Steer Skull Symbolism

By Clara Maxwell ; Updated September 15, 2017
Skull of a steer

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

Buffalo crossing highway

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 sculpture

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

Western landscape

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.

About the Author

Clara Maxwell is a freelance print and web writer. She writes on a wide range of subjects and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University.