Home

Symbolism

A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.

18801910

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.

Read More
Pity

Pity

William Blake1795

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 Blake1803
Angel of the Revelation

Angel of the Revelation

William Blake1803-1805
Elohim Creating Adam

Elohim Creating Adam

William Blake1805
The Sun at his Eastern Gate

The Sun at his Eastern Gate

William Blake1816-1820
Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car

William Blake1824-1827
Minos

Minos

William Blake1824-1827
Dante Running from the Three Beasts

Dante Running from the Three Beasts

William Blake1824-1827
William BlakePortrait of William Blake

William Blake

Art is life, science is death

1757-1827
Cider

Cider

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1864
The River

The River

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1864
Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

Gustave Moreau1864
The Wine Press

The Wine Press

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1865
Venus Rising from the Sea

Venus Rising from the Sea

Gustave Moreau1866
Fantasy

Fantasy

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1866
The Voices

The Voices

Gustave Moreau1867
The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo

The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo

Gustave Moreau1868
Massilia, Greek Colony

Massilia, Greek Colony

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1868-1869
Hesiod and the Muses

Hesiod and the Muses

Gustave Moreau1870
Pietà

Pietà

Gustave Moreau1876
Figure

Figure

Odilon Redon1876
Phaethon

Phaethon

Gustave Moreau1878
Jacob and the Angel

Jacob and the Angel

Gustave Moreau1878
Tears

Tears

Odilon Redon1878
Gnome

Gnome

Odilon Redon1879
Young Girls by the Seaside

Young Girls by the Seaside

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1879
Galatée

Galatée

Gustave Moreau1880
Figures in the Woods

Figures in the Woods

Matthijs Maris1880
The Crying Spider

The Crying Spider

Odilon Redon1881
The Smiling Spider

The Smiling Spider

Odilon Redon1881
The Sacred Elephant (Péri)

The Sacred Elephant (Péri)

Gustave Moreau1882
Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan

Gustave Moreau1882
La Toilette

La Toilette

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1883
The Chimaeras

The Chimaeras

Gustave Moreau1884
Voices Of Evening

Voices Of Evening

Gustave Moreau1885

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

Symbolist Manifesto

1886
Tamaris

Tamaris

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1886-1887
Ahasuerus at the End of the World

Ahasuerus at the End of the World

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl1888
Patriotic Games

Patriotic Games

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1883-1889
The Yellow Christ

The Yellow Christ

Paul Gauguin1889
Night

Night

Ferdinand Hodler1890
Saint George and the Dragon

Saint George and the Dragon

Gustave Moreau1889-1890
The Demon Seated

The Demon Seated

Mikhail Vrubel1890
The Shepherd's Song

The Shepherd's Song

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes1891
In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse

In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse

Paul Gauguin1891
La Fiancee de la Nuit

La Fiancee de la Nuit

Gustave Moreau1892
Worship

Worship

Ferdinand Hodler1893
Song of Songs

Song of Songs

Gustave Moreau1893
Hantise (Obsession)

Hantise (Obsession)

Odilon Redon1894
Virginal printemps (pommiers en fleurs)

Virginal printemps (pommiers en fleurs)

Maurice Denis1894
The Halberdier

The Halberdier

Ferdinand Hodler1895
The Scream

The Scream

Edvard Munch1895
Music 1

Music 1

Gustav Klimt1895
The Wounded Standard Bearer Hans Baer

The Wounded Standard Bearer Hans Baer

Ferdinand Hodler1896
William MorrisPortrait of William Morris

William Morris

Can you run a socialist company in a capitalist economy?

1834-1896
The Dream of the Shepherd

The Dream of the Shepherd

Ferdinand Hodler1896
Portrait of a Young Woman - Vaite Jeanne Goupil

Portrait of a Young Woman - Vaite Jeanne Goupil

Paul Gauguin1896
Seaside Cemetery

Seaside Cemetery

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl1897
Figures in a Spring Landscape (Sacred Grove)

Figures in a Spring Landscape (Sacred Grove)

Maurice Denis1897
Christ In Silence

Christ In Silence

Odilon Redon1897
Gustave Moreau

Gustave Moreau

A hermit explores the dreamscape

1826-1898
Souls on the Banks of the Acheron

Souls on the Banks of the Acheron

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl1898
Pierre Puvis de ChavannesPortrait of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Forgotten Master

1824-1898
The Demon Flying

The Demon Flying

Mikhail Vrubel1899
Two Tahitian Women

Two Tahitian Women

Paul Gauguin1899
Springtime

Springtime

Maurice Denis1894-1899
Swan Princess

Swan Princess

Mikhail Vrubel1900
Centaur

Centaur

Odilon Redon1895-1900
Pegasus and the Muse

Pegasus and the Muse

Odilon Redon1900
Descent from the Cross

Descent from the Cross

Maurice Denis1901
Goldfish

Goldfish

Gustav Klimt1901-1902
The Fallen Demon

The Fallen Demon

Mikhail Vrubel1902
Hope 1

Hope 1

Gustav Klimt1903
The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

The Brooch / Eva Mudocci

Edvard Munch1903
Pearl Oyster

Pearl Oyster

Mikhail Vrubel1904
Six-Winged Seraphim

Six-Winged Seraphim

Mikhail Vrubel1904
The Three Ages of Woman

The Three Ages of Woman

Gustav Klimt1905
The Large Figure Paintings, No. 5 Group 3

The Large Figure Paintings, No. 5 Group 3

Hilma af Klint1907
Psyche Panel 2 — Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight

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

Maurice Denis1908
Hope 2

Hope 2

Gustav Klimt1907-1908
Psyche Panel 3 — Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros

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

Maurice Denis1908
Psyche Panel 4 — The Vengeance of Venus

Psyche Panel 4 — The Vengeance of Venus

Maurice Denis1908
Psyche Panel 5 — Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche

Psyche Panel 5 — Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche

Maurice Denis1908
Danaë

Danaë

Gustav Klimt1907-1908
Psyche Panel 6 — Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell

Psyche Panel 6 — Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell

Maurice Denis1908
The Kiss

The Kiss

Gustav Klimt1907-1908
Psyche Panel 7 — Cupid Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven

Psyche Panel 7 — Cupid Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven

Maurice Denis1908
Psyche Panel 1 — Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty

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

Maurice Denis1908
Angels Appearing before the Shepherds

Angels Appearing before the Shepherds

Henry Ossawa Tanner1910
Mikhail VrubelPortrait of Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel

The man who fell in love with a demon

1856-1910
Buddha

Buddha

Odilon Redon1910
Between Scylla and Charybdis

Between Scylla and Charybdis

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl1910
Silence

Silence

Odilon Redon1911
The Path

The Path

Romaine Brooks1911
The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

Odilon Redon1912
Der Frühling (Fassung IV)

Der Frühling (Fassung IV)

Ferdinand Hodler1912
The Last Angel

The Last Angel

Nicholas Roerich1912
La France Croisee

La France Croisee

Romaine Brooks1914
The Cyclops

The Cyclops

Odilon Redon1914
Doves No. 2

Doves No. 2

Hilma af Klint1915
Death and Life

Death and Life

Gustav Klimt1910-1915
Wave

Wave

Maurice Denis1916
Odilon RedonPortrait of Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon

The faces we see in our dreams

1840-1916
Ida Rubinstein

Ida Rubinstein

Romaine Brooks1917
Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve

Gustav Klimt1917-1918
Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved)

Comical Repast (Banquet of the Starved)

James Ensor1917-1918
Ferdinand HodlerPortrait of Ferdinand Hodler

Ferdinand Hodler

Lover of beauty, pursued by the specter of death

1853-1918
The Daughters of Lot, 1

The Daughters of Lot, 1

Carlo Carrà1919
Chasseress

Chasseress

Romaine Brooks1920
Renata Borgatti, Au Piano

Renata Borgatti, Au Piano

Romaine Brooks1920
The Royal Tiger Bacchanale

The Royal Tiger Bacchanale

Maurice Denis1920
And We See

And We See

Nicholas Roerich1922
Self-Portrait, 1923

Self-Portrait, 1923

Romaine Brooks1923
Serpent of Wisdom

Serpent of Wisdom

Nicholas Roerich1924
Cantilever Cupola with Five Hilltops

Cantilever Cupola with Five Hilltops

Wenzel Hablik1924
Peter (A Young English Girl)

Peter (A Young English Girl)

Romaine Brooks1923-1924
Una Troubridge

Una Troubridge

Romaine Brooks1924
La Baronne Emile D'Erlanger

La Baronne Emile D'Erlanger

Romaine Brooks1924
Padma Sambhava

Padma Sambhava

Nicholas Roerich1924
Power of the Caves

Power of the Caves

Nicholas Roerich1925
Tidings of the Eagle

Tidings of the Eagle

Nicholas Roerich1927
Saint Panteleimon the Healer

Saint Panteleimon the Healer

Nicholas Roerich1931
Akseli Gallen-KallelaPortrait of Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Telling the mystic tales of Finland

1865-1931
Elijah the Prophet

Elijah the Prophet

Nicholas Roerich1931
Issa and the Skull of the Giant

Issa and the Skull of the Giant

Nicholas Roerich1932
Kuan-yin

Kuan-yin

Nicholas Roerich1933
Zvenigorod

Zvenigorod

Nicholas Roerich1933
Adolf Hirémy-HirschlPortrait of Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl

Gothic drama from the end of an era

1860-1933
Tibet, Himalayas

Tibet, Himalayas

Nicholas Roerich1933
The Odyssey of Odysseus

The Odyssey of Odysseus

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl1933
From Beyond

From Beyond

Nicholas Roerich1936
Madonna Laboris (Sketch)

Madonna Laboris (Sketch)

Nicholas Roerich1936
Aurora Boreale

Aurora Boreale

Luigi Russolo1938
Pisces

Pisces

Man Ray1938
Landscape at the First Rays of Sun

Landscape at the First Rays of Sun

Luigi Russolo1940
The Daughters of Lot, 3

The Daughters of Lot, 3

Carlo Carrà1940
Maurice DenisPortrait of Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis

Art as prophesy

1870-1943
Nicholas RoerichPortrait of Nicholas Roerich

Nicholas Roerich

Follow your bliss

1874-1947
The Return

The Return

Vũ Cao Đàm1963
Zinaida SerebriakovaPortrait of Zinaida Serebriakova

Zinaida Serebriakova

Widowed mother of four leaves Russia for Paris

1884-1967
Romaine BrooksPortrait of Romaine Brooks

Romaine Brooks

Fiercely independent lesbian paints Paris in shades of gray

1874-1970
Élisabeth ChaplinPortrait of Élisabeth Chaplin

Élisabeth Chaplin

A life's worth of paintings dedicated to Florence

1890-1982
Vũ Cao ĐàmPortrait of Vũ Cao Đàm

Vũ Cao Đàm

Bright colors and a sharp suit

1908-2000

Next movement: Post-ImpressionismBeyond nature, toward emotional simplicity.

Help us bring art
history back to life

Support Trivium on Patreon