Symbolism started showing its first signs in literature. Have you ever heard of the French author called Charles Baudelaire? His famous collection of poems published in 1857 called The Flowers of Evil is an important symbolist literary work that inspired many artists. However, symbolists didn't just stick to poetry. The movement spread to music, theatre, and visual arts too. The term symbolism itself, coming from the word symbol, was popularized by the poet and essayist Jean Moreas. Moreas wrote the Symbolist Manifesto and published it in the French magazine Le Figaro in 1886. The Futurist Manifesto was also published in that same magazine in 1909. The name symbolism doesn’t necessarily mean that you should always search for hidden signs in symbolist paintings, it rather means that these artists rejected realistic depictions of the world and by using metaphors showed more interest in the imaginary and spiritual. Symbolist works of art were meant to suggest subjective ideas and not just describe the real world!
It's important to know that Symbolism happened as a reaction to art movements like impressionism, naturalism, and realism. Symbolists wanted to reject naturalism and preferred idealism to realism. The movement became an international phenomenon, present in artworks made by French, Belgian, English, Austrian, and Norwegian artists. Style-wise symbolist artworks are very diverse. However, symbolists did share a tendency to lean towards mythological scenes, biblical imagery, fantastic themes, allegorical stories, and dream-like settings. They wanted to discover the mysteries of life, not through science, but through their own artistic expression. They were interested in the imaginary while searching for universal truths.
Gustave Moreau's Orpheus, 1865
Many symbolists used mythology to explore different subjects and feelings. For example, Gustave Moreau painted Orpheus, a famous character from Greek mythology. The artist showed a scene in which dead Orpheus's head lies on a lyre that represents his infinite musical talent. The girl, dressed in embroidered draperies, holding the lyre stares at Orpheus's head in a melancholic way. In the background, we see a dream-like landscape. In this artwork, we see the mysterious and fantastical themes symbolists liked to represent while exploring dark topics like death. More of Moreau's interest in mythology is visible in paintings like Oedipus and Sphinx, Galatea, and Salome Dancing before Herod, who was frequently depicted by symbolists trying to represent the idea of a femme fatale.
Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell, 1880
Symbolists looked for inspiration in literary works too. We can look at Auguste Rodin's Gates of Hell as a symbolist work of art. The French sculptor found inspiration in Dante's famous work The Divine Comedy. With a large number of human figures coming out of Rodin's door we can sense the misery, the frustration, and the pain of the characters mentioned in Dante's work. Rodin truly created a fascinating visual expression of Dante's written piece.
Edvard Munch's The Scream, 1893
Symbolists were also interested in exploring mysticism, spirituality, and dreams. They didn't care to depict the objective and the real in their artworks. They wanted to show anxiety, sin, love, death, and the unknown. Some were, however, more pessimistic, and some more optimistic in their views towards the world. Edvard Munch was a Norwegian artist who spent his life going through much emotional suffering. His works often show human helplessness, fear, darkness, and feelings of melancholy and despair. His most famous artwork, The Scream, can be read as both an expressionist and a symbolist piece. The painting became a symbol of troubling mental states like anxiety and fear. The intense orange and blue colors and Munch's strong brushstrokes help the viewer understand the internal anxiousness of the main screaming figure.
Fernand Khnopff's I lock my door upon myself, 1891
The internal struggle was a theme explored by many symbolists. Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff's painting I lock my door upon myself takes its title from a poem called Who Shall Deliver Me written by Christina Rossetti. Like Munch, Khnopff too depicted a scene of inner turmoil, but in a different way. Khnopff, like a number of other symbolists, was inspired by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood consisted of a group of artists in Victorian Britain who were fascinated by medieval times, literature and themes like love, death, beauty, and nature. And Christina Rossetti herself was associated with this movement. Objects we see in this painting, like the drying lilies, or the head of Hypnos - the god of sleep, are all there for us to interpret and analyze while we search for meaning.
Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897
Symbolists often wanted to escape reality and shelter in their own world. This is probably most obvious when looking at the life and work of the French artist Paul Gauguin. Gauguin left France in 1891 so that he could go to a far-away place: Tahiti. There, Gauguin searched for his own idealized, and fictional, version of utopia. He also painted many of his masterpieces while living here, one of which is a painting called Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?. Gaugin clearly asks all the mystical questions that troubled many symbolists. This large painting shows a number of human figures, animals, and plants, painted in intense blue, purple, and yellow shades. You can even spot Tahiti's volcanic mountains in the background. And if we look at the painting from right to left, we can notice that the three questions of the title are all represented. We see the baby on the right - "where do we come from", a standing figure in the center - "what are we", and a crouching old lady on the left - "where are we going". By using this philosophical title, Gauguin might have wanted us to search for answers in the symbols of the painting or raise these mysterious questions ourselves.
Evelyn De Morgan's Daughters of the Mist, 1905-1910
You might be wondering, were there any women artists connected to Symbolism? Meet Evelyn De Morgan, a London-born artist whose works also show mythological scenes set in dream-like scenery that some symbolists loved to paint. In her work Ariadne at Naxos, Ariadne is shown alone at the island, left by her lover Theseus. While artists often showed Theseus sailing away and leaving, De Morgan positioned Ariadne as the central character in her painting. Evelyn De Morgan also painted other famous mythological figures such as Cassandra and Helen of Troy. Another one of her symbolist pieces called Daughters of the Mist shows four female figures, dressed in beautiful drapery, surrounded by clouds and rainbows. The inspiration for the painting might have come from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Little Mermaid, which again shows the symbolist tendency to lean towards the fantastical and imaginary. De Morgan’s artworks bridged the gap between the meditative powers the symbolises believed their art had, and the more decadent Aesthetic Movement, which believed art should exist simply to be beautiful. Both movements value the painterly qualities of artwork, such as composition and colour, above narrative and that can certainly be seen in De Morgan’s late works such as Twilight.
Symbolists wanted art to express inner feelings and ideas, they wanted to search for the real universal truth and show that through their art. While many symbolist works differ in style, they have certainly influenced modern art movements like surrealism or expressionism. Symbolists, like many artists before and after them, were interested in the mystical and the unknown. They wanted to discover the hidden philosophical meanings of life, and for that, they used one of the best tools that humans thought of - art.
With contributions from De Morgan Collection