Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins

Abstract: In 17th century Netherlandish painting, artists employed a complex visual system to assign a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral concepts and narratives. Such “disguised symbolism” was often used to reflect as well as express concern about the period’s wealth, hedonism, and habits of consumption through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms of the material world. This article will explore the adoption of disguised symbolic iconography in the television series Mad Men.  The article will focus on certain objects – the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster – that have acquired and accumulated meaning over time, based on art historical traditions and the past experiences of their collective viewers.  The article will argue that the way in which these objects were used, both in 17th century Netherlandish painting and in Mad Men, promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, they transcend the function of a visual narrative device and allow viewers access to “Truth” about consumption that is relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

Figure 1: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ (2007)

AMC’s critically-acclaimed Mad Men (creator: Matthew Weiner) is a television series in which style and visual aesthetics are regularly praised for both enhancing the depth of the fictional narrative and contributing to the historical authenticity of the program. For instance, Jim Hansen has argued convincingly about the importance of appearances and the layers of meaning to be unpacked in regard to the corporeal image of Don Draper (Hansen 2013, 145-160). Meanwhile, Jeremy Butler has written about the “profound nature of things:” the objects that comprise the mise en scene as signifiers of 1960s culture and evidence of Weiner’s attention to historical visual literacy (Butler 2010, 55-71). So far, however, there has not been an attempt to combine these two valuable perspectives – Hansen’s search for deeper meaning through style with Butler’s focus on material paraphernalia – in regard to Mad Men. Yet, for art historians, it is a familiar practice to interpret the appearance of objects as a means of unveiling deeper meaning and creating an experience of revelation for the viewer. Employing the tradition of 17th century Netherlandish painting as a point of comparison, this article will explore the use of disguised symbolic iconography in Mad Men. The frequent insertion of historically symbolic item such as the mirror, the watch, the egg, and the oyster promotes contemplation of morality, mortality, and materialism. Ultimately, the inclusion of these objects allows viewers of Mad Men access to “Truths” about consumption that are relevant to their own lives, as well as to those of the show’s characters.

The basic tenets of semiotics are essential in drawing a comparison between the use of symbolic objects in both Mad Men and Netherlandish painting. A simplified semiotic approach to the subject would argue that images (whether painted or motion picture) are signs, that signs are designed to represent something beyond themselves, and that an inherent part of human experience is to interpret the signs that we encounter in our daily lives. The act of creating any image is an act of arranging compositional elements to convey meaning; and the act of viewing an image is an act of translating and deciphering such elements to create significance. Hence, representations of objects – whether depicted in a painting or in a television program – always contain layers of potential meaning and symbolic value.

In Derrida’s semiotics, this process is constantly being negotiated and both sign and signified are always in flux, with authorship becoming less significant than viewership for determining value and meaning (Derrida 1982, 313-323). According to Bryson and Bal, an image is “by definition repeatable…[o]nce launched into the world, the work of art is subject to all of the vicissitudes of reception; as a work involving the sign, it encounters from the beginning the ineradicable fact of semiotic play…works of art are constituted by different viewers in different ways at different times and places” (Bal and Bryson 1981, 179). In his influential text Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger argues that images acquire and accumulate meaning over time, based on the past experiences of their collective viewers. The reason that certain historic images may still convey specific symbolism or meaning to us today is because our current experiences are not altogether unlike those of the individuals who first made and viewed the images in question (Berger, J. 1991, 24-33). Therefore, to argue that certain “signs” (symbolic objects) convey a similar meaning in both 17th century painting and on Mad Men in the fictional context of the 1960s, we must investigate potential similarities in context that would affect the production and reception of these images, all the while keeping in mind how the context of this article’s writing influences our interpretation (Derrida 1979, 81).

Madison Avenue in the mid-twentieth century was, in many ways, not so different from the Grote Markt district of Antwerp in the seventeenth century. Over the course of the previous hundred years, Europe had become socially and economically modernized and, proportionately, the Low Countries had financially benefited much more than any other area of the continent during the Renaissance (Snyder 2004, 433). Better methods of transport there led to massive increases in trade, empire, resources, and urbanization. These factors caused a shift in the distribution of wealth, as the flourishing of commerce elevated the social and material status of merchants, bankers, and those involved in the service industry, giving rise to a true middle class that was capable of consuming and patronizing the arts. On a visit to Antwerp in 1520, the renowned German printmaker Albrecht Dürer noted the socioeconomic diversity of the urban environment, commenting upon his interaction with “workmen of all kinds, and many craftsmen and dealers…shopkeepers and merchants…horsemen and foot-soldiers…Lords Magistrates…clergy, scholars, and treasurers” (Durer 1889, 96). Among these various strata of the population, the new influx of material wealth was readily apparent despite vocalizations of concern about the sins of gluttony and greed (Schama 1987, 3-15). Northern European cities were becoming renowned for every conceivable type of consumption, from “business [to] bourse…breweries [to] brothels,” even though members of the population expressed anxiety about the way in which these practices countered traditional religious beliefs (Snyder 2004, 433). Art itself became a commodity, treated by some as an investment, by others as pleasurable decoration for increasingly large homes (Alpers 1983, xxii).

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

Figure 2: Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (c. 1655)

It was in this context, of increasing material wealth combined with Christian guilt at overabundance, that disguised symbolism became prominent in the paintings of the era. As described by Erwin Panofsky, disguised symbolism was a complex visual system that was, nevertheless, understood by a wide audience. Artists employing this strategy assigned a symbolic value to everyday objects, in a sort of visual shorthand for lengthier moral and historical concepts and narratives (Panofsky 1953, 131-148). Disguised symbolism was used as a vehicle to “create an experience of revelation” (Ward 1994, 12) through the accoutrements and, thus, the terms, of the material world (Lane 1988, 114).

Intended as a means to “celebrate the triumphs of the Dutch culture of commodities [yet…] moralize against consumption” (Berger, H. 2011, 37-38), familiar objects were transformed into “emblems of mortality to remind the viewer how transitory and fragile his pleasures are and how easily beauty and life are broken” (Slive 1962, 488). In 1984, the art historian Ivan Gaskell convincingly argued that the inclusion of disguised symbolism is ultimately about a desire to reveal Truth. In his article, “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth,” Gaskell compares the iconography of a particular painting – Woman Holding a Balance – to Biblical verses, other period artworks, and 16th century guides to visual symbolism in order to demonstrate that the painting can be read as a contemplation of Truth as an antidote to the imbalance of worldly vanities (Gaskell 1984, 557-561).

The notion of balance that was integral to the emergence of disguised symbolism in 17th century painting was once again relevant in post-World War II America, when conflict about consumption again reared its head. Then, the United States experienced extreme economic expansion, fueling – and, in part, fueled by – a growing advertising industry with its locus of power on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Between 1945 and 1960, America’s GDP doubled, and grew by an additional 46% in the ensuing decade, with major growth taking place in the service sector and in the manufacturing of consumer durables (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Plentiful jobs, higher wages, and better educational opportunities led to the rapid growth of the middle class and an increasing market for everything from processed foods to refrigerators, cars to a home in the suburbs. Television sets, in particular, became much more affordable to many Americans, and ultimately were made a ubiquitous part of post-war cultural life, with nearly 90% of all US households owning one by 1960 (Jordan 1996, 798).

Yet, many Americans were uneasy with such newfound wealth and increasing consumption. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, the fear that spending would lead to decadence was rooted in a long-standing sense of pragmatism and Christian morality that was skeptical of luxury and opulence (May 1988, 148). The advertising industry was highly influential in challenging these doubts, and took advantage of television’s ability to transmit messages straight to the living rooms of a public with more leisure time and greater disposable income than ever before. Corporate spending on advertising doubled in the decade immediately following the end of World War II, then doubling again within the course of just the next five years (Vatter and Walker 1996, 129). Representations of conspicuous consumption abounded in both print ads and television commercials of the era, demonstrating the power of the image by effectively encouraging Americans toward increasingly materialistic values and practices (O’Guinn and Shrum 1997, 278-294). As the market became saturated and consumers became younger and savvier over the course of the 1960s, a creative approach that would continue to attract and influence Americans was necessitated. Wit and humor, narrative and personality were incorporated into advertising, and subtly began to define not only the products being sold, but also the advertising industry itself. More and more Americans began to associate the trade with modernity, youth, and hipness, in addition to its traditional connotations of wealth, luxury, and indulgence (Meyers 1984, 122; Frank 1997, 132-167).

With the actual historical and locational context of the fictional program Mad Men aligning with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, we may now begin looking in earnest for shared “signs,” recurring images that appear in the television program and in historical Dutch paintings, encouraging deeper analysis as examples of disguised symbolism. Though there are many incidences of potential disguised symbolism to be found throughout Mad Men, this article focuses on four symbols – the mirror, the timepiece, the egg, and the oyster – that were of especial significance in the 17th century, and whose historical symbolism resonates particularly well in the 1960s storylines that Weiner constructs.

The very first episode of Mad Men (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) introduces the mirror as a symbolic element, of reflection and confrontation with a true image of self that is often denied. The opening scene finds Don sitting alone at a bar table, an empty book of matches and three snuffed-out cigarettes in the ashtray before him and a mirror above him, reflecting the bar’s patrons (Figure 1). Trying to come up with a new advertising strategy for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don asks the barman about his smoking habits. After a moment’s hesitation, he explains that he loves smoking, but then goes on to state that his wife “hates it” and that “Reader’s Digest says it will kill you.” The camera then pans to the bar, at which the dozens of happy patrons, male and female, who were reflected in the mirror above Don’s head are seen puffing away on their cigarettes. Whether the smokers are oblivious to the dangerous nature of their habit, or just unwilling to confront it, the viewer is put in the position of an omniscient observer of Truth, privy to the reality and self-deception taking place in the scene, and the balance between the pleasures of the physical world and their potential relationship to death.

Even a casual observer might detect the symbolic possibilities that a mirror possesses, and their potential applications in Mad Men. A mirror is a vessel of verisimilitude, confronting the user with an image of self that might not correspond to the user’s perception of self. The mirror’s ability to strip away vanities and deception and reveal truth lends power to this object, as well as symbolic value. The fact that the image that appears in the mirror is temporal in nature, subject to change or vanish altogether when the subject himself moves or disappears, adds another layer of meaning to the mirror, suggesting the transient nature of self-awareness, if not life itself. In the disguised symbolism of the 17th century, this object was used to suggest the impermanence of youth, beauty, and earthly delights as well as the foolishness, the deception, in valuing such ephemeral things.

When watching Mad Men, the viewer often occupies a position similar to that of a spectator of such a 17th century Netherlandish genre scene. The century prior had seen the development of a fascinating new artistic convention: the inclusion of reflective surfaces that depicted people or objects outside of the actual area of the representation, oftentimes the artist or symbols of his craft. For instance, Simon Luttichuys’ painting Vanitas (Figure 2, c. 1655) contains several elements historically representative of the passage of time and inevitability of death, including the hourglass, the fading flower, the blank page, and, of course, the skull. A mirror is also included in this assemblage, demonstrating that the symbolic value of this object is aligned with that of the others. Indeed, it reflects the back of the skull, suggesting that, though we often turn to the mirror for superficial reasons, to satiate our vain impulses, the mirror can actually reveal the fleeting nature of youth and beauty and demonstrate, instead, the true end that awaits all things of this world. In addition to the skull, another object appears in the mirror: an artist’s easel, with a canvas upon it. This inclusion invites the viewer to not only identify painting with a reflection of truth, but to identify personally with the artist, the omniscient maker of meaning, by seeing the scene from his point of view (Stoichita 1997, 186-197). The invitation to witness a moment in time from this vantage point – from which we can see both an object and its reflection, perception and truth, and are left to draw our own conclusions about the difference between the two – is also extended to viewers in Mad Men.

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 3: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Figure 4: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Maidenform’ (2008)

Mirrors abound in every season of the program, offering views of several characters that both reveal the characters’ focus on superficiality and self-perception, yet allow us to also see a more critical, corrupted, “realistic” view of their true moral character – from an overweight Betty tightening her stomach in front of a mirror in Don’s new apartment, to Megan, sobbing in front of a bathroom mirror after her acting abilities are criticized, to Don, peering into his mouth with a mirror to look at his rotting tooth, a potent symbol of a decaying soul. “Maidenform” (Season 2, Episode 6) is an episode particularly dominated by reflection and repeatedly offering the viewer the opportunity to stand outside of the scene being depicted and to see the dual function of the mirror: as an object involved in vain pursuits as well as in the revelation of the fraud involved in such self-deception.

The episode opens with the three primary female characters – Betty, Joan, and Peggy – reflected in bedroom mirrors as they are donning undergarments. Here, the mirror represents the superficial focus of women striving to satisfy the gaze of self and/or other. Each woman attempts to construct a youthful and beautiful façade, to appear trim, well-formed, and tan (respectively), whether for their own approval or for that of those who might observe them (Figure 3).[1] Similarly, Peter Campbell uses a mirror in the same episode to seemingly overlook his own lusty sins and see instead a successful and desirable spouse. This scenario arises when Pete returns to the apartment he shares with his wife after a fling with a potential Playtex bra model who still lives at home with her mother. Creeping into a darkened house, Pete puts down his briefcase and catches a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror. After looking himself in the eye for a moment, he gave a slight, smug smile and looked away, perhaps relishing his newfound studly self-perception while ignoring the obviously roguish dimensions of his character. In all of these cases, the mirror is engaged in its primary function, serving as a reflective surface that allows those who stand before it to see what they want to see – a flattering version of themselves that is nonetheless constructed of fleeting qualities such as youth, beauty, and sexual desirability.

Later in the episode, the mirror takes on its second function, revealing to the omniscient viewer both the superficial reflection as well as the often-unpleasant Truth about what or who is shown in its surface. For example, midway through the episode, Don meets Bobbi Barrett in her hotel room, where she pours two glasses of champagne in front of a mirror. She looks up at Don, who approaches her from behind, and has a verbal exchange with him that ends in his request for her to “stop talking,” perhaps because her speech disrupts the desirable image that he saw reflected in the glass. They kiss and turn away, while the viewer continues to watch their lusty embrace in the mirror. Though the couple is surely attractive and desirable on the surface, the viewer sees in the mirror two individuals who are violating their marital vows as they head toward the bed that lies in shadow. Indeed, the scene quickly goes sour when Bobbi, in that bed, verbally reveals this truth that Don doesn’t want to face: he has developed a reputation around town for being a connoisseur in the field of extra-marital affairs.

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

Figure 5: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Doorways’ (2013)

In the final scene of the episode, the exchange with Bobbi is revisited, in a sense, as the viewer witnesses Don shaving before a mirror. His daughter Sally comes into the bathroom to observe him, reassuring her father that she “won’t talk” so as not to disturb him in the process – a verbal reminder of his own request to his mistress. He stops to look at her, then back at himself in the mirror. He is visibly shaken, and cannot continue his act of grooming, first looking himself in the eye, then averting his own gaze before sitting down on the toilet, with his back to the mirror above the sink, demonstrating an inability to confront his own infidelity as reflected back to him. However, the viewer is still privy to a mirror image of Don for, as the camera pulls back, we see the image of the “real” person slipping off-screen to the left, as a reflection of him in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door comes into view on the right side of the screen. For a moment, both images inhabit our field of vision, before the scene fades to black (Figure 4). Just as in Luttichuys’ painting, the viewer is put in the position of the omniscient meaning-maker, confronted with dueling dimensions of reality: Truth and perception. Here, the deceptive nature of the glass now becomes visible not only to Don, but to the viewer as well, whose ability to stand outside the scene and observe that which is simultaneously represented and that which is not, highlights the discrepancy between reality and reflection and drives home the need to challenge the acceptance of superficial appearances with honest assessments of cost and benefits.

The appearance of the wristwatch and its significance in several episodes of Mad Men also speaks to self-deception, particularly in regard to the denial of one’s mortality. The wristwatch, like the hourglass in Luttichuys’s painting and many other Netherlandish genre scenes, reminds the viewer that time is passing and will eventually catch up with us all, that the pleasures of indulgence and consumption will pass, and that we – like all material things – will ultimately age and die. This symbolism is driven home in Season 6, Episode 1 (“Doorways”), for example: an episode almost entirely about death. The episode opens dramatically, with the camera pointed toward the ceiling, a woman screaming, and a doctor’s face looming large up above, performing chest compressions on the person whose perspective the viewer occupies, putting us in position to contemplate the potential for an imminent and unexpected death. The scene fades to black, as the voice of Don reads the first sentence from Dante’s Inferno: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” A scene comes into view, of Don reading and Megan sunbathing on Waikiki Beach. Just a moment later, he picks up his wristwatch to check the time for Megan, only to discover that the watch is not working (Figure 5). He holds it to his ear, scrutinizes the dial, then hands it to Megan, who insists that Don must have gotten the watch wet. After a moment of consideration, she hands it back to him saying, “Who cares what time it is?”

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 6: Peter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life (1630)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 7: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Ladies Room’ (2007)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

Figure 8: Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna (1436)

The meaning behind this opening sequence revolves around an interpretation of the stopped watch as a symbol of death. In paintings, all watches and clocks are, of course, stopped, frozen by the artist at a distinct moment in time, for all time. Yet it is equally obvious that, in the disguised symbolism of 17th century paintings, the appearance of a “stopped” timepiece was not a mere side effect of the painting process, but a deliberately symbolic inclusion. In Peter Claesz’s 1630 Vanitas Still Life (Figure 6), a skull and bone rest atop a table, next to an empty and overturned glass, a common symbol for a life brought to an abrupt end. Beside the glass is an elaborate pocketwatch, open, with a mirror in its lid reflecting nothingness and its hands frozen in time. The watch, viewed in conjunction with the skull and glass, can be read as implying the end of time that precedes the darkness, the truth we wish to avoid, seen in the mirror. As the watch stops ticking, so, too, we are left to gather, does the heart of its owner.

This interpretation is particularly relevant in light of the juxtaposition of images – heart attack victim and Don’s stopped watch – seen in “Doorways.” The fact that Megan disregards the stopped watch may be a sign of her youth and naivety, her sense that there are still many more moments to be experienced, despite the fact that one never knows when he will run out of time, so to speak. Yet the observant viewer likely can recognize that this is a symbol not to be ignored, especially since it has appeared before – in Season 2, Episode 3 (“The Benefactors”), in which Don’s watch is again described as having stopped, only later to be repaired by Betty. Perhaps there, the broken watch was more metaphorical, a representation of Don’s marriage nearing its expiration date (this was, after all, the episode in which he begins his affair with Bobbi Barrett that later led to his divorce). In “Doorways,” however, the close visual link between the stopped watch and stopped heart suggest a more fatalistic reading in keeping with the vanitas imagery of the 17th century, which overtly drew parallels between timepieces and the end of all time.

The second-ever episode of the series, “Ladies Room,” seems to likewise directly reference the disguised symbolism popularized by 17th century Netherlandish painting. The opening sequence of the episode is a beautifully composed still life activated by the presence of the motion picture camera. In the first shot, an egg is cracked and broken, with the yolk poured out into a small bowl. A disembodied hand then reaches for a dish in which a lemon sits, halved. One half is taken away, placed in a cloth napkin, and squeezed over the yolk. In the background, the viewer can discern other bowls, piled high with croutons, cheese, and lettuce – the makings of a Caesar salad (Figure 7). Yet the focus is clearly on the egg, a highly symbolic food item that makes its way into dozens of 17th century paintings, as well as several future episodes of Mad Men.

Eggs have, in many cultures and for many millennia, been considered a symbol of fertility, reproduction, and regeneration. The egg’s physical characteristics and actual function – a vessel for a new life hidden within a rounded form that has been compared to both a testicle and a breast – are clearly responsible for these attributes, which occur in the art and mythology of societies as diverse as that of ancient Egypt, China, and Finland (Newall 1967, 3-32). The Christian artists of the Northern Renaissance imbued the egg with additional levels of disguised symbolism that were carried on in the works of 17th century Netherlandish painters. Within the Christian tradition, the egg became representative of the Resurrection of Christ (Jesus rising from the dead as the chick springs forth from a seemingly inert object) as well as the Incarnation (with the egg representing the womb of Mary, impregnated with the Christ child).

Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna (Figure 8, 1436) illustrates this latter interpretation of the egg, demonstrating the new, distinctly religious dimension to the pre-Christian association of the egg with regeneration and fertility. In this painting – as well as other images of the Madonna by van Eyck, such as the Ince Hall Madonna – the Virgin Mary is enthroned in a domestic interior, nursing the newborn Christ child on her lap. To the right are objects such as a basin filled with water and a clear glass vessel that are traditionally read as symbols of baptism and of Mary’s intact virginity, respectively.[2] On the left side of the picture plane is a large leaded glass window through which light passes: a potentially symbolic inclusion, as Christ is often called the light of the world, the means by which divine truth is illuminated. The light beams pass through the intact glass (again, symbolic of the undisturbed virginity of Mary) to illuminate not only the Madonna and child, but two eggs that sit directly on the windowsill. The symbolism of the eggs parallel that of the other objects represented in the scene, in that they speak to the idea of new life being created and contained within something unbroken and intact. The fact that there are two eggs – mirroring the two human figures present in the painting – suggests that van Eyck is referring not only to the Incarnation of Christ, but to the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself. In both cases, fertility and reproduction were stripped of the “sinful” stain of sexuality; instead, they were connected to ideas of purity, wholeness, and the sacrality of familial life, which the egg, as a versatile symbol, took on.

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

Figure 9: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Three Sundays’ (2008)

In Season 2, Episode 4, “Three Sundays,” the egg appears in a way that corresponds with the disguised symbolism just described. This episode focuses on Peggy Olsen and her relationship with religion in the aftermath of giving birth to Peter Campbell’s son. Despite her struggles with spirituality and the institution of the Catholic Church, Peggy agrees to do some pro bono advertising work for her home parish and develops a friendly relationship with the young pastor in the meantime. Through dialogue with her family, the pastor, Father John, finds out about the child Peggy bore out of wedlock. At the end of the episode, the third Sunday – Easter Sunday – has arrived, and an egg hunt is taking place on the church grounds. Father John approaches Peggy and the camera zooms in, then holds the image of the priest pressing a blue egg into the palm of her white gloved hand, “for the little one” (Figure 9). The Easter interpretation of the egg – as a sign of the risen Christ – is here eclipsed by the other symbolic value of the egg, as a sign of fruitful femininity and the proliferation of family life through new birth. Though Peggy’s virginity is, of course, no longer intact, the priest’s gesture seems to suggest a desire to restore wholeness to Peggy herself, and to her family life. Peggy, who ultimately gives her child up for adoption, seems uncomfortable with the gesture, perhaps not only shocked by Father John’s knowledge of her illegitimate child, but unwilling to adhere to the model of femininity and family life implied by the intact egg and visualized in van Eyck’s Madonna paintings.

Understanding the egg as a symbol of fertility and family with sacred undertones helps inform an understanding of an even more frequently seen image, repeated in several episodes of Mad Men: that of the broken egg. If the intact egg is a symbol of wholeness, virtue, and the life-giving role of sexuality in a familial context, the broken egg represents the shattering of innocence, integrity, and the familial bond. Broken eggs can frequently be found in Netherlandish paintings representing the cost of intemperance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and family life. For example, Jan Steen’s raucous Interior of an Inn (Figure 10, c. 1665) depicts a barmaid whose skirt is being lifted by an inebriated patron. Though she places one hand on his arm as though to restrain him, with her other hand, she touches her breast in a sensual manner. Two other men look on, one openly laughing and the other provocatively stuffing the bowl of his long-stemmed pipe with his pinky finger while staring at the female subject. On the floor before them all are opened mussel shells (the symbolism of mollusks to be discussed at length later in this article), an empty frying pan with an exceedingly long handle, and many broken eggshells.

While there might be a logical interpretation of the eggs’ appearance – surely, in a scene of such boisterous behavior, its reasonable to assume that a fragile food item might be disturbed – their staged appearance on the floor, in conjunction with the other objects that surround them and the previously established symbolic value of intact eggs, suggests disguised symbolism at work. The indulgence in the vices of smoking and drinking are overtly pictured in the work. Additionally, sexual indulgence is implied through the gestures of the painting’s characters and the phallic allusions of the pipe stem and pan handle juxtaposed with the receptive voids of the pipe’s bowl and pan’s bottom. The broken eggs add a moralizing component to this otherwise festive scene, alluding to the destruction of purity in the domestic ideal expressed by the intact egg, and signifying especially fallen womanhood (Thomson and Fahy 1990, 11).

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 10: Jan Steen, Interior of an Inn (c. 1665)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Figure 11: AMC’s Mad Men, ‘Red in the Face’ (2007)

Breaking eggs serve a similar iconographic function in Mad Men, and are especially abundant in Season 3, appearing in Episode 4 (“The Arrangements”) and Episode 5 (“The Fog”) alike. In both cases, the egg’s historical value as a symbol of incarnation, birth, and familial life is relevant, but the fact that the egg is shown breaking seems to indicate the fracturing and dissolution of family life. In “The Arrangements,” the premise by which the breaking egg is introduced is, again, the making of a Caesar salad. Gathered around the table this time are Don, Peter Campbell, and Horace Cook, Jr. (“Ho-Ho”), one of Pete’s old school friends. Ho-Ho is presented as a spoiled rich kid, about to waste his inheritance by investing in jai alai. The dinner conversation revolves around father-son tensions – particularly, the distaste Horace Cook, Sr. has for his son’s leisurely lifestyle and investment choices – a theme that will repeat throughout the episode. As the men talk around the table, a new camera angle is presented, which places the salad preparation table – and, significantly, the breaking of an egg – in the foreground of the shot. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same episode features Gene, Betty’s father, dying, as well as an insomniac Don getting up in the middle of the night to stare at a picture of his father and step-mother: families shattered, just as the egg was.

In “The Fog,” Betty Draper gives birth to Gene, the child conceived even as her marriage with Don was falling apart. Again, the egg is given a place of importance, visually and, this time, in regard to dialogue as well. Don, taking care of Sally and Bobby while Betty is hospitalized, is shown cooking a late night snack of eggs and corned beef hash. He holds an egg up to the light, “checking for a chick” as Sally astutely guesses, before the camera closes in on the frying pan to show Don breaking the egg over the sizzling meat. Sally says that her teacher taught her that eggs from a store could never become a chicken, “even though they came from a chicken.” Sally then awkwardly transitions into a question about whether or not the baby will live in Grandpa Gene’s old room. The new life of the Gene, Jr. is juxtaposed with the death of Gene, Sr., visualized by the breaking of the egg. Perhaps as well, Don’s futile search for new life in the egg (the lack of a chick and Sally’s statement that he will never find a chick in eggs like that) represents the inability for his family to be reborn and recover from his adultery.

The image of the broken egg again reflects generational conflict and families divided due to intemperance in Season 4, Episode 2, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year.” Taking place in the aftermath of the Drapers’ divorce, this episode finds Sally’s close friend Glen Bishop breaking into the family home (now occupied by Betty and her new husband, Henry Francis) and vandalizing it with the help of his friend. Glen, the product of a broken home himself, has been motivated to engage in this behavior by the confidences of Sally, who confesses extreme unhappiness in her new familial environment. The two young boys focus their destructive energies on the kitchen, and are shown dumping out the refrigerator contents on an empty counter. While there are a few food elements that are clearly visible (such as ketchup and cereal), there is again a focus on eggs, with the boys removing a carton and breaking individual eggs all around the kitchen. It is a scene of simultaneous abundance and squander, infused with anger. These representatives of the younger generation lay waste to the fruits of capitalism and consumerism as they express frustration with the seeming selfishness of their parents. The boys’ unhappiness with the divided Draper household – and their own, as well – is reinforced by the symbolic connection between broken eggs and broken families that echoes through the seasons of Mad Men.

A final symbolic element to appear in Mad Men is the oyster, verbally and visually alluded to in several episodes of the series. Throughout, the oyster serves as a symbol of luxury and indulgence, often with intemperance as an undertone. For example, in Season 2, Episode 2 (“Flight 1”), Peter Campbell finds out that his recently deceased father was insolvent, having spent his money on “oysters and travel club memberships” – seemingly frivolous and fleeting pleasures. This verbal association of the oyster with self-indulgence is enhanced by imagery in the series as well, such as that seen in Season 1, Episode 7: “Red in the Face.” Don and Roger, out for a bender of a lunch, are enjoying copious amounts of oysters and martinis. At the 34:33 mark, as Roger is ordering another pair of drinks and more oysters, the camera focuses in on the table before them. On the red and white striped tablecloth sit two platters piled high with the remains of a decadent lunch. Each hosts a dozen empty half-shells and several squeezed lemon wedges nestled on a bed of lettuce alongside a partially-full bowl of cocktail sauce. On a small plate between the two main dishes are two lemon wedges, one untouched and the other appearing squeezed. Directly adjacent to this plate is an ashtray, full of cigarette butts and ashes. Two small carafes of water appear half-full, and Roger’s martini glass, nearly empty (Figure 11). The visual connotes both extravagance and waste, abundance spent, with symbolism and a moralizing tone that are both borrowed from Netherlandish painting.

Ubiquitous in 17th century genre scenes, oysters were – then and now – a food that connoted luxury and indulgence, yet also perhaps danger. The European fascination with the oyster can be traced back at least as far as Greek mythology, which initiated the association of the erotic with the shellfish by situating the birth of the goddess Aphrodite on an oyster shell. “The oyster remained a symbol of Aphrodite throughout antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and continued into the Baroque era,” bringing with it through the ages an association with the characteristics of “fertility, pleasure, and sex” that were attributed to the goddess herself (Cheney 1987, 135-6). The rise of the Dutch empire in the 1600s added another layer of symbolic meaning to the oyster. As the Dutch conquered the Portuguese in the waters of the Indian Ocean around the mid-century mark, pearl fisheries and oyster-rich waters came under the domain of the Netherlands, and the oyster became an accessible – if rare – edible indulgence that simultaneously represented the increasing power and possessions of the nation.

When seen through a moralizing lens, however, the positive identifications of the oyster with abundance, wealth, and sensual pleasure can be correlated to the deadly sins of greed, pride, gluttony, and lust. Indeed, many Dutch genre painters employed the image of the oyster in their works as a strategy for documenting the increasing luxury and materialism of their time while suggesting the fleeting nature of such earthly passions. In his 1618 tome Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum, Joachim Camerarius explained that paintings that illustrated the drinking of wine and eating of oysters spoke not only to pleasure, but to the dangers of over-indulging in physical desires (Camerius 1618, 120). The scholar claimed that the inclusion of oysters in an image were a means by which a nouveau-riche society that was, at the same time, historically abstemious could grapple with such conflicting aspects of its character (Camerius 1618, 121).

The duality of the oyster’s symbolism has much to do with the potential peril involved in its actual consumption. Raw shellfish carries a risk for bacterial contamination that can cause serious illness in those who consume a tainted sample. Illnesses such as hepatitis, typhoid, or even death by septicemia were not uncommon in centuries past, when refrigeration was lacking and proper handling techniques were not always employed. The literal link between indulgence and the possibility of an untimely death made the oyster a symbol ripe for exploitation by Netherlandish vanitas painters.

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

Figure 12: Jan Steen, Easy Come, Easy Go (1661)

As such, it became “the focus of many genre paintings…frequently the principal food depicted, serving as a vehicle for moral comment” in scenes both superficially merry and serious (Cheney 1987, 135). For example, in Jan Steen’s Easy Come, Easy Go (Figure 12, 1661), the oyster meal is at the center of a seemingly festive gathering loaded with disguised symbolism. In the dining room of a lavishly appointed home, an elderly servant opens oysters for her laughing master, while a beautiful young woman offers him a full glass. The contrast between these two female figures is enough to indicate a negative interpretation of the oyster; associated with old age, not youth and beauty, with death rather than the full life that the brimming cup signifies. Other aspects of the painting add layers of meaning to the oyster’s symbolism. Behind the master of the house is a statue of the goddess Fortuna mounting a die and surrounded by strange sculptural elements. For example, beneath her are two cornucopias: the one on the right (the side of the young woman) overflowing with fruit and coins, while the one on the left (the side of the elderly woman and oyster) full of wilting brambles. Similarly, on the left side of Fortuna is a weeping putto, while on the right, a cheerful one reigns, scepter in hand.

The duality of the imagery here is reinforced by the inscription on the mantelpiece beneath Fortuna that reads “Easily Won, Easily Spent.” A simple explanation for this composition might relate the message and symbolism to the gambling that is taking place in the background of the scene: the viewer sees two men standing around a gaming table through a doorway painted in the upper left corner of the canvas, rolling dice in a game of backgammon. However, the action taking place in the foreground of the scene may be even more pertinent to understanding the fullness of the moralizing message Steen wished to express. Here, an oversized lemon is place on the seat of a chair in closest proximity to the viewer, its peel twisting off in a way that was meant to imitate the inner springs of a clock, symbolizing the passage of time. The lemon is placed next to a juicy oyster, though several empty shells also occupy the seat of this chair, as well as the floor. To the left of this chair, also in the foreground of the scene, is a representation of a boy adding water to wine, suggesting not only religious ritual, but the tempering that is desperately needed in this scene. Behind him on the ground are two empty glasses, perhaps representing the emptiness – even the death – that can be avoided through moderation. Overall, the oyster here serves as a symbol of indulgence and wealth, but is simultaneously associated with chance and even death. The contrast suggests the transient nature of earthly delights and urges moderation and restraint.

Steen’s intention, and that of the other painters of the 17th century symbolic genre scene, was to visualize the decadence of their culture that many members of the up and coming middle-income class of patrons idealized or perhaps even experienced. Yet, these artists sought to simultaneously problematize indulgence by reflecting on the true nature of mankind’s mortal existence and the ultimate cost of consumption by using symbols and signs that a contemporary audience could understand. Thus, Dutch artists could access the often complex, conflicting feelings – of both desire and guilt – that their audience possessed through images that were equally layered with duality of meaning. A similar sort of disguised symbolism works in Mad Men not only because the cultural climate of the 1960s had much in common with that of the Netherlands in the 17th century, but because our contemporary 21st century context does as well.

Since Mad Men debuted seven years ago, its Western audiences have enjoyed the highest standard of living the world has ever known — but with the knowledge that this abundance of riches often comes at the expense of other people, animals, and the environment. Like the Dutch as well as their American predecessors in the 1960s, the 21st century audience of Mad Men is experiencing the attraction of material pleasures (made all the more alluring by the ubiquitous advertising of our age) while simultaneously witnessing the social and environmental cost of consumption. The continuing conflict between consumption and conscience suggests that the use of disguised symbolism in Mad Men can transcend the function of a visual narrative device, and may also point viewers toward a course of action that is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century: to seek Truth and strive for balance in the complex relationship between mortality, morality, and materialism.

 

Works Cited

Alpers, Svetlana. 1983. The Art of Describing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bal, Mieke and Norman Bryson. 1991. “Semiotics and Art History.” The Art Bulletin 73/2: 174-208.

Berger, Harry. 2011. Caterpillage: Reflections on Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still Life Painting. New York: Fordham University Press.

Berger, John. 1991. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.

Butler, Jeremy. 2010.”’Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’: Historicizing Visual Style in Mad Men.” In Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, edited by Gary Edgerton, 55-71. London: I.B. Tauris.

Camerarius, Joachim. 1618. Symbolorum ac Emblematum Ethico-Politicorum. Middleburg.

Cheney, Liana De Girolami. 1987. “The Oyster in Dutch Genre Paintings: Moral or Erotic Symbolism.” Artibus Et Historiae 8/15: 135-158.

Derrida, Jacques. 1982. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1979. “Living On: Border Lines.” In Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by H. Bloom, et al., 75-176. New York: Continuum Publishing Group.

Dürer, Albrecht. 1889. Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer. Ed. W.M. Conway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Thomas. 1997. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gaskell, Ivan. 1984. “Vermeer, Judgment, and Truth.” Burlington Magazine 126/978: 557-561.

Hansen, Jim. 2013. “Mod Men.” In Mad Men, Mad World: Sex, Politics, & Style in the 1960s, edited by Lauren Goodlad, Lilya Kaganovsky, and Robert Rushing, 145-160. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1996. The Americans. Boston: McDougal Littell.

Lane, Barbara. 1988. “Sacred vs. Profane in Early Netherlandish Painting.” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 18/3: 107-115.

May, Elaine Tyler. 1988. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books.

Meyers, William. 1984. The Image Makers: Power and Persuasion on Madison Avenue. Los Angeles: Times Books.

Newall, Venetia. 1967. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore 80/315: 3-32.

O’Guinn, Thomas and L. J. Shrum. 1997. “The Role of Television in the Construction of Consumer Reality.” Journal of Consumer Research 23/4: 278-294.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Slive, Seymour. 1962. “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91/3: 469-500.

Snyder, James. 2004. Northern Renaissance Art. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Stoichita, Victor. 1997. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, James and Everett Fahy. 1990. “Jean-Baptiste Greuze.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47/3: 5-54.

Vatter, Harold and John Walker, eds. 1996. History of the United States Economy Since World War II. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Ward, John. 1994. “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism.” Artibus et Historiae 15/29: 9-53.

 

Notes:

[1] This idea is reinforced by Don’s pitch to the Playtex company later in the episode, in which he says, “its about how they [women] want to be seen by us, their husbands, their boyfriends, their friends’ husbands.”

[2] While the basin’s likeness to a baptismal font makes for a relatively straightforward comparison, the importance of the glass carafe is understood best in light of period sources, such as this Nativity song quoted by van Eyck in another composition: “As the sunbeam through the glass passeth but not breaketh, so the Virgin, as she was, Virgin still remaineth.” See Panofsky 1953, 144.

 

Bio: Dr. Catherine Wilkins is a faculty member in the Honors College at the University of South Florida. She received a M.A. in Art History (2003) and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Cultural History (2008) from Tulane University. The subject of her doctoral dissertation was post-World War II German landscape painting and its use as a vehicle for social critique. Dr. Wilkins’ research on this subject was recently published as Landscape Imagery, Politics, and Identity in a Divided Germany, 1968-1989 (London: Ashgate, 2013). Her current research interests cover a range of topics in modern and contemporary art and popular culture. Additional publications include “Performing Art History’s Problems with New Media: ‘Capitalist Realism,’ the Northern Renaissance, and Gerhard Richter.” NMediaC, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Summer 2009) and “Constructing Individual Identity in a Cybernetic Age.” Gerard Lange Cartograph/Jared Ragland Apropos (Rocky Mount, N.C.: Barton College Press, 2010).