Symbolism – A short introduction

James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891
James Ensor, The Frightful Musicans, 1891

Symbolism was both an literary and artistic movement prominent in the last two decades of the 19th Century, when symbols were used to express the imagination of both poets and artists – with ‘dreaming’ being the essence of their creativity. Musicians were also experimenting with innovative forms, emphasising subtlety, mood and imagination.

Symbolist origins in art 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 Romantic subjects and concepts that focused on emotion and allusion, and subjectivity over objectivity.  While Moreau created theatrical compositions with richly decorative surfaces and great detail, Purvis de Chavannes produced monumental forms with muted colours in order to express abstract ideas. His style led to a preference for broad strokes of unmodulated colour and flat, often abstract forms by future Symbolist painters.

Moreau later said that he did not believe in what he could touch or in what he could see; the only things that he believed in were the things he could not see. *

Symbolist writers such as Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas,  and poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarme, had a significant influence on the development of the art style. At the age of 22 Mallarmé spoke of a new use of language which would “paint not the thing itself but the effect that it produces“.  He considered that straight description had no place in art and  “to name an object“, he wrote in 1891, “is to deprive the public of three quarters of its pleasure…. Guesswork should enter into it. To suggest – that should be the poet’s dream. In suggesting, he makes the best possible use of that mysterious thing, the symbol”. ** 

Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893
Paul Gauguin, Day of the Gods, 1893


Paul Gauguin also played an important role in the  development of Symbolism. By 1885 both his writing and his painting 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; 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.

In 1891, in an article about Gauguin, Albert Aurier described Symbolism as the subjective vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and non-naturalistic style. ***

Symbolist artists painted in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, using subtle symbols which emphasised the meaning behind the forms, lines, shapes, and colours of their subject matter.

Many symbolists 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.  They emphasised  depicting emotions which were difficult to visualise.

Rather than sharing a single artistic style, they believed that there should be more to art than was encompassed by everyday visual experience.

In 1889 Edvard Munch defined what he saw as the limitations of Impressionism, “I’ve had enough of ‘interiors’ and ‘people reading’, and ‘women knitting’, I want to paint real live people who breathe, feel, suffer and live. People who see these pictures will understand that these are sacred matters, and they will take off their hats, as if they were in church“. ****

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.

Inspiration often came from folk tales, biblical stories, Greek mythology, imaginary dream worlds and hallucinatory revelations (as the result of drug use).

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. Later works were beautifully coloured.

It is no co-incidence that psychiatry and psychoanalysis were developing at exactly the same time – Sigmund Fraud’s probing into the unconscious and the meaning of dreams resonated with the Symbolists. There was also a general reawakening of interest in spirituality, in both the conventional church and unconventional esoteric cults. It was also a time when interest was developing in vegetarianism, mediation and naturism. *****

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 – it had followers in Britain, Belgium, Austria and Scandinavia.

* ** **** John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1981, pp 72 – 74.

*** Herchel B Chip (ed), Theories of Modern Art, A Sourcebook for Artists and Critics, p89.

***** Symbolism, in The Illustrated Story of Art, Doring Kingersley, London, 2013, pp 298 – 307.


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.

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