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An allegory is the description of a subject in the guise of another subject. An allegorical painting might include figures emblematic of different emotional states of mind – for example envy or love – or personifying other abstract concepts, such as sight, glory, beauty, Revolution, or France. These are called allegorical figures. The interpretation of an allegory therefore depends first on the identification of such figures, but even then the meaning can remain elusive.

Allegorical subjects were frequently painted from the Renaissance until around 1800, although they were probably most often used in medals and engraved frontispieces to books. Single allegorical figures were also painted, sometimes in series, each figure representing, for example, one of the Liberal Arts or the Virtues.