Introduction to Symbolism

Symbolist art is concerned with suggesting ideas, rather than stating facts. Its subject matter is the world of the imagination and it has its roots in nineteenth-century poetry and philosophy. Symbolism emerged in France in the 1880s, when writers and artists began to move away from the naturalistic representation of everyday life. In 1886 the French poet Jean Moréas published his ‘Symbolist Manifesto’ in the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro. Moréas attacked naturalism, urging writers and artists to be more evocative and suggestive in their response to nature. His ideas were echoed by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé and soon by writers, artists and musicians across Europe.

This was a period of enormous change and upheaval in Europe. The introduction of steam-driven machinery enabled the growth of industry, resulting in the expansion of the city and a huge increase in population. Revolutionary discoveries in the field of physics and biology, including Darwin’s theory of natural selection, were a source of anxiety for the majority of Europeans. Symbolism offered an antidote, not only to scientific uncertainties, but to the materialism of industrial Europe. It rejected reality, offering an escape into the world of dreams and visions, spiritualism and mythology.

  • NG 1739 NG 1739, by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The progenitors of symbolism included French artists such as Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon. Wishing to imbue their work with greater spiritual intensity, these artists painted imaginary worlds inspired by biblical history and classical mythology, and sometimes populated with fantastical creatures.  

Puvis de Chavannes’s mural paintings, characterised by broad areas of muted, unmodulated colour and flat, often abstract forms, inspired the next generation of artists, notably Paul Gauguin. Along with his young friend Emile Bernard, Gauguin developed a simplified, synthetic style of painting inspired by Japanese prints and stained glass, as exemplified by his masterpiece, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) of 1888. Gauguin encouraged his friend Vincent van Gogh to paint from the imagination and to use colour subjectively. In works such as Olive Trees (1889) Van Gogh used vivid colour and writhing brushstrokes to express his own agitated sense of mind.

  • NG 1643 NG 1643, by Paul Gauguin
  • NG 1803 NG 1803, by Vincent van Gogh

In 1891 the critic Albert Aurier hailed Gauguin as the leading symbolist artist and defined his new style of painting in the following way:

'Ideistic, since its unique ideal will be to express the idea
Symbolist, since it will express the idea through forms
Synthetic, since it will present these forms and signs in a commonly intelligible fashion
Subjective, since the object will … be considered as … the sign of an idea perceived by   the subject, and in consequence

  • GMA 2934 GMA 2934, by Edouard Vuillard
  • GMA 3583 GMA 3583, by Edouard Vuillard
  • GMA 2932 GMA 2932, by Pierre Bonnard
  • NG 2283 NG 2283, by Claude Monet

Gauguin inspired a whole generation of artists who adopted his synthetic style in the 1890s. These included the ‘Nabis’ artists - Paul Sérusier and Maurice Denis,  whose work has a decidedly spiritual dimension – and Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard who produced designs for fans and decorative screens, as well as easel paintings. During the same period the artist Claude Monet developed more decorative, symbolist tendencies, culminating in his first ‘series’ of paintings of haystacks, executed over the course of several months.

  • GMA 1523 GMA 1523, by Ferdinand Hodler
  • GMA 967 GMA 967, by Pablo Picasso

Although it began in France, Symbolism was an international phenomenon and its influence was soon felt across Europe. The eccentric Sâr Péladan invited symbolist artists from Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland to his annual Salons de la Rose + Croix. These included the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, who developed his own synthetic style known as ‘parallelism’. Even the young Picasso embraced Symbolism for a short period. He encountered Gauguin’s work on a visit to Paris in 1901 and was inspired to produce his ‘Blue Period’ images, poignant evocations of the underprivileged members of society, painted in his own distinctive style.