What is Subject Matter in Art?

Written by Laura Walker / Fact checked by Leilani Carroll

what is subject matter in art

Imagine a canvas that speaks volumes without uttering a single word – That is the magic of art. At the core of every artistic masterpiece is its “subject matter.”

So, What is subject matter in art? It is the center of the work, which can be objects, people, landscapes, or any other element that is the focus of the artist. It is the heart of what artists want to express, and what viewers want to understand.

This blog post peels back the layers of what subject matter truly means in art, exploring how it molds the emotions, stories, and conversations that art sparks. Read on!

Subject Matter Definition in Art

Subject Matter Meaning

Subject matter refers to an artwork’s central theme, content, or message. It is the foundation upon which an artist constructs their visual composition and plays a crucial role in communicating ideas, emotions, and concepts to the viewers.

The subject of an artwork can vary widely, encompassing various themes, narratives, and concepts, all of which contribute to the depth and significance of the painting.

Types Of Subject Matter In Art

  • Portraiture: Depicting the likeness of individuals, portraiture captures the unique characteristics, emotions, and personalities of the subjects.
  • Landscape: Landscapes showcase natural scenery, often exploring the beauty of the environment, the changing seasons, and the interplay of light and shadow.
  • Still Life: Still life compositions focus on inanimate objects, showcasing their textures, forms, and arrangements.
  • Abstraction: Abstract art emphasizes form, color, and texture, often departing from realistic representational art to convey emotions and concepts.

Examples of Famous Subject Matter

Portraiture – “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci


This is a famous portrait that captures the enigmatic smile of a woman.

Leonardo’s interest in human anatomy and expression led him to create this iconic portrait, reflecting his observational skills and fascination with capturing the human form.

Landscape – “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh


A swirling night sky over a quaint village.

Van Gogh’s personal experiences, emotional turmoil, and his time spent in various landscapes inspired this masterpiece, reflecting his inner emotions and unique style.

Still Life – “Sunflowers” by Claude Monet


A series of paintings depicting vibrant sunflowers in vases.

Monet’s fascination with light, color, and nature led him to create these works, showcasing his mastery of capturing intricate details and atmospheric effects.

Abstraction – “Composition VII” by Wassily Kandinsky


This is an abstract subject matter painting composed of colorful shapes and lines.

Kandinsky’s interest in the spiritual and emotional power of art drove him to create this abstract work, exploring the relationship between color and form.

Role of Subject Matter

Subject matter serves as the artistic foundation, guiding an artist’s creative choices in terms of composition, color, style, and technique.

It helps establish a connection between the artist and the audience, conveying ideas and emotions that resonate on a personal or universal level.

Expressing Meaning Through Subject Matter

The subject matter is a powerful tool for expressing meaning of a painting and art in general:

  • Emotions: Artists use subject matter to evoke specific emotions in viewers. For instance, Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” expresses anxiety and existential dread through its distorted figure and vibrant colors.
  • Symbolism: Subject matter can carry symbolic significance. Vincent van Gogh’s series of sunflower paintings symbolize vitality, creativity, and the cycle of life.
  • Social Commentary: Art can address social issues through subject matter. Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May 1808” conveys the horror of war and human suffering.
  • Personal Expression: Artists use subject matter to convey their personal experiences and perspectives. Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits reflect her physical and emotional pain.

Influencing Factors on Subject in Art

The subject matter of a piece of art can be influenced by many factors, such as:

1. Personal Experience

An artist’s personal life experiences, memories, and emotions often find their way into their artwork. These experiences can drive the choice of subject matter, allowing the artist to express themselves and connect with viewers on a deeper level.

  • Example

Frida Kahlo’s art often depicted her physical and emotional pain, drawing from her own experiences of physical ailments and emotional struggles.

Kahlo’s personal experiences with pain and identity informed her choice of subject matter, allowing her to express her inner turmoil and connect with viewers who could empathize with her.

2. Cultural Background

An artist’s cultural heritage, traditions, and societal values can significantly impact the subject matter they choose. Art often serves as a reflection of culture, addressing social issues, celebrating traditions, or critiquing norms.

  • Example

“The Weeping Woman” by Pablo Picasso. This painting is a representation of the anguish and grief experienced by Spanish civilians during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso’s Spanish heritage and the tragic events of the war influenced his subject matter, allowing him to capture the collective pain and sorrow of his country’s people.

3. Historical Context

The historical period in which an artist creates can shape their subject matter. Art has often been a powerful means of documenting historical events, societal changes, and cultural shifts.

  • Example

“Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze. This iconic painting portrays George Washington leading his troops across the Delaware River during the American Revolutionary War.

The historical significance of the event during a pivotal moment in the American Revolution influenced Leutze’s subject matter choice, making the painting a symbol of American patriotism.

4. Social & Political Climate

The prevailing social and political atmosphere can influence an artist’s choice of subject matter. Art can serve as a tool for activism, protest, or commentary.

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. This emotion-evoking painting presents the horrible realities of the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso’s outrage at the brutality of war and his desire to condemn violence and suffering influenced his subject matter, creating a poignant statement against warfare.

5. Technological Advances

The development of new technologies and materials can open up novel artistic possibilities, leading to the exploration of new subject matters.

An example is artists using virtual reality technology to create immersive digital art that viewers can interact with.

6. Artistic Movements & Trends

Artistic movements and trends can inspire or constrain an artist’s subject matter. For example, the Impressionist movement focused on capturing light and color in everyday scenes.

  • Example

Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” – Monet’s series of paintings capturing water lilies and ponds with a focus on light and color.

The Impressionist movement’s emphasis on capturing fleeting moments and the interplay of light directly influenced Monet’s subject matter, leading to these iconic depictions of nature.


What is subject matter in art? In the vast realm of art, subject matter stands as the guiding force that bridges the gap between the artist’s vision and the viewer’s interpretation. It is a simple concept that can breathe life into colors, strokes, and shapes!

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