"In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals."
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Jean Moreas Signature
"My originality consists in bringing to life, in a human way, improbable beings and making them live according to the laws of probability, by putting - as far as possible - the logic of the visible world at the service of the invisible."
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Odilon Redon Signature
"I painted impressions from my childhood ... by painting the colors and lines and shapes I had seen in moments of emotion - I tried once again, as on a gramophone, to reawaken the vibrant emotions."
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Edvard Munch Signature

Summary of Symbolism

As opposed to Impressionism, in which the emphasis was on the reality of the created paint surface itself, Symbolism was both an artistic and a literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colors. The works of some of its proponents exemplify the ending of the tradition of representational art coming from Classical times. Symbolism can also be seen as being at the forefront of modernism, in that it developed new and often abstract means to express psychological truth and the idea that behind the physical world lay a spiritual reality. Symbolists could take the ineffable, such as dreams and visions, and give it form.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • What unites the various artists and styles associated with Symbolism is the emphasis on emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity rather than realism. Their works are personal and express their own ideologies, particularly the belief in the artist's power to reveal truth.
  • In terms of specific subject matter, the Symbolists combined religious mysticism, the perverse, the erotic, and the decadent. Symbolist subject matter is typically characterized by an interest in the occult, the morbid, the dream world, melancholy, evil, and death.
  • Instead of the one-to-one, direct-relationship symbolism found in earlier forms of mainstream iconography, the Symbolist artists aimed more for nuance and suggestion in the personal, half-stated, and obscure references called for by their literary and musical counterparts.
  • Symbolism provided a transition from Romanticism in the early part of the 19th century to modernism in the early part of the 20th century. In addition, the internationalism of Symbolism challenges the commonly held historical trajectory of modern art developed in France from Impressionism through Cubism.

Overview of Symbolism

Symbolism Photo

Saying, "I paint ideas, not things," George Frederick Watts became a leading Symbolist. He said his allegorical Hope (1886) was meant, "to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart."

Key Artists

  • Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
  • James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
  • Gustave Moreau was the quintessential French Symbolist painter who depicted narrative moments and figures from classical mythology and biblical history.
  • Odilon Redon was a French Symbolist artist whose paintings, prints, and pastel works frequently include elements like cyclopses, centaurs, and abstract floral designs in atmospheric settings. He was an inpiration to many modern artists, including the Surrealists.
  • Aubrey Beardsley was a nineteenth-century English illustrator and author. In black ink he created highly erotic, grotesque, and decadant drawings, much in the style of Japanese woodcuts. Beardsley's work was part of the Aesthetic movement, and was highly influential to the subsequent Art Nouveau movement of the early-twentieth century.
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Do Not Miss

  • The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters whose goal was to reform art by rejecting the classical influences of Raphael, to return to a more mediaval approach to the arts. Romanticism was a great influence on this group and they were interested honest depictions of nature.
  • Les Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists in 1890s Paris including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard. They combined Impressionist brushstrokes with vivid colors, an at-times mystical or symbolic subject matter, and an interest in patterned and repeating backgrounds.
  • Romanticism was a nineteenth-century movement that celebrated the powers of emotion and intuition over rational analysis or classical ideals. Romantic artists emphasized awe, beauty, and the sublime in their works, which frequently charted the darker or chaotic sides of human life.

Important Art and Artists of Symbolism

Jupiter and Semele (1895)

Artist: Gustave Moreau

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.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1882)

Artist: Odilon Redon

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.

Death and the Masks (1897)

Artist: James Ensor

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-20th 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.

Useful Resources on Symbolism

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Symbolism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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