What is Symbolism in Art?


       Symbolism refers to movements in both literature and the visual arts during the late 19th Century. It appeared in the 1880s among French poets, les poètes maudits, who developed an idealistic type of verse, as a reaction to Naturalism and Realism . The Symbolists drew inspiration from the mid-century poetry and critical writing of Charles Baudelaire and also from the earlier works of Edgar Allen Poe. A number of manifestoes were published in the 1880s, including ‘Le Symbolism’, by Jean Moréas in 1886.

This article is in the process of being revised. The target completion date is June 1, 2011.

       Symbolism in art is separate but related to the literary movement, with its roots in the art of Romanticism of the early 19th Century. There were many factors which caused Symbolism to spread rapidly within intellectual circles and find adherents among artists throughout Europe. Foremost, a surge of Symbolist imagery at the end of the century represented a reaction to the effects of urbanization and materialism  evident in the latter phases of the Industrial Revolution . Thematically, the art of Symbolism developed as a countercurrent to Impressionism and the various forms of Naturalism . It resurrected the mysticism and idealism frequently associated with  German Romanticism . Symbolism emphasized the free access to the artist's inner world, allowing liberation from nature as a model and from the boundaries of artistic conventions. 

       Symbolism as an art movement maintained center stage for a little less than two decades at the end of the 19th Century, although considerable art produced before and after the period may be considered closely related. Many works of art included by some writers who cover the Symbolist era were actually produced in the middle of the century, or even before. Many artists whom historians have included when writing about Symbolism were in fact predecessors, if not mentors, to the movement itself.

       A listing of important artists associated with the emergence of Symbolism would help set the stage for a more detailed discussion (listed by date of birth).


John Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) ~ Born in Zürich,  in 1779 Fuseli immigrated to Britain . His extensive oeuvre dealt with mythological and supernatural themes.

Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) ~ The renowned painter of the Spanish Court, Goya became deaf in 1792 as a result of a high fever. His subsequent work turned eccentric and introspective. 

Atropos (The Fates), 1821-23 by Goya

William Blake (1757-1827) ~ British visionary illustrator, whose work with Biblical and Mythological themes exhibited great originality and rejection of Christian orthodoxy. 

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) ~ A German landscape artist, who used barren trees, morning mist, silhouetted figures and Gothic ruins to explore themes of mysticism . 

George Frederic Watts (1817-1904) ~ British classical painter known for many allegorical works, and for his influence on Dante Rossetti .

Theodore Chasseriau (1819-1856) ~ As a student of Delacroix, he explored many mythological themes in addition to his prevalent use of the Orientalist genre.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) ~ Student of Chasseriau, one of the three important artist of French Symbolism . Most of his major works were done as murals. But they were in fact oil on canvas, then attached to a wall .Orpheus, 1865 (detail) by Gustav Moreau

Gustav Moreau (1826-1898) ~ Moreau produced an impressive body of work with mythological and Biblical themes. In his various paintings of Salome, he promoted the theme of the femme-fatale, an important Symbolist motif. He is considered one of  the most influential of all predecessors. A master of techniques, his style ranges from polished classical illusionism to dreamy watercolors. The unusual work Tattoed Salome (1874) incorporated primitive symbols carved into the painted surface. His work is original and evocative, with genuine antiquated qualities.

Arnold  Böcklin (1827-1901) ~ Although born in the generation preceding the majority of Symbolist artists, many of Böcklin's important paintings were in fact completed at the dawn of the age of Symbolism .

     The Isle of the Dead, 1883 by Arnold Boecklin

Dante Rossetti (1828-1882) ~ He was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, yet his art only became broadly known after his death at the dawn of the Symbolist era . The broodiness of his art was identified with within Symbolist circles.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) ~ Symbolist artists felt an affinity with the archaic qualities of Burne-Jones' work. He enjoyed an immense reputation, considered to be one of Europe's most important artists at the end of the 19th Century, during the age of Symbolism .

         The generation of artists identified with the actual movement of Symbolism were those born during the decades of 1850s and 60s. It is useful to group them by nationality, as during the 19th Century art was still mainly a regional affair.

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Symbolism Art Gallery

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