Symbolism painting was a late nineteenth-century art movement. These artists prioritized ideas and concepts rather than representing the natural world.
It’s a fascinating genre that resists simple categorization and even national boundaries.
Read on to discover more about Symbolism art and its most famous painters. From Paul Gauguin to Fernand Khnopff and Edvard Munch, here’s your essential introduction to Symbolism.
The French literary critic Jean Moreas coined the phrase “Symbolism” in 1886. He initially used it to describe the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarme.
In his “Symbolist Manifesto” (published in Le Figaro), Moreas attacked naturalist tendencies in literature. Instead, he urged artists and writers to abandon copying nature. Instead, he argued they should focus on evoking feelings and suggesting deeper truths.
Despite this literary focus, scholars quickly used the term to refer to contemporary painting. As such, Symbolism took off in the early 1890s.
The nineteenth century saw an explosion of avant-garde artistic movements. Groups such as the Impressionists, Realists, and Post-Impressionists all championed novel approaches to art. Moreover, they all rejected earlier “orthodox” views of art in one way or another. Nonetheless, these movements still prioritized realistic depictions of the world around them.
The Symbolists dismissed this focus on the “real” world. Instead, they favored paintings exploring imaginary dream worlds, mysterious figures, and mythological scenes.
The new science of Psychoanalysis (which appeared with Sigmund Freud’s 1900 Interpretation of Dreams) also invigorated the movement. In line with Freud’s theories, discussions of inner turmoil, repressed eroticism, and mysticism were typical themes.
Symbolism is a notoriously tricky artistic movement to define. Even so, Symbolist art always focuses on subjects or ideas, using creative devices (or objects) to create underlying meaning.
Symbolism is the idea that certain things can stand for (or symbolize) other things. For example, red often symbolizes emotions like passion, love, or anger. On the other hand, skulls might represent broader concerns about death and the passing of time.
Other people don’t have to understand or recognize these symbols for them to count as “Symbolism”. Indeed, many artists created an intensely personal artistic language. In this way, fruit might stand for abundance and life to one artist. To another, it might signify temptation or decay.
In Symbolism painting, artists didn’t try to describe the world in a precise, realistic manner. Instead, they focused on personal metaphors and feelings. Indeed, as Stephane Mallarme once wrote, Symbolists didn’t paint “the thing” but rather “the effect it produces”.
This focus was partly a reaction against the age of the Industrial Revolution. It links with other movements, such as Romanticism, which also explored dreams, visions, and the artist’s inner world.
Symbolism art rapidly gained popularity across late nineteenth-century Europe.
The movement inspired French painters such as Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, and Paul Gauguin. In Belgium, Fernand Khnopff and Jean Delville were notable Symbolist artists. Symbolism also took off in the Netherlands, where Jan Toorop and Vincent van Gogh worked with the style.
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch is one of the most famous Symbolists. Indeed, Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893) is now one of European art’s most celebrated images.
The Symbolist approach even traveled to Britain, inspiring many Pre-Raphaelite artists. Painters such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones particularly embraced the genre.
Symbolism painting never had one consistent artistic style. Instead, artists believed in their abilities to communicate mystic or visionary truths. The only common characteristic was how their pictures expressed realities beyond superficial appearances.
As such, Symbolist painting often featured intense emotions, representing feelings such as love, anguish, and fear. Death, unrequired desire, and sexual awakening also inspired many Symbolist artworks.
To give just one example, The Vampire Edvard Munch (aka Love and Pain) is a classic example of these themes. It’s a profoundly troubling composition that obsessed Munch for several years. Indeed, the artist produced six different versions of the same painting, where a woman bites or kisses her partner’s neck.
The female’s molten-red hair could symbolize danger. Equally, the man’s dark and hunched form could represent submission to darker forces in the world. While Art Historians still argue about the meaning, Munch said it was just a “woman kissing a man on the neck”.
Here are four examples of famous Symbolism paintings:
Although Art Historians class Vincent van Gogh as a Post-Impressionist painter, artworks such as Starry Night have deep symbolic meaning.
Van Gogh Starry Night painting is one of the most recognizable images in art. Created while recovering at the Saint-Remy-de-Provence asylum, the stylized scene supplies insights into Van Gogh’s inner state. Indeed, many features (for instance, the village) are entirely imaginary.
The poet and art critic Albert Aurier described Paul Gauguin as a leading figure of Symbolism painting. Indeed, Aurier particularly admired Gauguin’s representation of sensations and emotions through his stripped-back line, form, and color.
Among Paul Gauguin paintings, The Yellow Christ is highly symbolic. It shows the crucifixion of Christ taking place in modern France. With a group of Breton women watching, Gauguin reserves dark tones and shading for the human figures. The body of Christ and the natural landscape conversely shine in a riot of yellow, red, and green.
Symbolic art uses a massive variety of subjects. Elements such as women, animals, natural landscapes, and mythological creatures were all used to communicate deep meanings.
One of the most unusual examples is Fernand Khnopff’s Caress of the Sphinx. The artwork plays on an earlier work by Gustave Moreau titled Oedipus and the Sphinx.
Today, scholars note Khnopff’s expert painterly style. However, the painting is also a notable example of androgyny in fine art, showing a complicated approach to gender and sexuality.
Jan Toorop was a leading Dutch-Indonesian Symbolist painter. His artwork The Three Brides shows the three stages of the human soul.
On the far left is an innocent child-like figure in a Madonna pose. In the center, a bride (with her breasts and belly exposed) shines among a bed of flowers. She symbolizes earthly love and delights.
On the far right, the third woman (adorned with a necklace of skulls) appears darker and more menacing. This figure is the final stage of the soul, linked to death and the afterlife.
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