Modern Art - Symbolism

Movement: Modern Art - Symbolism
Dates: c. 1880 - c. 1910

Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts seeking to represent absolute truths symbolically through metaphorical images and language mainly as a reaction against naturalism and realism.

In literature, the style originates with the 1857 publication of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stphane Mallarm and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers. The term "symbolist" was first applied by the critic Jean Moras, who invented the term to distinguish the Symbolists from the related Decadents of literature and of art.

Distinct from, but related to, the style of literature, symbolism in art is related to the gothic component of Romanticism and Impressionism.


The term symbolism is derived from the word "symbol" which derives from the Latin symbolum, a symbol of faith, and symbolus, a sign of recognition, in turn from classical Greek symbolon, an object cut in half constituting a sign of recognition when the carriers were able to reassemble the two halves. In ancient Greece, the symbolon was a shard of pottery which was inscribed and then broken into two pieces which were given to the ambassadors from two allied city states as a record of the alliance.

Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two were similar in many aspects. In painting, symbolism can be seen as a revival of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, and was close to the self-consciously morbid and private decadent movement.

There were several rather dissimilar groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, which included Paul Gauguin, Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas iurlionis, Jacek Malczewski, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gaston Bussire, Edvard Munch, Fernand Khnopff, Flicien Rops, and Jan Toorop. Symbolism in painting was even more widespread geographically than symbolism in poetry, affecting Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Victor Borisov-Musatov, Martiros Saryan, Mikhail Nesterov, Lon Bakst, Elena Gorokhova in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Elihu Vedder, Remedios Varo, Morris Graves and David Chetlahe Paladin in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist sculptor.

The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.

Further reading

  • Anna Balakian, The Symbolist Movement: a critical appraisal. New York: Random House, 1967
  • Michelle Facos, Symbolist Art in Context. London: Routledge, 2011
  • Bernard Delvaille, La posie symboliste: anthologie. Paris: Seghers, 1971. ISBN2-221-50161-6
  • John Porter Houston and Mona Tobin Houston, French Symbolist Poetry: An Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. ISBN0-253-20250-7
  • Philippe Jullian, The Symbolists. Oxford: Phaidon; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1973. ISBN0-7148-1739-2
  • Andrew George Lehmann, The Symbolist Aesthetic in France 18851895. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950, 1968
  • The Oxford Companion to French Literature, Sir Paul Harvey and J. E. Heseltine (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959. ISBN0-19-866104-5
  • Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. ISBN0-19-281061-8
  • Arthur Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc. (A Dutton Paperback), 1958
  • Edmund Wilson, Axel's Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 18701930. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1931 (online version). ISBN978-1-59853-013-1 (Library of America)
  • Michael Gibson, Symbolism London: Taschen, 1995 ISBN3822893242

External links

  • Collection of German Symbolist art The Jack Daulton Collection
  • Les Potes maudits by Paul Verlaine (in French)
  • ArtMagick The Symbolist Gallery
  • What is Symbolism in Art Ten Dreams Galleries extensive article on Symbolism
  • Symbolism Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon
  • Literary Symbolism Published in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture (2006)

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