Introduction: The Symbolist Movement

“I paint ideas, not things.”

George Frederic Watts

5 Facts
That Will Help You
Understand Symbolism


Zuzanna Stanska Published on October 11, 2016

Symbolism as a term can be confusing. Usually grouped with the other post-impressionist movements, Symbolism emerged at just about the same time as Impressionism, but it is not entirely accurate to call it “post” Impressionist. So what exactly Symbolism was? Here are five facts about Symbolism that will help you understand it:

1. Symbolism was initially developed as a French literary movement

Gustav Klimt, Music, 1895, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Gustav Klimt, Music, 1895, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Pinakhoteken, Munich

Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement. In literature, the style originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. The name “symbolist” itself was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadents of literature and of art. Moréas, who published the Symbolist Manifesto (“Le Symbolisme”) in Le Figaro on 18 September 1886 named Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine the three leading poets of the movement. Symbolism was announced to be hostile to “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”, and that its goal instead was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal”.

2. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in a realistic way

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis - Finale (Sonata of the Sun). 1907, Memorial Museum of M.Ciurlionis, Kaunas

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis – Finale (Sonata of the Sun). 1907, Memorial Museum of M.Ciurlionis, Kaunas

Symbolists weren’t enclosed in a distinct and homogeneous group, there were people across whole Europe who worked independently, had varying aesthetic goals but they all shared a similar mindset. Among the leading artists we should mention: Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Jacek Malczewski, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Edvard Munch, and Félicien Rops. Also, Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist sculptor. Each of them perceived symbolism in a different way.

3. The symbolists produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mysterious figures from biblical stories, Greek mythology and fantastical creatures.

Odilon Redon, Eye-Balloon, 1878

Odilon Redon, Eye-Balloon, 1878

The Symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe, whose works were translated by Baudelaire. The symbols used by Symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. 

4. Their favorite subjects were: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire…

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899, Norwegian National Gallery, Oslo

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899, Nasjonalmuseet, Norway, Oslo

The Scream by Edvard Munch seems to be the most known Symbolist work. It is the best exemplification of the fin-de-siècle feelings of isolation, disillusionment, and psychological anguish conveyed through distorted forms, expressive colors, and fluid brushwork. Munch’s style is based on the real anxieties of modern existence. His paintings explore themes of illness, loneliness, despair, and mental suffering associated with love, conditions that Munch deemed emblematic of “modern psychic life.”

5 … And femmes fatales of course.

Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1876, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Gustave Moreau, The Apparition, 1876, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Woman became the favored symbol for the expression of these universal emotions, appearing alternately as wistful virgins and menacing femmes fatales. In this latter category, Gustave Moreau popularized the motifs of Salome brandishing the head of John the Baptist and the man-eating sphinx through paintings such as Oedipus and the Sphinx. Klimt’s works were perceived as scandalous, as they shown women from Vienna upper-class as seductresses.

(End of Article)

La Damoiselle élue, L. 62 – Prélude composed by Claude Debussy in 1887–1888 based on a text by Dante Gabriel Rossetti – inspired by Symbolism

Symbolist Visual Artists


Russian See Also: Russian Symbolism and the Blue Rose group.


Romanian See also: Symbolist Movement in Romania





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