Movements Symbolism Art Works


Started: 1880

Ended: 1910

Important Art and Artists of Symbolism

The below artworks are the most important in Symbolism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Symbolism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Jupiter and Semele (1895)

Artist: Gustave Moreau

Artwork description & Analysis: This painting illustrates the myth that tells of the love between Jupiter, the divine king of the gods, and Semele (the embodiment of that which is earthly), who upon the suggestion of Jupiter's wife Juno, asks Jupiter to make love to her in his divine radiance. Jupiter cannot resist the temptation of her beauty, with the acknowledgment that she will be consumed by his light and the fire of his divinity (he is crowned with thunderbolts). Thus the painting is symbolic of humanity's union with the divine that ends in death. However, as the artist wrote, "all is transformed, purified, idealized. Immortality begins, the Divine pervades everything." Themes of death, corruption, and resurrection all make their appearance. As in this painting, Moreau followed the example of Wagner's music, composing pictures in the style of symphonic poems in their richness of detail and color, although that same characteristic prevented him from emphasizing the more modern aspects of Symbolism. The artist expressed himself in a more traditional style, but true to Symbolism, meaning evolves from the forms themselves; humanity is small-scaled and vulnerable in its fleshy voluptuousness. The androgynous figure of Jupiter suggests the isolation of the dreaming artist and the life of ideas. Moreau, central to any discussion of Symbolism, contributed to the more literary aspects of Symbolism, choosing his subjects from the Bible or, as here, mythology - at the same time that he was able to point out some of the neuroses of the modern age.

Oil on canvas - Gustave Moeau Museum, Paris

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity from the series Edgar A. Poe (1882)

Artist: Odilon Redon

Artwork description & Analysis: Although Edgar Allan Poe had been dead for 33 years at the time of Redon's lithograph and both Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé had translated his writings between 1852 and 1872, this is not an illustrated narrative of Poe's work; instead, it is parallel to it in its evocation of the macabre world of the writer. The single eye - the all-seeing eye of God - is an old symbol, but is here transformed. The large scale of the eye is the symbol of the spirit rising up out of the dead matter of the swamp. It is a physical organ that looks upward toward the divine, taking with it the dead skull. The aura of light surrounding the main image helps express the idea of the supernatural, as does the nebulous space. The work evokes a sense of mystery within a dream world. However, Redon's works should not be confused with Surrealism, for they are meant to create a coherent, specific idea - the head as the origin of the imagination and the spirit lodged in matter.

Also, Redon's works distinguish themselves from Surrealism in that the vision is possible to construct. Redon creates ethereal, macabre visions, but they are essentially realistic visions. As the artist himself wrote, "I approached the unlikely by means of the unlikely and could give visual logic to the imaginary elements which I perceived." Redon was, more than some Symbolists, more of a modernist. Although a Symbolist, he was also interested in the scientific materialism of the time - in Charles Darwin's work on evolution, in the study of zoological forms, and, as evidenced in this work, in the technology of the hot air balloons that were popular at the time. His work was a manifestation of his own private world expressed in personal symbols - thus more open to interpretation - and allowed the viewer to understand what hidden realities lay within the forms.

Lithograph - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Death and the Masks (1897)

Artist: James Ensor

Artwork description & Analysis: Ensor imparts lifelike qualities to the skull of Death in the center, with its chilling grin, and to the masks of the people; the mask becomes the face, and yet it is still a mask that tries to cover up the spiritual hollowness of the bourgeoisie and the decadence of the times. The crowded composition suggests that this is a pervasive problem and that the painting is the artist's critique of contemporary society. Ensor had an interest in masks because his mother owned a souvenir shop selling such articles as these papier mache masks worn at carnival time in Belgium. Ensor desired a return to the "pure and natural" local carnivals and festivals of his native Belgium with a view toward creating cultural unity, but realized that tourism, commercialization, and industrialization would prevent that from happening.

Moreover, Ensor was heir to the whole Northern tradition of caricature, the grotesque, and fantasy, as seen in the work of Hieronymus Bosch and even Pieter Bruegel. But as opposed to the naturalistic underpinnings of the work of Bosch and Bruegel, Ensor works with a light, bright palette that suggests whimsy and absurdity at the same time that he employs a rough and textural application of paint, which signals the depth and horror of the malaise of the times. Thus, Ensor's contribution to Symbolism was that before the Expressionists of the early twentieth century, he called upon raw color and savage texture to strip down to the layers of the human psyche, plumbing its depths -- in addition to supplementing his Symbolic vocabulary with subtle political overtones.

Oil on canvas - Musée royal des beaux-arts de Liège

The Three Brides (1893)

Artist: Jan Toorop

Artwork description & Analysis: These emaciated figures with spindly arms and emphatic gestures derive from Javanese puppet theatres (Toorop was a Dutch artist who was born in Java). The artist sets up an allegory of the three states of the soul, consisting of the bride dedicated to Christ, the bride dedicated to earthly love, and the satanic bride who appears to be Egyptian - adorned with a necklace of small skulls and grasping a small snake. The group is surrounded by handmaidens and some additional obvious symbols: lilies, roses, and a bowl of blood symbolizing the purity of the Passion. The bed of thorns denotes the pains of existence. The bells hang from a nailed figure, and the flowing rhythms are symbolic of the sound of bells, with the artist attempting to depict another one of the senses. These linear rhythms proliferating in the background derive from the field of English book illustration. The whole effect is pale and monochrome.

The artist's goal was to relate humans to the spiritual world, specifically identifying women as the source of evil - an idea found in the work of many writers and artists of the time. Sin was associated with sex, and sex was related to procreation and death, with woman as the ultimate source of death. Thus Toorop provides decipherable iconography, but with Symbolism's characteristic inner vision. His is the mystical equivalent of Munch's more sensuous and expressive version of much the same subject. However, Toorop's Symbolism was unique in combining meaning-laden shapes and colors with specifically non-Western sources.

Drawing (Black chalk, tinted) - Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo

The Dance of Life (1899-1900)

Artist: Edvard Munch

Artwork description & Analysis: Munch presents the three stages of woman (all portraits of his lover Tulla Larsen): the virgin symbolized by white, the carnal woman of experience in red, and the aged, satanic woman in black. The sea is the beyond, eternity, the edge of life into the vast unknown, and finally, death. The dance is therefore the playing out of earthly life and the life of the senses before death, and for the time being, at least, keeps death at bay. In the background a lone, female figure stands in front of the Freudian male phallic symbol of the setting sun's reflection. Multiple male figures hover about another female figure in white (or perhaps the same one at a different moment). In the right middle ground, a male figure grabs lustily at his partner who leans away from him. This male figure has been identified as a caricature of the playwright Gunnar Heiberg, who had introduced Munch to Larsen and of whom he was jealous. In the foreground a couple - Larsen and Munch, himself - is physically proximate, in fact symbolically entwined through the shapes of the lower parts of their bodies. Their faces, however, indicate their separation from each other. The figures seem locked in the composition despite the fact that they are supposed to be participating in the movement of a dance. Munch was influenced by the pessimistic and fatalistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Indeed, the couple's fate is sealed: they never married, nor did they procreate. The Dance of Life is thus also a dance of death. In this, as well as his other works, Munch was amongst the first to iterate, and through such direct means, the modern theme of alienation and isolation that fascinated so many writers and artists of the ensuing century.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Oslo

Death and Life (1908-16)

Artist: Gustav Klimt

Artwork description & Analysis: In this updating of the seventeenth-century theme of vanitas (the vanity of earthly life), Death stares across the negative space as Life reveals itself in the figures who come into being, exist, and pass out of existence; they are born, live, and die as part of the great stream of life. This painting takes part in the fashionable pessimism of the age, which identified a cosmos driven by sexual (as opposed to sinful) urges, part of a blind drive to procreate. But there is in this painting also an emphasis on the voluptuous in both the modeling of the figures and richness of the patterns. In regard to these patterns, Klimt had been influenced by Japanese art, Minoan art, and the Byzantine mosaics he had seen at Ravenna. There is tension between the flat, elegant, glittering pattern and the more academic treatment of the bodies - between abstraction and representation. The decorative schema locks the figures in place and counteracts their existence as physical beings. Rather, they serve as symbols for states of being. It has been pointed out that Klimt offers a note of hope; instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, his human beings seem to disregard it. Klimt himself was approaching death, and perhaps the passive quality of this work is emblematic of his being resigned to that fact. The painting also reflects the time and ideas of Sigmund Freud who was also from Vienna, and who identified the main motivating actors of the human psyche to be eros (the sexual instinct for the purpose of the continuation of life) and thanatos (the death instinct for the purpose of ending the anxieties of life). Thus, not only did Klimt help advance Symbolism from its more traditional style, as evidenced in the work of Moreau, but he also pushed the boundaries of subject matter by incorporating such controversial and avant-garde themes as were circulating in the work of Freud.

Oil on canvas - Leopold Museum, Vienna

By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Related Art and Artists

Hope II (1907-08)

Movement: Art Nouveau

Artist: Gustav Klimt

Artwork description & Analysis: Klimt's work, like Aubrey Beardsley's, involves the distortion and exaggeration of forms and, often, highly sexually-charged subject matter. Unlike Beardsley, however, Klimt is famous, particularly in his post-1900 paintings, for his frequent use of gold leaf, often in concert with a kaleidoscope of other bright hues. This combination helped create Klimt's signature mature style, often summarized as a set of dreamy, visually luscious (and materially luxurious) paintings of women, sometimes real portraits but often imagined or allegorical personifications, including his Hope II. The nearly-surreal imagery of exaggerated and flattened bodily forms, highlighted by the emphasis on pattern and the lack of depth and detached from a recognizable environment, underscores the way that Klimt focused on creating a literal "new art" that was free from prescribed rules or principles. As a founding member of the Vienna Secession, he rejected the tenets of academic painting under which he had been trained. The shocking reactions that Klimt's work has provoked - during his lifetime up to the present day - helps contribute to his renown as the most innovative Art Nouveau painter and a master of modernism.

Oil and gold leaf on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Vision After the Sermon (1888)

Movement: Post-Impressionism

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Artwork description & Analysis: Gauguin studied in Brittany in the north of France where the unique history and customs represented a certain degree of spiritual freedom and primitive candor for Gauguin. While there, he painted Vision After the Sermon.

The painting, which depicts a revelatory vision of Jacob wrestling with an angel, clearly delineates reality and spiritual manifestation through aesthetic form. While the crowd of churchgoers who experience the vision is in the foreground, the Biblical struggle appears in the background, surrounded by a two-dimensional and vibrantly colored plane. Gauguin relied upon the abstraction of the red ground to communicate the space of the vision as well as the heightened emotions present at a religious revelation. As this work demonstrates, Gauguin rejected the conventions of industrialized modern society, in both his art and his life, through romanticized evocations of the primitive, the incorporeal, and the mystical. In doing so, he helped initiate the individualized expressionistic vein of avant-garde art that influenced generations of artists throughout the twentieth century.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Artwork Images

The Accommodations of Desire (1929)

Movement: Surrealism

Artist: Salvador Dalí

Artwork description & Analysis: Painted in the summer of 1929 just after Dalí went to Paris for his first Surrealist exhibition, The Accommodations of Desire is a prime example of Dalí's ability to render his vivid and bizarre dreams with seemingly journalistic accuracy. He developed the paranoid-critical method, which involved systematic irrational thought and self-induced paranoia as a way to access his unconscious. He referred to the resulting works as "hand-painted dream photographs" because of their realism coupled with their eerie dream quality. The narrative of this work stems from Dalí's anxieties over his affair with Gala Eluard, wife of artist Paul Eluard. The lumpish white "pebbles" depict his insecurities about his future with Gala, circling around the concepts of terror and decay. While The Accommodations of Desire is an exposé of Dalí's deepest fears, it combines his typical hyper-realistic painting style with more experimental collage techniques. The lion heads are glued onto the canvas, and are believed to have been cut from a children's book.

Oil and cut-and-pasted printed paper on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

If you see an error or typo, please:
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
[Accessed ]