What is Symbolism in Art?

       Symbolism perhaps is more a philosophy about the content of art than an actual style. It developed through a wide range of styles, from variations of academic to the doorstep of abstraction . Symbolism is as much about evoking a mood as it is about iconography. Many Symbolists preferred to work as outsiders. Often the meaning of their work was esoteric or even intentionally obscured. From this standpoint, it is important to investigate each of these artists as individuals, not just as stellar points in a large constellation .

         Most art historians identify the core of the Symbolism movement as being in French speaking Europe. We therefore begin our discussion with French artists.


Odilon Redon (1840-1916) ~ Figure Holding a Winged Head, c1876Originally a graphic artist and illustrator of early Symbolist writing. In the 1890s, he turned from strange morbid charcoals to brightly colored pastels and oils, instilled with deep mysticism . A visionary artist, his body of work may be considered the quintessential art of age of Symbolism . After meeting Gauguin in 1886, Redon was to form a close relationship with Gauguin and became affiliated with the Nabis.

Biographical information can be found at www.odilonredon.net/biography.html

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) ~ One of the major artists of latter part of the 19th Century, and a pioneer of Modernism . Helped to develop the Cloisonnist style and subsequently Synthetism, which emphasized a two dimensional perspective. Gauguin spent much of his career as an artist pursuing folk art and the remnants of primitive cultures. The last decade and a half of his life was spent in French Polynesia .

Eugene Carriere (1849-1906) ~ Known for a distinct brown monochromatic palette, he produced soulful, sometimes murky, psychological studies.

Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910) ~ Born in Germany to a British father and Austrian baroness, he studied in France where he would take citizenship. Stylistically his work appears to be related to the Pre-Raphaelites.  

Alexandre Seon (1855-1917) ~ In a style influenced by Puvis de Chavannes, he explored mythological subject matter, such as Orpheus and the Chimaera.

Alphonse Osbert (1857-1939) ~ At first involved with Pointillism, he became influenced by Puvis. Known for somewhat mysterious evening and nocturnal landscapes.

Armand Point (1861-1932) ~ Born in Algiers and influenced pre-Raphaelites, he also admired Botticelli . Chose mythological and allegorical subjects.

Maurice Denis (1870-1943) ~ Member of the Nabi, he focused on Christian imagery. He was important in establishing a two-dimensional picture plane, and therefore impacted the avant-garde movements in the early 20th century.

Edgar Maxence (1871-1954) ~ Student of Gustav Moreau. Painted medieval subjects in academic style.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) ~ During his Blue Period (1901-04), the Spanish artist was deeply affected by the suicide of his friend, Carlos Casegemas. His paintings of this period are typically somber, in austere blue tones. He often chose Symbolist subject matter. Some of his work during the Rose Period (1904-06) that followed, also showed Symbolist influences.

Gustave Adolphe Mossa (1883-1971) ~ Most of his works were painted after the turn of the Century. There are often uncanny or bizarre elements in his art , which preludes the Surrealists.

       Belgium was the second important center associated with Symbolism .

  Felicien Rops (1833-1898) ~ Associated closely with Baudelaire and other Symbolist writers. Known for caricature, etchings and watercolors, he dealt mainly with erotic and Satanic subjects.

Xavier Mellery (1845-1921) ~ Known for his intimist works and as a muralist of allegorical subjects using traditional techniques.

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) ~ Formed friendships with Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Watts and other British artists. He used a realistic style to explore the themes of isolation and longing. Known for imagery of woman, including that of Femmes Fatales, such as the Sphinx in The Caress.

Jan Toorop (1858-1924) ~ Dutch artist, who lived in Belgium from 1882 to 1886 and became enamored with Symbolism . He incorporated Javanese motifs in dynamic compositions. Later he converted to Catholicism .

James Ensor (1860-1949) ~ He integrated grotesque masks and skeletons into into complex allegories. A founding member of Les XX, he became seclusive after the group's Salon rejected one of his paintings.

Jean Delville (1867-1953) ~ Interested in occultism and esoteric spirituality, he was influenced by Josephin Pelandan . He explores idealistic, mythological and supernatural imagery.

Leon Spilliaert (1881-1946) ~ From a younger generation of Symbolists, he used simplified forms to evoke feelings of anxiety.

      A number of artists from Germanic countries worked with Symbolist themes. The styles used by these artists were generally derived from academic naturalism .

  Hans Thoma (1839-1924) ~ He admired the artists of the German Renaissance, and his art reflects his affinity to nature and a simple idyllic life.

Ferdinand Hodler (1858-1918) ~ He developed a style known as Parallelism, in which subjects or objects were arranged in groupings suggestive of dance rituals. Used a highly detailed Realism in much of his work, and explored Symbolists themes such as death, fear, youth and ecstacy.  

Max Klingler (1857-1920) ~ His work contains imaginative dreamlike fantasy, some complete with fetishes while others made references to anxiety and death . Klinger's work was widely admired during his time and was also to influence Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, and many of the Surrealist artists.

Maximilian Lenz  (1860-1948) ~ Painted pastoral allegories of women .

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) ~ The Viennese artist was influenced greatly by Symbolism, although also interested in decorative motifs.

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) ~ Inspired by Arnold  Böcklin, von Stuck drew on mythological subjects and developed the themes of the femmes fatales.

Carlos Schwabe (1877-1926) ~ Known for allegorical compositions involving Death or the Afterlife.

        Symbolism spread throughout Europe during the latter decades of the 19th Century and also to the Americas.

  Elihu Vedder (1836-1923) American ~ He produced Symbolist works during the last half of the 19th century, with many important works being executed during the peak period of the Symbolism movement.

Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899) Italian ~

Jacek Malczewski (1858-1929) Polish ~ Mined mythological subject matter.

Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928) American ~

John Duncan (1866-1945) Scottish ~

        Symbolism developed a decade later in Russia than in Western Europe. It made a more significant appearance in poetry than in the visual arts. However, a number of artists are associated with it, particularly in the first decade of the 20th Century.

  Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) ~ His unorthodox style developed through study of medieval mosaics, and incorporated heavy impasto and partial abstraction . His most well known works were on the Prophet and Demon themes. Vrubel was a significant force in the development of Russian Symbolism, and his work had influence on the development of abstract art of Wassily Kandinsky.

Mikhail Vasil'evich Nesterov (1862-1942) ~ Interested in religious themes, he is noted for an early work, Vision of Young Bartholomew (1889-1890), viewed by some as the first painting of Russian Symbolism .

Leon Baskt (1866-1924) ~ Painted a number of visionary works at the turn of the Century. He is most well known as a costume and set designer for the Ballets Russes.

Constantin Somov (1869-1939) ~ Technically conventional, he worked with a number of Symbolist themes.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1869-1939) ~ Influenced by Puvis de Chavannes and Vrubel, his work incorporated neoclassical elements, later trending toward Expressionism.

Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) ~ Together with his wife, Helena, they traveled throughout Asia, investigating archaeological and cultural sites. His art covers theosophical interests, many of them on themes of mystic landscape, prophets and women's spiritual importance. Most of them date from the 1920s and 30s,  several decades after the peak of Symbolist activity.

       The art of the era of Symbolism was to influence several artistic movements in the 20th Century. A number of artists moved directly to Expressionism, or one of the movements related to it. Several artists, including Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich moved quickly to experiments in Abstraction . Symbolism influenced Gustav Klimt and other artists associated with Art Nouveau. And in the late 1920s, the art of the Symbolists helped to found a new movement of Surrealism .

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