The representation of subjects or ideas by use of a device or motif to create underlying meaning. A literary and artistic movement that originated in France and spread through much of Europe in the late nineteenth century. There was no consistent style but rather an appeal to the idea of the artist as mystic or visionary and the desire to express a world beyond superficial appearances.

Paul Gauguin Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888

Video: What is Symbolism?

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The origins of Symbolism

Symbolism began as a literary movement in France in the 1880s during a period of enormous change and upheaval in Europe. The term first came into circulation in 1886 when the 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. Although the work of writers such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Paul Verlaine (1844-96), Stéphane Mallarmé (1841-98) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) had very different styles, what  united them was their rejection of the literary conventions of the day.

Symbolist art shifted the emphasis from the direct representation of nature to the world of the imagination. Instead of describing something with precise, realistic detail or stating facts they used personal metaphors and symbols, evoking a meaning or feeling instead. Or as Mallarmé explained in a letter, the idea was, “to paint not the thing but the effect it produces”. This marked a shift away from the prevailing naturalist and realist approaches of the time, and was partly a reaction to the increasing industrialisation and scientific advances they saw around them. 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 poet and critic Albert Aurier (1865-92) wrote about the broad reach of Symbolist artists. Elaborating on Moréas’ manifesto, he wrote that the aesthetics of modern painting incorporated the expression of ideas through symbols. An admirer of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), he described him as the leading figure of Symbolism for his representation of sensations and emotions through line, form and colour.


Themes of Symbolism

A number of French painters followed the lead of Symbolist writers, including Gustave Moreau (1826-98), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916). They were the forerunners of Symbolism, drawing inspiration from  the Bible, dreams, fantasies and mythology.

Later examples of Symbolist art contained references to religion, spiritualism, sex and the darker sides of human life. Symbolist works are often influenced by the imagination, dreams, melancholy and death, with an emphasis on the perverse and the morbid. For many it was an expression of a fin-de-siècle malaise; a reaction to a period of intense upheaval and industrialisation, a dissatisfaction with bourgeois society and a means of escape.

The influence of Symbolism outside of France

Symbolism had a significant reach beyond France, with artists such as the Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in Norway, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) in Austria, James Esnor (1860-1949) in Belgium and the American James Whistler (1834-1903).  In Scotland artists associated with the Symbolist movement include John Duncan (1866-1945), Cecile Walton (1891-1956), Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1865 - 1933) and Frances Macdonald MacNair (1874-1921). Symbolism and Art Nouveau were movements which developed around the same time and often works by Redon, Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) reveal the influence and awareness of multiple styles.

Symbolist works on display at National Galleries of Scotland

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 Denis, James Ensor and Edvard Munch.


1848 - 1903
1840 - 1916
1863 - 1944
1853 - 1918
1870 - 1943
1868 - 1940
1866 - 1944