Steer Skull Symbolism


The bleached skull of a steer is a potent and enduring symbol of the American West. In countless movie and television Westerns, steer skulls embody the desolation and dangers of the desert where death by dehydration threatens the lonely cowboy.

Function in Paintings

  • Many artists have painted steer skulls, drawn by the purity and complexity of the form as well as by associations with death and what remains behind.

American Dream

  • Hollywood set designer and artist David Wagnon maintains the steer skull represents "a weathered piece of the American dream."

Passing of an Era

  • Steer skulls in the work of Frederic Remington and other 19th century Western artists often represent the end of the Old West and "the impending doom of civilization."

Symbol of Life

  • Georgia O'Keefe repeatedly painted steer skulls, paradoxically seeing them as a symbol of animal life.

Symbol of Drought

  • In 1936, photographer Arthur Rothstein caused controversy by moving a steer skull onto an area of dry, cracked earth to create a powerful image of the drought devastating Western states.

Symbol of Death

  • In 1942, Pablo Picasso's "Still Life With Steer's Skull" portrayed the skull as a representation of death within a cubist exploration of form.

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  • Photo Credit Image by, courtesy of Image by, courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt Image by, courtesy of Alan L Image by, courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt
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