Symbolism – A short introduction


Jeanne Jacquemin, Daydream, 1894
Jeanne Jacquemin, Daydream, 1894

Symbolism was both an international literary and artistic movement which was prevalent from around 1880 to 1910.

Symbolist artists believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in an objective manner.

They also believed that art should reveal absolute truths and that these truths could only be found in either a spiritual or mystical realm, or as a result of personal experience, rather than an purely objective view of the material world.  The emphasis was generally on depicting emotions which were difficult to visualise.

In 1891 Albert Aurier described Symbolism as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style.

Whilst the Realists had focused on visual reality and representing what they saw in their everyday lives, Symbolist artists were more intent on exploring the imagination and representing visions that arose from the imagination.

Symbolists painted in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, using symbols which emphasised the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colours of their subject matter. Inspiration came from folk tales, biblical stories, Greek mythology, imaginary dream worlds and hallucinatory revelations (as the result of drug use).

The key themes in Symbolist art were love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire, with women often being the main symbol for expressing these themes, typically either as the virgin or femme fatale.

Post Impressionist Paul Gauguin played an important role in the  development of Symbolism, as by 1885 his writings were reflecting Symbolist interests. He believed that the emotional response to nature was more important than the intellectual; that lines, colours and even numbers communicated meaning; that intuition was crucial to artistic creation; and that artists should communicate ideas and feelings derived from nature by means of the simplest forms, after dreaming in front of the subject.

Impressionism, with its gentle dissolution of solid form and evocation of mood, also supported a new way of considering the purpose of art. However, unlike the Impressionists the young Symbolists who emerged during the 1880s were a diverse group of artists often working independently.

Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they were unified by a shared pessimism and weariness of the decadence they perceived in the modern society of the 1880s.

Symbolist origins can be traced back to the paintings of Gustave Moreau and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes were producing in the 1860s and 70s. Both artists were drawn to the Romantic subjects  and concepts that focused on emotion and allusion and subjectivity over objectivity.  While Moreau created theatrical compositions simplified with richly decorative surfaces and great detail, Purvis de Chavannes produced works with monumental forms and muted colours in order to clearly express abstract ideas. His example led to a preference for broad strokes of unmodulated colour and flat, often abstract forms by Symbolist painters.

Odilon Redon, another early Symbolist, worked almost exclusively in black and white until in his 50s, creating numerous subjects influenced by the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Edvard Munch (The Scream)  is possibly one of the most widely recognised artists from this period. Other artists associated with Symbolism are James Ensor, Henri Rousseau, Gustav Klimt and Jeanne Jacquemin.

Of all the major movements of the second half of the 19th Century, Symbolism was the most pervasively European and least focused on France.

This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

If you’d like to see some of the  Australian artwork you’ll find in my gallery, scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.

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