Definition, History, Characteristics of Symbolist Art Movement.

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Island of the Dead (1886)
Museum of Modern Art, Leipzig.
By Arnold Bocklin.

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Symbolism (c.1886-1900)

Definition and Characteristics

Symbolism, a late 19th-century movement of Post-Impressionist painting, flourished throughout Europe between 1886 and 1900 in almost every area of the arts. Initially emerging in literature, including poetry, philosophy and theatre, it then spread to music and the visual arts. Symbolist art had strong connections with the Pre-Raphaelites and with Romanticism, as well as the Aestheticism movement. Like all these movements, Symbolism was in large part a reaction against naturalism and realism, and became closely associated with mythological painting of all kinds. Where realists and naturalists sought to capture optical reality in all its objective grittiness, and thus focused on the ordinary rather than the ideal, Symbolists sought a deeper reality from within their imagination, their dreams, and their unconscious. Famous symbolist painters included Gustave Moreau (1826-98), Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), Max Klinger (1857-1920), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), James Ensor (1860-1949), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Odilon Redon (1840-1916), and Puvis de Chavannes. Although shortlived, the movement had a strong influence on German art of the 19th century, and a big impact on 20th century European artists, particularly those involved in Les Nabis and Art Nouveau, and also the Expressionism and Surrealism movements. It also influenced artists like Whistler, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Frida Kahlo and Marc Chagall. During the 1990s, a number of Chinese painters - members of the Cynical Realism movement in Beijing - used symbolist motifs to express the political and social uncertainties arising after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square.



The Symbolist Manifesto

An article entitled "Le Symbolisme", which appeared in Le Figaro French newspaper, 18 Sept 1886, was written by Jean Moreas. According to Moréas, symbolism was against "plain meanings, and matter-of-fact description", and that its aim was to "clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form." In simple terms, Symbolists thought that art should express more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly, using metaphorical imagery and suggestive forms containing symbolic meaning.

General Characteristics

Symbolist painters and sculptors were inspired by literature and poetry of the day, as well as the history, legends, myths, Biblical stories and fables of the past. In expressing themselves, symbolist artists endowed their subjects (eg. women, heroic males, flowers, landscapes, animals), with mythological or other esoteric meanings. Many artists turned to stimulants like alcohol and drugs to fuel their imagination. Favourite symbolist subjects included: sensual issues, religious feelings, occultism, love, death, disease and sin, while decadence was a common feature.


Part of the Post-Impressionism era, Symbolism was in many ways a reaction against the souless urbanization and materialism of the Victorian Age. It rejected the narrow representational confines of Naturalism, preferring to roam the wider fields of mysticism, idealism, romanticism and obscurantism. Philosophically, it sought the deeper truths which lay beneath the Naturalist or Impressionist surface.

In a Nutshell

Symbolism is really an intellectual form of expressionism. Not content with using colour and shape to communicate their feelings, symbolist artists inject their compositions with messages and esoteric references. It is this narrative content which turns a work of art into a symbolist work of art.

Symbolist Artists

Romantic precursors if not mentors of Symbolist painting, included the following artists:

- John Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)
- Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
- William Blake (1757-1827)
- Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
- George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)
- Theodore Chasseriau (1819-1856)

The artists most closely identified with Symbolist art were those born during the decades of 1850s and 60s. It is best to classify them by nationality, since 19th Century art was primarily a regional affair.

French Symbolists

Symbolist groups in France included the Hydropathes, the Zutistes, the Decadent School, and the Arts Incoherents. Gauguin and Bernard's Synthetism (also called Cloisonnism) was also closely associated with Symbolism. Artists included:

- Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
- Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)
- Odilon Redon (1840-1916)
- Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)
- Eugene Carriere (1849-1906)
- Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)
- Alexandre Seon (1855-1917)
- Alphonse Osbert (1857-1939)
- Armand Point (1861-1932)
- Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1865-1953)
- Emile Bernard (1868-1941)
- Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
- Edgar Maxence (1871-1954)
- Gustave Adolphe Mossa (1883-1971)

Another significant figure in French symbolism was the Rosicrucian art critic Josephin Peladan, who organized the annual Salon de la Rose Croix Art exhibition (1892-97), an important showcase for symbolist paintings. The final show exhibited a set of important painting by Moreau's pupil Georges Rouault (1871-1958), although the latter is not generally associated with symbolist art. Note also that Picasso painted numerous symbolist paintings, referencing Biblical and mythological stories. See, for example: La Vie (Life) (1903, Cleveland Museum of Art).

Belgian Symbolists

Belgium was the second leading centre of symbolist painting. Belgian symbolists included:

- Felicien Rops (1833-1898)
- Xavier Mellery (1845-1921)
- Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921)
- Jan Toorop (1858-1924)
- James Ensor (1860-1949)
- Jean Delville (1867-1953)
- Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946)

British Symbolists

British symbolism was greatly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose pseudo-medieval romanticism gave a huge boost to contemporary history painting. The main Pre-Raphaelites included:

- William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82)
- John Everett Millais (1829-96)
- Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)

In Scotland, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a leading light of the decorative wing of the Glasgow School of Painting (1880-1915), produced a number of superb symbolist watercolours, notably Harvest Moon (1892).

German/Swiss Symbolists

Symbolist artists in Germany, Austria and Switzerland included:

- Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901)
- Hans Thoma (1839-1924)
- Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918)
- Max Klinger (1857-1920)
- Maximilian Lenz (1860-1948)
- Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
- Franz von Stuck (1863-1928)
- Carlos Schwabe (1877-1926)

Russian Symbolists

Symbolism in Russia lagged behind its parent movement in Western Europe. Russian symbolist painters included:

- Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
- Mikhail Vasil'evich Nesterov (1862-1942)
- Leon Baskt (1866-1924)
- Constantin Somov (1869-1939)
- Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1869-1939)
- Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)

Other painters with symbolist leanings include Giovanni Segantini (1858-99) (Italy); Adria Gual (1872-1943) (Spain); P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909) (Norway); Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) (Denmark); Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) (America).

Famous Symbolist Paintings

- Sir Edward Burne-Jones: The Beguiling of Merlin (1878) Tate Britain, London.
- Arnold Bocklin: Island of the Dead (1880) Museum Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig.
- Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: The Dream (1883) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
- Gustav Moreau: The Life of Humanity (1886) Gustave Moreau Museum Paris.
- Edvard Munch: The Scream (1893) National Gallery, Oslo.
- Edvard Munch: Anxiety (1894) Munch Museum, Oslo.
- Fernand Khnopff: The Sphinx (The Caresses) (1896) Brussels Arts Museum.
- Adria Gual: Morning Dew (1897) Museum of Modern Art, Barcelona.

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