but because they are beautiful in and of themselves and make a strong impact on the viewer.