Symbolism was an innovative literary and artistic movement which originated in late nineteenth-century France and quickly spread to the rest of Europe. Symbolist art shifted the emphasis from the direct representation of nature to the world of the imagination. Artists explored subjects such as dreams, visions, spiritualism and synaesthesia (where one sense evokes another), anticipating subsequent movements such as Surrealism and abstraction.

The Scottish National Gallery owns one of the key Symbolist images, Paul Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon, which Albert Aurier used to define symbolism in painting. Additionally, the National Galleries of Scotland’s Print Rooms house a number of works on paper by Symbolist artists, including Odilon Redon, James McNeill Whistler, Maurice DenisJames Ensor and Edvard Munch.

An innovative literary and artistic movement, Symbolism looked to the world of dreams and the imagination. In this video, explore the origins of Symbolism, some of its key artists and discover what effect the movement has on future generations of artists.

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Odilon Redon, 'Et un grand oiseau qui descend du ciel, vient s'abattre sur le sommet de chevelure', 1888

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.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Vigilance, 1867

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. 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.

Vincent Van Gogh, Olive Trees, 1889
Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888

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

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.

James Ensor, L'Entree du Christ a Bruxelles [The Entry of Christ into Brussels], 1896 © DACS 2016.
Edouard Vuillard, Deux ouvrières dans l'atelier de couture [Two Seamstresses in the Workroom] 1893
Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun and the Stockhorn Mountains, 1910
Claude Monet, Haystacks: Snow Effect, 1891

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.

Prints and Photographs

Central to Symbolism was the rejection of materialism and an escape into the world of dreams and imagination. Lithography and etching were the perfect techniques for the dissemination of the Symbolist’s vision as both processes retained the traces and immediate touch of the artist, and also allowed him to reach a wider audience. The 1870s saw the perfection of colour lithography in the printing industry, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler was at the forefront of what became an etching revival in Europe in the late nineteenth century.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Furnace, 1886
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, La Salute: Dawn

In Whistler’s Venetian etchings he looked at the effects created by elemental forces: water, vapour (mist), fire. He chose to concentrate on the backstreets and smaller canals, not the well-known ‘tourist’ views of the city, recreating the atmospheric effect of his 'Nocturnes’ of London and the Thames. Whistler used the technique of etching to suggest rather than describe reality. Although he was essentially a pre-cursor of the Symbolist movement; abstraction, atmosphere and the effects of light and natural phenomena were key to his aesthetic.

The 1880s saw monochrome lithography enjoy a resurgence in popularity. It was no longer seen as devaluing to the artwork as it had been earlier in the century, and artists started to realise that they could tightly control edition numbers and therefore retain reasonable prices. Artists such as Odilon Redon, Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour used the medium to great effect.

Odilon Redon, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. 'Partout des prunelles flamboient', published 1888
Odilon Redon, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. 'C'est une tête de mort, avec un couronne de roses. Elle domine un torse de femme d'une blancheur nacrée', published 1888

In 1888 Redon produced the first of three lithographic albums inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s prose-poem La Tentation de Saint Antoine. These works are not pure illustration but rather serve as interpretations of the story. Dream imagery was central to many of his drawings and prints and his works are often peopled with fantastic hybrid creatures that suggest a world in evolution. Many of his prints present strange combinations of subjects that simulate drifting and overlapping panoramas of sleep.

During his lifetime, Redon made close to thirty etchings and two hundred lithographs. He referred to these prints as his ‘noirs’ and believed that he could achieve a more intense effect through the use of black and white rather than colour. His reputation flourished, due, in part, to the availability of his prints. He became a celebrated figure in fin-de-siècle Paris, greatly admired by artists and writers of the Symbolist movement with whom he shared an enthusiasm for the fantastic, mystical, and sublime forces found beneath the surface of everyday reality.

James Ensor, Cortege Infernal [Infernal Procession], 1887
Maurice Denis, Maternité à la fenêtre ouverte [Maternity and Open Window], 1926

Although Symbolism looked to the world of fantasy and mystery, it also drew heavily on legend, mythology and the Bible. Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon, and Van Gogh’s ‘Sower’ and ‘Reaper’, were all inspired by biblical themes concerning the cycle of life and man’s existence. The Belgian artist James Ensor and the French painter Maurice Denis both drew heavily on themes from the Bible.  A follower of Gauguin, Denis drew on biblical subjects in order to imbue his prints with a spiritual intensity. By contrast, Ensor used Christian motifs to express his contempt for what he saw as an increasingly inhumane world of political and social injustice. His etching Entry of Christ into Brussels is a modern reworking of the story of Christ. It shows Christ as a tiny figure swamped by a bulging mass of protestors with banners, carnival masks, and wearing contemporary dress.

James Ensor, L'Entree du Christ a Bruxelles [The Entry of Christ into Brussels], 1896
© DACS 2018.

Religious themes appealed to the Symbolists as they searched for a way to address the great subjects of human existence – birth, love, suffering and death.  Edvard Munch moved away from his early Impressionist style which he felt offered restricted expressive possibilities towards Symbolism, declaring that ‘We should no longer paint interiors with people reading and women knitting, they should be people who live, breathe, feel, suffer and love’.

Edvard Munch, Das kranke Mädchen [The Sick Girl], 1896
Edvard Munch, Eifersucht [Jealousy], 1896

The Sick Girl was Munch’s first colour lithograph. He regarded it as his most important print, and produced it in a variety of colour combinations. He also painted a number of variations of this subject and believed it represented a breakthrough for his art. The subject relates to the death from tuberculosis of Munch's eldest sister Sophie in 1877, and also refers to the artist's own sickly childhood. Jealousy II not only examines the pain and suffering of jealousy with its love/hate duality in the face of the main figure, but uses biblical iconography to reinforce its point. The woman in the background plucking fruit from a tree recalls Eve in the Garden of Eden: betrayer of all mankind. Such potent, universal signs occur in the work of a number of Symbolists.