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’sArt 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.

Reed Enger, "Symbolism, A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 11, 2015; last modified July 21, 2019,

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Boy Leading a Horse

Pablo Picasso,


William Blake, 1795

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.

The Mental Traveler

William Blake, 1803

Angel of the Revelation

William Blake, 1803-1805

Elohim Creating Adam

William Blake, 1805

The Sun at his Eastern Gate

William Blake, 1816-1820

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car

William Blake, 1824-1827

Dante Running from the Three Beasts

William Blake, 1824-1827


William Blake, 1824-1827


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1864

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Gustave Moreau, 1864

The River

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1864

The Wine Press

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1865


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1866

Venus Rising from the Sea

Gustave Moreau, 1866

The Voices

Gustave Moreau, 1867

The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo

Gustave Moreau, 1868

Massilia, Greek Colony

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1868-1869

Hesiod and the Muses

Gustave Moreau, 1870


Odilon Redon, 1876


Gustave Moreau, 1876

Jacob and the Angel

Gustave Moreau, 1878


Gustave Moreau, 1878


Odilon Redon, 1878


Odilon Redon, 1879

Young Girls by the Seaside

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1879

Figures in the Woods

Matthijs Maris, 1880


Gustave Moreau, 1880

The Crying Spider

Odilon Redon, 1881

The Smiling Spider

Odilon Redon, 1881

Leda and the Swan

Gustave Moreau, 1882

The Sacred Elephant (Péri)

Gustave Moreau, 1882

La Toilette

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883

The Chimaeras

Gustave Moreau, 1884

Voices Of Evening

Gustave Moreau, 1885

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

Symbolist Manifesto

Jean Moréas, first published in Le Figaro, 1886


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1886-1887

Ahasuerus at the End of the World

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1888

Patriotic Games

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883-1889

The Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin, 1889


Ferdinand Hodler, 1890

Saint George and the Dragon

Gustave Moreau, 1889-1890

The Demon Seated

Mikhail Vrubel, 1890

In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse

Paul Gauguin, 1891


Franz Stuck, 1890-1891

The Sensual

Franz Stuck, c. 1891

The Shepherd's Song

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1891

La Fiancee de la Nuit

Gustave Moreau, 1892

Song of Songs

Gustave Moreau, 1893


Ferdinand Hodler, 1893
Next Movement


Beyond nature, toward emotional simplicity.


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