Art history usually places Symbolism, after or coinciding with Post-Impressionism.  But Symbolism was much older and could be traced back as far as the painting of Gustave Moreau in the 1850s and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire of the 1860s. This movement was, from the very beginning, both a literary and visual movement, meant to counter empiricism. Symbolism became an attitude towards art when Moreau resisted Realism with his elaborate fantasy paintings and became a counter to the supposed empiricism of Impressionism in the 1880s when the painter Odilon Redon imagined fantastic sights that could come only from dreams.  Symbolism was not just a French movement; it was one of the first global or international art movements.  If the train allowed French artists to fan out to the countryside from Paris, the railway also connected nations and carried artistic ideas across borders.

Many international artists acted almost independently of the French realism-idealism dialectic.  The art of the Belgium artist, James Ensor, the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, for example, are often thought of as reactions, not against naturalism but against the entire modern era itself. Ensor used metaphor to speak of a larger and deeper truth.  The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888) shows a diminutive Jesus on a modest donkey moving among a sea of people wearing masks at a carnival-like political rally.  The masks magically reveal the truth of their lost and ugly souls, all ignoring the small halo of light struggling to be seen.  What Christ found upon his return to earth is a modern world, full of madness, as seen in Munch’s The Scream (1893) a portrait of contemporary angst.

Meanwhile, in other countries, such as Germany and America, a lingering Realism reigned almost unchallenged and extended well into the 20th century.  Thomas Eakins and the later Ash Can School in New York coincided with Symbolism in Europe, creating a cacophony of avant-garde art for the public to assimilate.  At the turn of the century, France, the birthplace of Symbolism, the art public was still bewildered by Impressionism, becoming acquainted with artists who had long since disappeared (Gauguin) or died (van Gogh and Seurat) from the scene or were in advanced age (Cézanne). Critically speaking, the scene was one of chronological confusion; culturally speaking, the scene was one of defiance and decadence.

“Decadence” was the watchword for Symbolism.  Decadence signified ennui, the fading of a century, the loss of energy, and a general decline in old values which ere not replaced.  The future loomed, but no one could see past the dissipation of the present.  For a time, it seemed that to be modern was to be world-weary and decadent.  Some artists awaited the end of the century on drugs, others left town and went to the country, in search of simpler and purer ways of life and of new experiences.  The issues now became less about subject matter and more about philosophical issues: how should one look at the world and how should one represent it?

It was felt that Impressionism was played out as a style and by 1880; the Impressionists themselves were reacting to the criticism of their lack of structure. Impressionism was also criticized on the grounds of content that was too materialistic and too naturalistic.  Impressionists were accused of simply copying without thinking.  Nature was merely something to be represented, not something which had any other meaning…at least according to their detractors. The Nineteenth Century was stretched out to unnatural lengths by a long “fin-de-siècle” period, lasting approximately from 1880 to the Great War, which began in August of 1914.  Never was a century so long, and never did artists long so fervently for a century to end.

Symbolism: Return to Romanticism

Painting had become an arena for yet another larger philosophical quarrel, this time, between materialism and idealism.  Is life simply what one can see; is life merely empirical, measurable and quantifiable; is life only the facts?  Or is life based upon ideas, upon concepts, which, in fact, order and rule our perceptions?  How do we see anyway?  Only with our eyes?  Or does our mind order what we see?  These are not esoteric philosophical questions.  For the artist they are very real issues.  It is upon these considerations that an artist’s art and convictions rest.  By shifting the task of the artist from that of an observer, even a voyeur, the new artists at the fin-de-siècle, took up the question of how do we see and how do we know the world again.  If Impressionism asks the question how do we see, by presenting us with a variety of versions of seeing and looking, Symbolism suggested a different dialogue, a mental one.  Seeing is what we think it is.  Seeing is less important than what we see makes us feel.  Life is in the mind, not just in the eyes.  Symbolism explored the human mind as exhaustively as Impressionism explored the human world, and was nothing less than the return of Romanticism in a different guise. Rather than being erotic and exotic, Symbolism was decadent and jaded. Rather than being a celebration of the personal revelations of the artists, Symbolism was the place where all the forbidden desires of the decaying century could find refuge.

Symbolism was an all-inclusive movement, encompassing poetry, prose, music and painting–all resolutely opposed to Realism.  Symbolism was, in many respects, deeply politically conservative in that it ignored social questions and became obsessed with the subjective state of the individual. The flight from the threat of social emancipation of women and the rise of the dangerous proletariat was achieved through a late Romanticism, a flight that became an escape and an escape that became a devotion to decadence. At its extremes, Symbolism could descent into the eccentric, but as a general movement, it would point the way to important developments in the 20th century. Philosophically, Symbolism stressed a theory of Correspondences, theorizing that material things may correspond to spiritual elements.  Baudelaire thought of nature as a dictionary of forms from which the artist made symbols. But these symbols were neither pictorial nor descriptive: words were sounds and were strictly formal in nature, depending entirely upon suggestion and nuance.

What the poetry of Baudelaire suggested in his poem, Correspondences, the poetics of Stéphane Mallarmé materialized.  In Un Coup de Des, 1887, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, isolated one of the components of poetry–the word–and a neglected part of poetry–the page–and arranged words on the white page in a flow of moving forms.  The reader was converted into viewer by the roll of the words, acting as if they were tracing the path of a die, tossed across the pages. Mallarmé was a student, a translator of the American poet, Edgar Allan Poe. Aware of Poe’s alliteration, Mallarmé played with words. ‘Die” in French is pronounced “day” as is “de.”  So the pronunciation in English would be “day” “day” an alliterative repetition, as beloved by Poe.  The French original word means “something given or played.”  For those of you who are reading ahead, the title of Marcel Duchamp’s last work, Etant Donnés means “Given,” a clear reference to Mallarmé’s poem. While Mallarmé did not eliminate the tradition of arranging verses into stanzas, neatly marching down a blank page, he did usher in a century of art that combined word and image.

(This poem, “Un Coup de Des,” in its original format is available on the web)

This poem is one of the most important in modern literature, because Mallarmé suggested through oblique words that life was a game of chance, given to the player, who could only watch the die roll across the pages.  The words of the poem became visual elements, differing in size and font and placement.  The words acted visually upon the reader who was pulled through the act of reading which had become a visceral and physical action.  Words rolled from page to page, playing against each other in different typographies, words that never explained or described, words that only suggested through mental associations created spontaneously by the reader. “To name an object,” Mallarmé said, “is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment to be found in the poem, which consists in the pleasure of discovering things little by little–suggestion, that is, the dream.”

Symbolism was an important precursor for Twentieth-century visual art, not just in the art works that were specifically “symbolic” or emotional, such as Munch’s The Scream but because the artists used formal elements suggestively and forced the shapes and colors to “stand for” something else. The Scream is indicated by undulating waves of screeching colors, reds and oranges and yellows and claw lines of pale blue.  The curvilinear lines of color are visual manifestations of what a scream would look like if sound could be seenAside from the radical simplification and reduction of poetic elements, Symbolism, both as poetry and painting, fore-grounded another heretofore neglected aspect of the art experience: the reaction of the spectator or the reader who now became an active participant.

The Scream” asked the viewer to wonder what colors and what shapes a sound of fear would possess. Un Coup de Des forced the reader to literally “follow along” and to participate actively in the game of chance that is life itself. Rather than being a passive receiver of a reiterated optical experience, the viewer was invited into a world of poetic suggestiveness as the artist evoked responses rather than dictated a particular understanding. The theory of correspondences led to a theory of the work of art as one of synesthesia, that is, a total experience. The work of art becomes a parallel universe that excluded reality and created mystery.  This separate, self-sufficient reality is characterized by a deliberate ambiguity, a hermeticism or secret language that was closely related to the concept of art-for-art’s-sake.

The poet Paul Verlaine wrote Art poètique in 1882 in which he said, “For we wish for the nuance still/Not color, only the nuance!/Oh! Only the nuances marries/Dream to dream, and the flute to the home!”   “Symbolism” as a movement was “named” by a minor poet, Jean Moréas, in a manifesto published in Le Figaro, September 18, 1886. Albert Aurier in the Mercure de France, 1891, formalized symbolism into a doctrine.  According to Aurier, Symbolist work of art should be “1. ideative, 2. symbolist, 3. synthetic, 4. subjective, 5. decorative.”  Despite the uses future artists would make of Symbolism–the poetry of the Futurists and the Dada artists, the collages of Cubism–this movement is also linked with a fin-de-siècle malaise that was the anguish of young elite males who became involved in cults of death and melancholy. Fleeing from all that was modern, they lost themselves in myths and legends of the Celtic era and in occultism.

This is the time of the prominence of the Rose + Cross, a new salon set up by Josephin Péladan who revived Rosicrucianism which was linked to the Kabala, the Freemasons and the occult.  Rosicrucianism was part of a neo-Catholic movement that included many important artists and poets, Maurice Denis and Paul Claudel, (brother of Camille Claudel) respectively, as a reaction to materialism and the scandals of the Third Republic. Decadents worshiped the “green fairy,” the potent and dangerous drink called absinthe and its close cousins, opium, morphine and ether. They carried on the role of the alienated and despairing dandy, begun by Beau Brummell in England and taken up by Charles Baudelaire in France. The “over-ripeness” of the end of the century had its English counterpoint–the English Aesthetes, which included the domed and persecuted poet, Oscar Wilde and the illustrator of seductive women, Aubrey Beardsley, who died young.

A recurring theme in Symbolist art was the dangerous woman who threatened the peace of mind of men.  Often she appears as a ruthless succubus, sucking the life out of men.  The descendant of the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, longed for but untouchable, the Symbolist female was a precursor to the “femme fatale” of the Twentieth-century.   She appears in Moreau’s Salomé Dancing Before Herod (1876) was greatly admired by the impresario of decadence, Joris-Karl Huysmans.  Salomé demanded and got the head of John the Baptist from her father, Herod, frozen into a trance of desire by the erotic dance of his daughter.  The message is clear: women are the ruin of men.  Whether it was the blood thirsty women of the Revolution of 1789 or the women who lit the fires of the commune in 1871 or the women who were demanding their “rights,” the female was to be feared and the “femme fatale” is the star of Symbolist art.

As an artistic movement, Symbolism tended to be literary and illustrative, dependent upon the viewer’s imagination.  From the Swiss artist, Ferdinand Hodler (The Chosen One, 1893) to the Belgium artist, Ferdinand Khnopff (I Close the Door Upon Myself, 1891), Symbolist art was esoteric and hermetic, eccentric and introspective.  But Symbolism was more important to the art world than the odd subject matter would imply. The movement demanded artistic freedom.  Many of its adherents and many of the artists associated with it were genuine outsiders, real rebels who fought for the right of art to exist in its own right, for it’s own sake.

Shuttling back and forth between London and Paris, the American expatriate painter, James Abbot McNeil Whistler avoided the occultism of Symbolism but adopted the ideas of poetic nuances to painting, much to the dismay of the critic John Ruskin who accused Whistler to throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public.  Whistler’s “Nocturnes” series certainly lacked the work ethic of the Pre-Raphaelite artists but the artist insisted that the paintings contained his life’s knowledge and creative talents. Although awarded only one farthing in damages in his lawsuit against Ruskin, Whistler defended himself successfully in court on the grounds of artistic freedom.  In public, the artist put forward the doctrine of art-for-art’s-sake in his famous treatise, “Ten O’clock Lectures,” 1885. “To say to the painter, that nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, Whistler remarked, “that he may sit on the piano.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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