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Symbolism

1880 - 1910

A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.

Some artistic movements evolve naturally out of decades of cultural change, others emerge with new technology or invention. But near the end of the 19th century, movements sprouted from the feverish pens of writers.

In 1886 Jean Moréas, a poet and art critic, published The Symbolist Manifesto in Le Figaro, one of France’s most respected newspapers. At the time, Romanticism had been the dominant voice in art and literature through Europe for more than 75 years, and Moréas's screed called Romantic expression ‘dried out and shriveled’ and worse — ‘full of common sense.’ In its place Moréas called for a new manifestation of art — an expression of subjective ideas instead of purely realistic depictions of the world.

It was a tremendously appealing idea the painters of the time — a call to focus on their own subjective visions and a return to a mysterious world of myths and legends. Artists flocked to the new method, developing a formal, simplified style reminiscent of early Grecian sculpture. Paul Gauguin became a poster boy for imbuing simple images with mythic weight, and Puvis de Chavannes turned every day scenes into column rituals. Odilon Redon would push the bounds of Symbolism even further, bringing to life the monsters and creatures of his dark and whimsical imagination.

Gustave Moreau is considered to be the pinnacle of Symbolism by many, because his opulently textured works brought re-envisioned classical themes like Venus and the Muses within a vivid fantastical dramascape.

History hasn’t popularized Symbolism to the same level as art’s more unified movements, like Impressionism or Cubism — for a number of reasons. Symbolist artists worked in many styles, united in pursuit of personal expression rather than aesthetic or technique. And as Symbolism evolved, it evolved into many other movements, influencing Gustav Klimt's Art Nouveau, and Edvard Munch’s expressionist portraits of modern anxiety.

Symbolism was a dark, emotional slice of art history, but it was pivotal in the germination of Modernism, and the establishment of the kinds of visionary artists we see today.

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Symbolism: Artists

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Symbolism: Writings

The Mental Traveler

William Blake — 1803

I travelled through a land of men, A land of men and women too, And heard and saw such dreadful things, As cold earth wanderers never knew.

Symbolist Manifesto

1886

The essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself.

Symbolism: Artworks

Pity

Pity

William Blake,1795
Angel of the Revelation

Angel of the Revelation

William Blake,1803-1805
Elohim Creating Adam

Elohim Creating Adam

William Blake,1805
The Sun at his Eastern Gate

The Sun at his Eastern Gate

William Blake,1816-1820
Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car

William Blake,1824-1827
Minos

Minos

William Blake,1824-1827
Dante Running from the Three Beasts

Dante Running from the Three Beasts

William Blake,1824-1827
Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Gustave Moreau,1864
The River

The River

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1864
Cider

Cider

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1864
The Wine Press

The Wine Press

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1865
Fantasy

Fantasy

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1866
Venus Rising from the Sea

Venus Rising from the Sea

Gustave Moreau,1866
The Voices

The Voices

Gustave Moreau,1867
The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo

The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo

Gustave Moreau,1868
Massilia, Greek Colony

Massilia, Greek Colony

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1868-1869
Hesiod and the Muses

Hesiod and the Muses

Gustave Moreau,1870
Figure

Figure

Odilon Redon,1876
Pietà

Pietà

Gustave Moreau,1876
Jacob and the Angel

Jacob and the Angel

Gustave Moreau,1878
Tears

Tears

Odilon Redon,1878
Phaethon

Phaethon

Gustave Moreau,1878
Young Girls by the Seaside

Young Girls by the Seaside

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1879
Gnome

Gnome

Odilon Redon,1879
Galatée

Galatée

Gustave Moreau,1880
The Smiling Spider

The Smiling Spider

Odilon Redon,1881
The Crying Spider

The Crying Spider

Odilon Redon,1881
Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan

Gustave Moreau,1882
The Sacred Elephant (Péri)

The Sacred Elephant (Péri)

Gustave Moreau,1882
La Toilette

La Toilette

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1883
The Chimaeras

The Chimaeras

Gustave Moreau,1884
Voices Of Evening

Voices Of Evening

Gustave Moreau,1885
Tamaris

Tamaris

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1886-1887
The Yellow Christ

The Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin,1889
Patriotic Games

Patriotic Games

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1883-1889
Night

Night

Ferdinand Hodler,1890
The Demon Seated

The Demon Seated

Mikhail Vrubel,1890
Saint George and the Dragon

Saint George and the Dragon

Gustave Moreau,1889-1890
In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse

In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse

Paul Gauguin,1891
The Shepherd's Song

The Shepherd's Song

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,1891
La Fiancee de la Nuit

La Fiancee de la Nuit

Gustave Moreau,1892
Worship

Worship

Ferdinand Hodler,1893
Song of Songs

Song of Songs

Gustave Moreau,1893
Virginal printemps (pommiers en fleurs)

Virginal printemps (pommiers en fleurs)

Maurice Denis,1894
Hantise (Obsession)

Hantise (Obsession)

Odilon Redon,1894
The Scream

The Scream

Edvard Munch,1895
The Halberdier

The Halberdier

Ferdinand Hodler,1895
Music 1

Music 1

Gustav Klimt,1895
The Wounded Standard Bearer Hans Baer

The Wounded Standard Bearer Hans Baer

Ferdinand Hodler,1896
The Dream of the Shepherd

The Dream of the Shepherd

Ferdinand Hodler,1896
Portrait of a Young Woman - Vaite Jeanne Goupil

Portrait of a Young Woman - Vaite Jeanne Goupil

Paul Gauguin,1896
Christ In Silence

Christ In Silence

Odilon Redon,1897
Figures in a Spring Landscape (Sacred Grove)

Figures in a Spring Landscape (Sacred Grove)

Maurice Denis,1897
Two Tahitian Women

Two Tahitian Women

Paul Gauguin,1899
The Demon Flying

The Demon Flying

Mikhail Vrubel,1899
Springtime

Springtime

Maurice Denis,1894-1899
Centaur

Centaur

Odilon Redon,1895-1900
Swan Princess

Swan Princess

Mikhail Vrubel,1900
Pegasus and the Muse

Pegasus and the Muse

Odilon Redon,1900
Descent from the Cross

Descent from the Cross

Maurice Denis,1901
Goldfish

Goldfish

Gustav Klimt,1901-1902
The Fallen Demon

The Fallen Demon

Mikhail Vrubel,1902
The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

Edvard Munch,1903
Hope 1

Hope 1

Gustav Klimt,1903
Pearl Oyster

Pearl Oyster

Mikhail Vrubel,1904
Six-Winged Seraphim

Six-Winged Seraphim

Mikhail Vrubel,1904
The Three Ages of Woman

The Three Ages of Woman

Gustav Klimt,1905
The Large Figure Paintings, No. 5 Group 3

The Large Figure Paintings, No. 5 Group 3

Hilma af Klint,1907
Psyche Panel 5 — Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche

Psyche Panel 5 — Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche

Maurice Denis,1908
Psyche Panel 6 — Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell

Psyche Panel 6 — Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell

Maurice Denis,1908
Hope 2

Hope 2

Gustav Klimt,1907-1908
Psyche Panel 7 — Cupid Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven

Psyche Panel 7 — Cupid Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven

Maurice Denis,1908
Danaë

Danaë

Gustav Klimt,1907-1908
Psyche Panel 1 — Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty

Psyche Panel 1 — Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty

Maurice Denis,1908
Psyche Panel 2 — Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight

Psyche Panel 2 — Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight

Maurice Denis,1908
Psyche Panel 3 — Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros

Psyche Panel 3 — Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros

Maurice Denis,1908
The Kiss

The Kiss

Gustav Klimt,1907-1908
Psyche Panel 4 — The Vengeance of Venus

Psyche Panel 4 — The Vengeance of Venus

Maurice Denis,1908
Buddha

Buddha

Odilon Redon,1910
Angels Appearing before the Shepherds

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds

Henry Ossawa Tanner,1910
Silence

Silence

Odilon Redon,1911
The Path

The Path

Romaine Brooks,1911
The Last Angel

The Last Angel

Nicholas Roerich,1912
Der Frühling (Fassung IV)

Der Frühling (Fassung IV)

Ferdinand Hodler,1912
The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

Odilon Redon,1912
La France Croisee

La France Croisee

Romaine Brooks,1914
The Cyclops

The Cyclops

Odilon Redon,1914
Death and Life

Death and Life

Gustav Klimt,1910-1915
Doves No. 2

Doves No. 2

Hilma af Klint,1915
Wave

Wave

Maurice Denis,1916
Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein

Romaine Brooks,1917
Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved)

Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved)

James Ensor,1917-1918
Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve

Gustav Klimt,1917-1918
Renata Borgatti, Au Piano

Renata Borgatti, Au Piano

Romaine Brooks,1920
The Royal Tiger Bacchanale

The Royal Tiger Bacchanale

Maurice Denis,1920
Chasseress

Chasseress

Romaine Brooks,1920
And We See

And We See

Nicholas Roerich,1922
Self-Portrait, 1923

Self-Portrait, 1923

Romaine Brooks,1923
Una Troubridge

Una Troubridge

Romaine Brooks,1924
Cantilever Cupola with Five Hilltops

Cantilever Cupola with Five Hilltops

Wenzel Hablik,1924
La Baronne Emile D'Erlanger

La Baronne Emile D'Erlanger

Romaine Brooks,1924
Padma Sambhava

Padma Sambhava

Nicholas Roerich,1924
Serpent of Wisdom

Serpent of Wisdom

Nicholas Roerich,1924
Peter (A Young English Girl)

Peter (A Young English Girl)

Romaine Brooks,1923-1924
Power of the Caves

Power of the Caves

Nicholas Roerich,1925
Tidings of the Eagle

Tidings of the Eagle

Nicholas Roerich,1927
Elijah the Prophet

Elijah the Prophet

Nicholas Roerich,1931
Saint Panteleimon the Healer

Saint Panteleimon the Healer

Nicholas Roerich,1931
Issa and the Skull of the Giant

Issa and the Skull of the Giant

Nicholas Roerich,1932
Tibet, Himalayas

Tibet, Himalayas

Nicholas Roerich,1933
Kuan-yin

Kuan-yin

Nicholas Roerich,1933
Zvenigorod

Zvenigorod

Nicholas Roerich,1933
From Beyond

From Beyond

Nicholas Roerich,1936
Madonna Laboris (Sketch)

Madonna Laboris (Sketch)

Nicholas Roerich,1936
Pisces

Pisces

Man Ray,1938
Aurora Boreale

Aurora Boreale

Luigi Russolo,1938
Landscape at the First Rays of Sun

Landscape at the First Rays of Sun

Luigi Russolo,1940

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