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  14 16th century (1500-1599) The High Renaissance
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    19th century (1863-1899) Impressionism Timeline
    19th century (1860-1899) Simbolism
    20th century(1900-1999) ART OF THE 20TH CENTURY
19th century (1800-1899)
  Neoclassicism and Romanticism
Realism, Impressionism and
The roots of Symbolism can be traced back at least as far as the Romantic trends of the early 19th century. The movement shared strong affinities with similar contemporary developments in poetry, philosophy, and music, creating a synthesis and union of the arts. Its official debut came in 1886, when Jean Moreas launched the manifesto of Symbolist poetry, which included the figurative arts, in Le Figaro. However, in reaction to the objective recording of nature that was so characteristic of Impressionism, certain painters had already shown a need to express a "reality" beyond the evidence gained from visual perception - notably the spiritual aspects, allusions, and ambiguities inherent in mere sight.
If it is true that the reality we see - according to Platonic philosophy - is but a poor copy of the world of "ideal forms", then it is the task of the artist, in his or her role as perceiver with an "inner eye", to decipher the hidden meanings and translate them into sensitive forms that can be understood by everybody - that is, as stated by Gustave Kahn, to "objectivize the subjective" as opposed to the tendency, pursued up until this time, of "subjectivizing the objective". The Symbolist poets were the first to explore the relation-ships between sounds, smells, and colours, and who alluded to the mysterious affinities between the visible and the invisible. Not by chance was Charles Baudelaire's anthologyLes Fleurs du Mai (1857) the most popular source of inspiration for many Symbolist painters in the 1880s and 1890s. They were joined by scientists, such as Eduard von Hartmann and Jean Martin Charcot, who were interested in the imagination and recognized that dreams were a means of expressing as image the fantasies and desires of the subconscious. Symbolism was an international movement that spread throughout Europe, although the forms it took varied considerably. The unifying element was not so much the style - the break with realism did not bring about a uniform end to objective representation and choice of new artistic language - as a refusal to choose contemporary subjects drawn from current affairs and social realism. Instead, artists desired to give substance to content derived from poetry, mythology, and psychological research.

An anticipation of this choice of themes can be seen in the experience of the English Pre-Raphaelites who gathered around Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) in the 1870s. Onceagain, it was French artists who played the leading role in this debate about aesthetics, which was pursued with intensity by magazines such as La Revue Wagnerienne and Le Mercure de France, as well as in the philosophical and literary writings of Henri Bergson and Huysmans. In his novel .4 Reborns, published in 1884 and considered by many to be the "bible" of aesthetic decadence. Huysmans describes the work of three painters -Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon - as being among the most sophisticated creations. His leading character, Des Esseintes, surrounds himself with their work in order to escape from the vulgarity of everyday existence. Amid a climate of Impressionist realism.Gustave Moreau (1826-98) exhibited Oedipus and the Sphinx in 1864, a painting rich in mysterious and fantastic allusions. This work heralded a form of Symbolism drawing on classical and biblical mythology, on medieval legends and on the fables of La Fontaine. This new stvle dealt with exotic themes and investigated the subject of death in compositions that were deliberately formal in language, rich in colour, and filled with esoteric details and references. Odilon Redon (1840-1916) received much acclaim with the publication of his first lithographic album in 1879, appropriately entitled Dans le reve. He followed this with illustrations to Gustave Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine and a number of other successful collaborations with poets and writers. In his series of black-and-white drawings, charcoal sketches, and lithographs completed before 1895, Redondepicted bewildering and contorted images that are both real and unreal, human and monstrous. They are typical of the ambiguity of his visionary art. The influence of French Symbolism throughout the rest of Europe varied in importance from country to country. Research into the unity of the arts was conducted with special enthusiasm by Jan Toorop(1858- 1928) in Holland, Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Felicien Rops (1833-98) in Belgium, Michail Vrubel (1856-1910) in Russia, Gaetano Previati (1852-1920) andGiovanni Segantini (1858-1899) in Italy, and Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in Norway. Spiritualism was particularly fashionable in Germany, where its artistic treatment drew on the aestheticism of the late Romantic tradition. The Secession exhibitions provided an excellent opportunity to advertise the Symbolist aesthetic. An original interpretation of decadent culture, inspired by fin-de-siecle literary references, was offered by Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901), an artist who worked in various European cities, Like many German romantics of the second half of the 19th century, he travelled to Italy, attracted by the myths of classical art. Bocklin was fascinated by mysterious and visionary themes, which he expressed in formal academic terms. His technically flawless methods of composition and representation gave the viewer the feeling that he was fathoming an impenetrable landscape that was both enigmatic and real. The sirens, centaurs, and heroes that Bocklindrew from classical mythology are presented as real, flesh-and-blood men and women, as romantically suggestive as the landscape that surround them. Yet there is also an uneasy feeling about these scenes, which are apparently literary and mythological and yet are imbued with psychological undertones. The artist stated: ''A painting must say something and make the spectator think, like a poem, leaving him with an impression, like a piece of music.'' Max Klinger (1857-1920), who first met Bocklin in 1887 while in Berlin and again later in Florence, could enchant and mystify the spectator with his magical effects and lofty themes. As was pointed out in 1920 by de Chirico, the originality of his work lay in the allusive symbolism that he created by modifying scenes from contemporary life with visions from antiquity. He used images of a timeless world to elaborate upon themes of grotesque realism, in order to achieve "a highly impressive dream reality" and ''a suggestive and romantic interpretation of modernity". Myth and reality, past and present, the sacred and the erotic, and the ordinary and the extraordinary, were all to be found together on his large canvases. His paintings were often of exaggerated complexity, radiating a sinister aura. Klinger was especially interested in graphic techniques and the analogy between art and music, classifying each etching in his series as an opus. His principal aim was to bring about a synthesis of the arts as a means of expressing a broader notion of life. Among a number of works dedicated to this were the painting Christ of Olympus (1896) and the sculpture Beethoven (1902).
The Great Upheaval
Less an artistic movement than a state of mind, Symbolism appeared toward the middle of the 19th century. Its influence was greatest in those areas of Europe which combined two factors: Ivanced industrialisation and a predominantly Catholic population. e can circumscribe the Symbolist phenomenon by drawing a line linking Glasgow, Stockholm, Gdansk, Lodz, Trieste, Florence and Barcelona: the so-called "Europe of steam". Jean Moreas gave Symbolism name and an identity on 18 September 1886. Some thirty years later, expired amid the throes of the First World War. 

By then, Modernism had triumphed and Symbolism was in disgrace; some Symbolist artists were reclassified as proto-expressionists or proto-surrealists, others, such as Khnopff, Hodler, Segantini, and von Stuck, were summarily dispatched to the attic of history. 

Symbolism was swept away by the new watchwords of modernity. Some of these were movements which predated the First World War:Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism and Futurism. Others emerged in its wake, like Dada and Surrealism. The war had cut a swathe in the ranks f science, the arts and letters, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic came to complete this grim harvest. Survivors of the trenches, such as the Germans Otto Dix and George Grosz, were scarred for life. 

The war had divided Europe not just politically but culturally. On the one side stood the triumphant allies, on the other, the losers - Germany and the remains of the Austrian Empire. The vast expanse of Russia drifted away under the influence of other historical currents again. True, the French Dadaists and Surrealists maintained some international connections, but the great network of scholars and artists that id covered pre-war Europe lay in ruins, to be partially restored only in the fifties.

The hitherto serene ideal of beauty had itself undergone a radical transformation. As Andrй Breton declared in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto: "Beauty will be convulsive - or will cease to be." The momentous convulsions of the age were to be reflected in its art. All the more reason why the modernist spirit should find the vestiges of the earlier period not merely inacceptable but incomprehensible. The Soviet Revolution brought to the fore many new or revived ideas; its insistence that people's needs be taken into account and a world be created to provide for them was so radical that people might truly think that the planet they red on was not the one their parents had known.


Gustave Moreau
Jupiter and Semele.1894-1896
Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris
Gustave Moreau

Fernand Khnopff
I Lock my Door upon Myself.1891
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
Under these circumstances, it was predictable that the theorists of art should be perplexed by the products of the previous decades. The prevailing mood of alienation and cynicism was hardly conducive to an appreciation of Symbolism's narrative and often sentimental art. There were, of course, artists and poets who could not easily forget the idiom in which they had been brought up. Guillaume Apollinaire loved the Symbolist poets and painters; Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, remained a devotee of Gustave Moreau; and the deeply ironical Marcel Duchamp spoke affectionately of the works of Arnold Bocklin. But modernism was implacable; it found little to say in favour of Symbolism, which it tended to dismiss as an aberration.

There was a precedent for this view, which had already been held by the 19th century realist painters; the view extended even to an artist of anarchist leanings such as Camille Pissarro. This was not simply an artistic perspective. It was largely determined by the struggle between the militantly secular ideals of the Third Republic and an increasingly defensive French Catholic Church.

For realism was, in 19th century France, the idiom of republican and anticlerical artists, the banner of a social consciousness attuned to the "real issues of the day". Those who painted imaginary subjects were condemned as reactionaries or tolerated as innocent dreamers blind to the issues of the day. This state of things was in marked contrast to English attitudes. There, realism was the idiom of the pious and right-minded who sought, like John Ruskin, to render homage to the Creator by imitating Creation as closely as possible.

The reason for this difference is clear. England is a Protestant country, and the two most significant epithets in relation to Symbolism are those which appear in the second sentence of this book. Symbolism was a product of Catholic and of industrial Europe. Since these are unusual categories for a work of art history, let us consider them in depth.

Let us begin by observing that elements of a feudal mentality survived in Europe until the end of the 19th century. Shaken but not overthrown by Enlightenment scepticism, the feudal world view had survived in rural areas. Georges Duby even suggests that the behaviour of the French peasantry had become increasingly formalised over the course of the 19th century as they made the medieval courtly style their model. Thus idealised, the dying tradition gained a new intensity, going out in a blaze of glory. But here we must adjust our metaphor. The fire went out because its fuel was scattered.
 The newly industrialised society had a tremendous appetite for manpower. It attracted vast numbers of men and women to the cities, into whose newly established railheads goods and raw materials incessantly flowed. The statistics are eloquent: during the period which concerns us, only one in seven persons born in the countryside remained there. One in seven emigrated to the New World or the colonies; five moved to the cities. In the half-century between 1850 and 1900, sixty million people left Europe. Still more were drawn to the cities and suburbs. The village reality had structured their private and social identity; in the city, there was no equivalent experience to give meaning and value to lives. 

Catholic societies seem to have felt these changes more profoundly, perhaps because Symbolism formed a greater and more integral part of their outlook. Perhaps, too, the Reformation, whose demands were those of the pragmatic, new financial and merchant classes, had better prepared Protestant minds for this event. At all events, the momentous social transformations of the industrial revolution brought a conflict between traditional, symbolic representations of the world and a new reality based on utterly different values.

The changes brought about by industrialisation were generally not well received in Catholic countries. The issue was not merely the desperate poverty that resulted; this was the same everywhere. More than 50,000 children passed through the homes Doctor Barnardo established for the waifs of London. No, in Catholic countries, the emblematic representation of the world was shaken to the core, and with it everything which had, till then, served to distinguish good and evil. "The concept of the demonic," observed Walter Benjamin, "appears when modernity enters into conjunction with Catholicism."


Leon Spilliaert
The Crossing.1913

Charles Maurin

Gustave Adolphe Mossa
Woman of Fashion and Jockey.1906
Fernand Hodler
Day I.1899-1900
Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern

Literary and artistic movement that originated with a group of French poets in the late 19th century, spread to painting and the theatre, and influenced the European and American literatures of the 20th century to varying degrees. Symbolist artists sought to express individual emotional experience through the subtle and suggestive use of highly symbolized language.

Symbolist literature

The principal Symbolist poets include the Frenchmen Stйphane Mallarmй, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, Henri de Rйgnier, Renй Ghil, and Gustave Kahn; the Belgians Йmile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach; the Greek-born Jean Morйas; and Francis Viйlй-Griffin and Stuart Merrill, who were American by birth. Rйmy de Gourmont was the principal Symbolist critic, while Symbolist criteria were applied most successfully to the novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans and to the theatre by the Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck. The French poets Paul Valйry and Paul Claudel are sometimes considered to be direct 20th-century heirs of the Symbolists.

Symbolism originated in the revolt of certain French poets against the rigid conventions governing both technique and theme in traditional French poetry, as evidenced in the precise description of Parnassian poetry. The Symbolists wished to liberate poetry from its expository functions and its formalized oratory in order to describe instead the fleeting, immediate sensations of man's inner life and experience. They attempted to evoke the ineffable intuitionsand sense impressions of man's inner life and to communicate the underlying mystery of existence through a free and highly personal use of metaphors and images that, though lacking in precise meaning, would nevertheless convey the state of the poet's mind and hint at the “dark and confused unity” of an inexpressible reality.

Such Symbolist forerunners as Verlaine and Rimbaud were greatly influenced by the poetry and thought of Charles Baudelaire, particularly by the poems in his Les Fleurs du mal (1857). They adopted Baudelaire's concept of the correspondances between the senses and combined this with the Wagnerian ideal of a synthesis of the arts to produce an original conception of the musical qualities of poetry. Thus, to the Symbolists, the theme within a poem could be developed and “orchestrated” by the sensitive manipulation of the harmonies, tones, and colours inherent in carefully chosen words. The Symbolists' attempt to emphasize the essential and innate qualities of the poetic medium was based on their conviction of the supremacy of art over all other means of expression or knowledge. This in turn was partly based on their idealistic conviction that underlying the materiality and individuality of the physical world was another reality whose essence could best be glimpsed through the subjective emotional responses contributing to and generated by the work of art.

Such masterpieces as Verlaine's Romances sans paroles (1874; Songs Without Words) and Mallarmй's L'Aprиs-midi d'un faune (1876) sparked a growing interest in the nascent innovations of progressive French poets. The Symbolist manifesto itself was published by Jean Morйas in Le Figaro on Sept. 18, 1886; in it he attacked the descriptive tendencies of Realist theatre, Naturalistic novels, and Parnassian poetry. He also proposed replacing the term dйcadent, which was used to describe Baudelaire and others,with the terms symboliste and symbolisme. Many little Symbolist reviews and magazines sprang up in the late 1880s, their authors freely participating in the controversies generated by the attacks of hostile critics on the movement. Mallarmй became the leader of the Symbolists, and his Divagations (1897) remains the most valuable statement of the movement's aesthetics. In their efforts to escape rigid metrical patterns and to achieve freer poetic rhythms, many Symbolist poets resorted to the composition of prose poems and the use of vers libre (free verse), which has now become a fundamental form of contemporary poetry.

The Symbolist movement also spread to Russia, where Valery Bryusov published an anthology of Russian and French Symbolist poems in 1894–95. The revival of poetry in Russia stemming from this movement had as its leader Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. His poetry expressed a belief that the world was a system of symbols expressing metaphysical realities. The greatest poet of the movement was Aleksandr Blok, who in Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve) united the Russian Revolution and God in an apocalyptic vision in which 12 Red Army men became apostles of the New World, headed by Christ. Other Russian Symbolist poets were Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov, Fyodor Sologub, Andrey Bely, and Nikolay Gumilyov.

The Symbolist movement in poetry reached its peak around 1890 and began to enter a precipitous decline in popularity around 1900. The atmospheric, unfocused imagery of Symbolist poetry eventually came to be seen as overrefined and affected, and the term dйcadent, which the Symbolists had once proudly flaunted, became with others a term of derision denoting mere fin-de-siиcle preciosity. Symbolist works had a strong and lasting influence on much British and American literature in the 20th century, however. Their experimental techniques greatly enriched the technical repertoire of modern poetry, and Symbolist theories bore fruit both in the poetry of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot and in the modern novel as represented by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, in which word harmonies and patterns of images oftentake preeminence over the narrative.

One of the few successful Symbolist novels was А rebours (1884; Against Nature) by J.-K. Huysmans. The book relates the varied and surprisingly resourceful experiments in aesthetic decadence undertaken by a bored aristocrat. The 20th-century American critic Edmund Wilson's survey of the Symbolist movement, Axel's Castle (1931), is considered a classic of modern literary analysis and the authoritative study of the movement.

Symbolist painting

Symbolism in painting took its direction from the poets and literary theorists of the movement, but it also represented a reaction against the objectivist aims of Realism and the increasingly influential movement of Impressionism. In contrast to the relatively concrete representation these movements sought, Symbolist painters favoured works based on fantasy and the imagination. The Symbolist position in painting was authoritatively defined by the young critic Albert Aurier, an enthusiastic admirer of Gauguin Paul , in an article in the Mercure de France (1891). He elaborated on Moreas' contention that the purpose of art “is to clothe the idea in sensuous form” and stressed the subjective, symbolical, and decorative functions of an art that would give visual expression to the inner life. Symbolist painters turned to the mystical and even the occult in an attempt to evoke subjective states of mind by visual forms.

Such Postimpressionist painters as Gauguin and Vincent VanGogh as well as the Nabis may be regarded as Symbolists in certain aspects of their art. However, the painters who are truly representative of Symbolist aesthetic ideals include three principal figures:Moreau Gustave, Redon Odilon, and Puvis de Chavannes Pierre. Moreau was a figurative painter who created scenes based on legendary or ancient themes. His highly original style utilized brilliant, jewel-like colours to portray the ornate, sumptuous interiors of imaginary temples and palaces in which scantily clad figuresare caught in statuesque poses. His work is characterized by exotic eroticism and decorative splendour. Redon explored mystical, fantastic, and often macabre themes in his paintings and graphics. His paintings stress the poetics of colour in their delicate harmonies of hues, while his subject matter was highly personal in its mythical and dreamlike figures. Puvis de Chavannes is now remembered primarily as a muralist.

Symbolist theatre

Dramatists also took their lead from the French Symbolist poets, especially from Mallarme. As drama critic for La Derniиre Mode during the 1870s, Mallarmй opposed the dominant Realist theatre and called for a poetic theatre that would evoke the hidden mystery of man and the universe. Drama, for Mallarme, should be a sacred rite in which the poet-dramatist revealed the correspondences between the visible and invisible worlds through the suggestive power of his poetic language. For the Symbolist playwright, the deeper truths of existence, known instinctively or intuitively,could not be directly expressed but only indirectly revealed through symbol, myth, and mood. The principal Symbolist playwrights were Maurice Maeterlinck in Belgium and Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam and Paul Claudel in France. Also influenced by Symbolist beliefs were the Swedish playwright August Strindberg and the Irish poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats.

Noteworthy examples of Symbolist theatre include Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Axлl (first performed 1884; definitive edition 1890), Maeterlinck's Pellйas et Mйlisande (1892), with its dreamlike atmosphere, and the highly satirical Ubu roi (1896) by Alfred Jarry. In 1890 the French poet Paul Fort founded the Theatre d'Art, where Symbolist dramas were presented along with readings from ancient and modern poetry. When Fort retired in 1892 Aurйlien Lugnй-Poл continued Symbolist production at his Thйвtre de l'Oeuvre well into the 20th century. Though Symbolist theatre did not last long as a unified movement, its sharp break with the realistic tradition along with its reliance on fantasy, atmosphere, and mood influenced 20th-century playwrights and theatrical production.

Encyclopædia Britannica

One metaphor for this collision of new and old is the slow, irresistible movement of continental drift. Consider how the Indian peninsula has, over the millenia, imperceptibly shouldered into the huge Asian landmass. The consequent pressure resulted in the vast, chaotic folds of the Himalayas, taken here to represent a century of perplexity and transition. On the one hand, we have the immovable mass of Asia, that is, the order of representations that tends to change slowly if at all (in this case, the Catholic heritage of Europe). On the other hand, we have a continent adrift, that is, the changes in lifestyle set in train by the unprecedented development of industry in the 19th century. Theories alone, after all, have never overthrown a society. Philosophers have always criticised traditional views, yet this has never prevented the survival of a deeply traditional society in rural areas. Indeed, nothing might have changed if men and women in great numbers had not been torn away from their native environment and precipitated into radically different circumstances. It was this dizzying collision between symbolic representations and everyday lifestyle which ultimately threw up Himalayan ridges where once there had been rolling plains. 

This collision is the subject of a painting, The Great Upheaval (Le Grand Chambardement) by the Belgian Symbolist artist Henry de Groux. 


Arnold Bocklin
The Sacred Wood.1882
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Arnold Bocklin
The Plague.1898
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel

Henry de Groux
The Great Upheaval.1893

Xavier Mellery
Ferdinand Keller
Bocklin's Tomb.1901-1902
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe
It depicts men and women, some on horseback, others on foot, leaving a place of devastation. In the foreground lies a large broken cross. The enclosure in which it stood has been laid waste like the area around it, and the inhabitants are impelled to move on. A closer look belies one's first impression; this picture does not represent the kind of exodus made familiar by the last two European cataclysms, but a purely spiritual "upheaval". An entire society takes leave of a familiar and beloved land and sets off into exile, into the unknown.

This melancholy constatation is central to the Symbolist outlook. At the end of the 19th century, while science and positivism triumphantly announced a brave new world founded on reason and technology, some people were primarily aware of the loss of an indefinable quality which they had found in the former cultural system, in the values and meanings signified by what we might call its "emblematic order".

It is thus no accident that a broken crucifix lies at the heart of Henry de Groux's painting. In all its ambiguity, the cross is the central symbol of a representation of the world that acknowledges more than one plane of reality. In the Christian world view, there is the created world of nature, and an increate, divine order which stands above it. (Or, to take a more secular perspective, the real might be contrasted with what Guillaume Apollinaire, in a coinage that met with unexpected success, termed the "surreal".) The positivist, on the other hand, acknowledges only one level of reality: nature. In his perspective, the "other" world is merely an illusion. To which some were inclined to retort: "You tell us that the other world is illusory. Perhaps it is. But it is there that we choose to live." It is with these people that our book is primarily concerned.

This sort of response might be prompted by a religious frame of mind. Or it might be motivated by a taste, perverse or otherwise, for solipsistic self-indulgence. The "other world" might be the world of the Divine; it might equally be a world of artistic delectation, that parallel world in which the fictitious des Esseintes, hero of J.-K. Huysmans' Against Nature, and his contemporary, the very real King Ludwig II of Bavaria, sought to take refuge.

In either case, we recognise a degree of neurosis or madness. But that is not the whole point. The question that we must ask is this: were the depressions of des Esseintes and the eccentricities of Ludwig of Bavaria the result of some specifically cultural malaise? To understand this question, we must sketch in some background. Twentieth century anthropology presents a culture as a web of values and meanings which allows men and women to decide where they stand and how to find their way in the world. It is therefore no coincidence that those who most deplored the loss of meaning and value were most receptive to Symbolism.

"It is all too clear," wrote the Symbolist poet Gustave Kahn, "that these people move only in search of resources, and the source of dreams is running dry." While the logic of science, industry and commerce might be capable of satisfying the practical needs of society and the individual will to power, Gustave Kahn's metaphor suggests a thirst that can be quenched only at the source of dreams. The metaphor of dream perhaps offers too many hostages to the critical spirit of the time, which was all too inclined to identify dreams with the unreal. Nevertheless, even those for whom the positivist world view was a source of dissatisfaction and anguish tended to be overwhelmed by the compelling force of its oppressive, virile power.


Henri Le Sidaner
It looks, then, as if we do indeed possess some sort of cultural key to the melancholy not merely of an imaginary personality like des Esseintes, but of the works of so many minor but significant Symbolist poets: Georges Rodenbach, Henri de Rйgnier, Camille Mauclair, Charles Guйrin, Marie Krysinska, Jean Lorrain, Grйgoire Le Roy and Pierre Louys. The industrial world might be described as a compound of fire and steel, and the Symbolist poets, impotent sons of a domineering age, sought refuge in air and water:

"The water of the old canals is cretinous and mental 
So dismal between the dead towns... 
Water so lifeless, that it seems fatal. 
Why so naked and so barren already? And what is 
the matter with it, that, entirely given over to its 
somnolence, to its embittered dreams, it has thus 
become no more than a treacherous mirror of frost 
in which the moon itself finds it painful to live?"

Georges Rodenbach's verse is eloquent of the mood of depression and decline that characterises the Symbolist state of mind. Symbolist poets were inclined to evoke the moon rather than the sun, autumn rather than spring, a canal rather than a mountain stream, rain rather than blue skies. They complained of sorrow and ennui, of disillusionment with love, of impotence, weariness and solitude, and they lamented their birth into a dying world.

These leitmotifs are given caustic expression in the poetry of Jules Laforgue. In his work too, the moon, evening and autumn are predominant, but they are found there in the company of a ferocious wit:

"Everything comes from a single categorical imperative,
but what a long arm it has, and how remote its womb!
Love, love which dreams, asceticizes, and fornicates;
Why don't we love one another for our own sakes in our own little corner?

Infinity, where did you spring from? Why are our proud senses 
mad for something beyond the keyboards bestowed, 
do they believe in mirrors more fortunate than the Word, 
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your papers!"

  "Infinity, show us your papers!" The tone is one of truculent defiance, and it is characteristic of those who discover the relativity of a culture which they had innocently believed to be the vehicle of absolute truth. Symbolism was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had disintegrated in the space of a few brief decades. This is the reason for the melancholy and anxiety expressed whenever an artist looks beyond the surface of things. For if a whole series of Symbolist artists strike one as sickly and emollient - one might cite Edmond Aman-Jean, Lucien Lйvy-Dhurmer, Charles Maurin, Edgar Maxence and Alphonse Osbert - it is because they chose to ignore reality; they preferred to offer a comforting illusion in perpetuating what had already ceased to exist.

To what, then, does the "symbol" at the heart of Symbolism stand opposed? By now, our answer is clear: to the limited "reality" of the age, to the given, to the profane. A symbol, by its very nature, refers to an absent reality In mathematics it signifies an unknown quantity; in religion, poetry or art, it lends substance to an unknown quality - a value that remains out of reach. In a religious context, this quality is unknown (or unknowable) because it belongs to a different order of reality - a supernatural order - and can therefore be signified only by a sacred object. The sacred, in this view, is merely a semantic category, and should not be confused with the divine; as the Chinese sage puts it, one must not confuse the moon with the finger that points to it. But even the irreligious must acknowledge that there are things to which we cannot directly refer. We need symbols to communicate these things. 

This is true of the emblematic categories of culture which have not yet attained the threshold of language, but which draw their substance from a vast network of implicit values which structure the hierarchy of the world for each individual consciousness, signifying the position it occupies within this hierarchy. It is also true of the future, which is constituted as much by man's hopes, fears, and waking dreams, as by the unavoidable material conditions imposed by history. So much human energy is expended in reaching beyond the narrow field of the given, as Laforgue ironically remarks: 

"Why are our proud senses
mad for something beyond the keyboards bestowed,
do they believe in mirrors more fortunate than the Word,
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your papers!"

This is the core of the conflict between the two world views: on the one hand, a given and immutable world, favourable to trade and industry but indifferent to the values which lend substance and savour to life; on the other a world dialectically related to a transcendent model (religious, visionary or poetical) that spurs the individual to action by proposing a creative transformation of the given. Western civilisation in the 19th century underwent a surgical operation which severed these two components of our relation to the world. From that point on, it seemed, reality could no longer lend its weight to the dreamer, nor dreams bestow wings upon reality. The two were at war.

It is thus apparent that Symbolist art does not merely touch upon long-standing illusions which society was finally learning to overcome. Nor is it simply the naive expression of some first, tentative forays into the realms of the unconscious, a world soon to be charted so thoroughly. It goes much further than that, pointing to the constantly shifting state of culture and to what the eminent Hellenist E. R. Dodds termed an "endogenous neurosis". This explains why a significant part of Symbolist art reflects a new uneasiness in the relations between men and women. For culture does not only confirm the individual's personal identity, it also provides the foundation of his or her sexual identity. Though this identity has a physiological foundation, it is also, inevitably, a cultural construction. A breach or dislocation in the body of culture will inevitably affect the mode of interaction between men and women. Here the relevance of Georges Duby's analysis of the Middle Ages is clear: "Fissures appear at the points of articulation; they grow gradually wider and eventually split the body apart, but they almost always turn out to exercise their corrosive effect only insidiously. In spite of the illusion fostered by the apparent tumult of merely superficial agitation, it is always in the very long term that their reverberations bring about collapses, and these are never more than partial since indestructible vestiges always subsist."

It is thus the nature of Symbolist art to attempt to record a process which had till then been massive, involuntary and very largely unconscious - though the collective will and the decrees of those in power had always had some power over it. The role of symbols as the traditional cement of the community had been tested during catastrophes. But by orcibly removing unprecedented numbers of men and women from the countryside and transforming them into the atomistic individuals of the newly created proletariat, the Industrial Revolution not onli made adjustment more difficult; it modified the order of priorities. "Grub first," as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil'sThreepenny Opera puts it, "Morals later!" For the new city-dwellers, solidarity in obtaining the necessities of life replaced the former community of meaning.

The upper class had greater leisure to ponder the loss of meaning implied by the new order of things. Involvement in militant activity might do duty for a sense of community among the impoverished; for the rich, all sense of community was lacking. Symbolism is thus the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. Those who had the means to do so sought solace from the brutal pursuits of the world by sipping at the soothing philtre of the arts. But even they were confronted with anxiety and nightmares from which none could then hope to be exempt.


Louis Welden Hawkins

William Blake
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun.
Brooklyn Museum, NY

Carlos Schwabe

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer
Portrait of Georges Rodenbach.1895
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Alexandre Seon
Orpheus Laments.1896
Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Henry Fuseli
The Nightmare.

Franz von Stuck
Neue Pinakothek, Munich

Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Astarte Syriaca.1877

Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Beata Beatrix.1863
Tate Gallery, London
Symbolist art thus strove to represent something other than self-evident physical reality. It was romantic up to a point; it was often allegorical; it was dream-like or fantastic when it wished, and it occasionally reached into those remote areas delineated by Freud in his exploration of the unconscious. Its antecedents may be sought among figures such as Fuseli, Goya or William Blake. But the roots of Symbolism are also to be sought in the fertile soil of Romanticism - the Romanticism of Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffman and Jean Paul rather than Alfred de Musset or Victor Hugo. The solipsistic stance so central to Symbolist art is to some extent prefigured in Romanticism. The movements are nevertheless distinct. Rooted in the Protestant mentality of Germany, Romanticism implied a fervent, mystical bond with Nature seen as the created word of God.

Symbolism, on the other hand, born of the Catholic mentality of France, Belgium, Austria and parts of Germany, no longer showed the same veneration for nature. "Nature, as he [des Esseintes] used to say, had had her day; the disgraceful uniformity of her landscapes and skies had finally worn out the patient appreciation of the refined. In the last analysis, how platitudinous she is, like a specialist confined to a particular domain; how petty-minded, like a shopkeeper stocking one article to the exclusion of any other; what a monotonous storehouse of meadows and trees, what a banal purveyor of seas and mountains! Besides, there is not a single one of her supposedly subtle and grandiose inventions that it is beyond the means of human genius to create; no Fontainebleau forest, no moonlight that cannot be reproduced by a decor bathed in electric lighting; no waterfall that hydraulic engineering cannot imitate to perfection; no rock that papier-mache cannot counterfeit; no flower that fine taffeta and delicately coloured paper cannot match! No doubt about it, this sempiternal chatterbox has by now wearied the indulgent admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible."

These words were given to his idiosyncratic brainchild by Joris-Karl Huysmans in 1893, almost exactly a century ago. In Against Nature, the caustic art critic and brilliant novelist enshrined some of the more striking features of Symbolist art. No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be, to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. The whispering collapses distantly audible throughout the edifice offered a discreet foretaste of the world's end. "Decadence" was the great issue of the Symbolist age, "decadence" the term that des Esseintes chose to characterize it.

Decadence meant the rejection of "progress" as a misunderstanding of the true nature of things. Everyone else was climbing onto the bandwagon of progress; the decadent chose to stay behind. Turning in on himself, he rejected the exoteric culture of science and sought consolation in esotericpursuits. It was the combination of this attitude with the dictates of fashion that made the dandy the Symbolist figure par excellence: the "prince of an imaginary realm" in Disraeli's words. And it was the need for a purely imaginary superiority that lay behind the somewhat hysterical arrogance of that supreme dandy, Count Robert de Montesquiou. Montesquiou was the model for both the comical figure of des Esseintes and the tragic Baron de Charlus in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

We are thus faced with an insoluble paradox. For in "normal" times - in periods of lower social tension - far from being the secret garden of a few privileged souls, the underlying Symbolism of culture, which these lonely figures were so eager to preserve, constituted the common ground on which the cohesion of society as a whole was built.

Art, from the very outset, had been laden with symbols. Only quite recently, as a result of a notorious misunderstanding of the Renaissance ideal of "imitation of nature", had it been assumed that it was the artist's business scrupulously to reproduce what he saw. Yet, if art is to hold our interest it must refer to something over and beyond itself and its manifest subject. At its best, even Impressionism captures a part of daily reality as elusive as the metaphysical: the fleeting moment of immediate experience. Impressionism is thus a kind of borderline case, contriving to be compatible with an age which, under the sway of Positivism, rejected as unreal that which could not be touched and measured.

The high-strung idealism of so much Symbolist art led to its rejection in later years. The First World War was a devastating exposй of contemporary illusions, and in works such as Celine's Journey to the End of the Night a despairing conclusion was drawn. Almost at the same time came Freud's revelation of the hidden roots that sustained a certain kind of idealism: sublimation. Similarly, the critical apparatus elaborated by Marx and widely accepted by historians and thinkers has allowed us to comprehend how ideology uses mythopoeic representations to consecrate the existing hierarchy of power.



It is easy enough to see why the naive complacency of much Symbolist art laid it open to criticism. But time has passed, ideas have changed, and we are now in a position to take a fresh view. The anthropologists of this century have shown how the symbolic foundation of culture is indispensable to the well-being of individuals and to the survival of society. It alone can signify values worth serving and provide each member of society with a clear perception of his or her individual and sexual identity. Such things are not within the purview of reason, but arise out of a preverbal, symbolic order which reason cannot afford to ignore. Nor has Symbolism ceased to exist. It remains active today in the work of poets and dramatists; an attentive ear will discover vestiges of it even in the essentially modern plays of Samuel Beckett. It is also spectacularly present in the cinema, in the baroque splendours of Fellini and Pasolini.


Marcel Duchamp
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.
(The Large Glass). 
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
  More unexpected are the traces of Symbolism in Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, which seems at first glance to be everything that Symbolism is not. Formally as dry as a blueprint, it expresses an ironic, not to say cynical view of sexual relations. But in both construction and outlook, it presents affinities with the great Symbolist machines of Gustaves Moreau, the founding father of French Symbolism.


Indeed, irony was never incompatible with Symbolism. Academic and sentimental works predominate, but French Symbolist poetry numbers amongst its exponents not merely Jules Laforgue, whom we have cited, but Alfred Jarry. Jarry's dandyism and whimsicality make him very much a Symbolist; in his oeuvre, we encounter a transition to the modernism of Duchamp.

It was in fact among Symbolist artists that a notion of the absolute autonomy of art first appeared. The assertion had a particular resonance in a society which by and large expected art to be "edifying". Modernism took up this doctrine and required that art, like mathematics, be recognized as a separate realm, unrelated to the context in which it appeared.

In several respects, then, a real continuity can be seen to exist between the art of that age and our own. If we fail to perceive this, it may be because we believe that Modernism marked a radical and definitive break with the past. But this is yet another myth: the founding myth of Modernism itself.


Fernand Khnopff
Art, or The Sphinx, or The Caresses.1896
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Symbolism acquired its name in France. The term was suggested by Jean Moreas (neIonnis Papadiamantopoulos), in the literary supplement of Le Figaro of 18 September 1886. Moreas' subject was the so-called "decadent" poets; in his view, "Symbolist" was a more appropriate description. "Symbolic poetry," he continued, "attempts to clothe the Idea in a perceptible form which, though not itself the poem's goal, serves to express the Idea to which it remains subordinate...."

The poem is thus an attempt to render perceptible a reality which would otherwise remain ineffable. Such is the function of the symbol: to express what is absent, or, in the case of Symbolism, what is "transcendental" or "otherworldly".

The transcendental was originally a category of religious thought: the God of the Jews and the Christians is transcendental. But transcendence is not necessarily or exclusively religious. There is much in reality which matters to us and yet remains for the most part out of reach, as though in another world. This is true of the past as of the future, and it also applies to that area of culture which serves as a repository of profound and enduring values.

In order to speak of these things, we place our speech under the sign of the aesthetic, signifying that the reality of which we speak is not the practical reality of everyday. This sign might be a rhythm of speech, the recourse to music or to a particular register of colours, or a more or less emphatically hieratic or "unreal" form of representation.

Jean Moreas' article dealt with poetry and not with the fine arts. But, despite the author's own reservations (he deplores the critic's "incurable obsession with labelling things"), artists recognized their own aspirations in Moreas' words and adopted the Symbolist label. He thus gave a name to something which had, till then, been no more than an ill-defined mood or state of mind. For Symbolism was not born in 1886 and an art applying the principles articulated by Moreas, and to that extent Symbolist, had already appeared in France twenty years before. I refer to the work of Gustaves Moreau.

But before considering Moreau's work, let us give some thought to the meaning ofthe word "Symbolist" when applied to artists of that period. A painter may be termed a Symbolist for formal reasons, because of the content of his works, or for both these reasons at once.

The first genuinely Symbolist painter was Gustaves Moreau (1826— 1898).

 The son of an architect employed by the City of Paris and himself a precociously talented draughtsman, Moreau enrolled at the Beaux-Arts at the age of twenty. He admired Delacroix and, in particular, TheodoreChasseriau, remaining under the latter's influence for some ten years. At the age of thirty he travelled to Italy, revelling in the art of the Quattrocento and in Byzantine mosaics. On his return to Paris, he exhibited at the Salon, where he won considerable success in 1864 with his Oedipus and the Sphinx, a painting of high academic finish. Five years later he gave up exhibiting for good. From then on he lived and worked at his town house at 14 rue de la Rochefoucauld, which has since become his museum. Its holdings include the majority of his abundant production (850 paintings, 350 water-colours and 5,000 drawings).

  Moreau was a solitary artist who chose a most unusual path. Though he was a contemporary of Manet and the Impressionists, his brushstroke and use of colour have nothing in common with them. This is a different world, peopled with figures from the Bible and classical mythology. Emile Zola, proselytising in favour of naturalism, dismissed Moreau's work as "a mere reaction against the modern world," specifying the ideological issues at stake when he added "the danger to science is slight". Manet (whom Zola rightly defended) may seem the greater artist on purely aesthetic grounds, but Moreau's work is nonetheless significant as an exposition of the cultural fantasies of his time.

That solitary original, Gustave Moreau, developed a style of sumptuous preciosity. The abundant, precious detail, the "necessary luxury", were, in his view, an essential aspect of art. His subject matter was almost entirely confined to ancient mythology, historical legend I Alexander the Great) and the Bible (Samson and Delilah, Moses, Salome). Salome, who had forced King Herod to bring her the head of John the Baptist "in a charger", sees that head appear before her as she again dances before the King.

Gustave Moreau
Oedipus and the Sphinx
Huysmans was aware of this; he wrote at length of the "Salome" who appears in a number of Moreau's works. 
The castrating woman is so widely encountered in the art of this period that one cannot help but dwell on its significance.

It is treated in ironic form by Felicien Rops, in academic and conventional form by Franz von Stuck; it gained pathos in the paintings of Edvard Munchand terror in the work of Alfred Kubin.


Felicien Rops
Franz von Stuck
Water and Fire.1913
These are but a few of the artists who treated this subject: why does it recur so insistently?

 It goes without saying that the late 19th century was a singularly puritanical age. Now it seems that puritanism tends to appear spontaneously, untheorised and unsystematic, at times of great cultural mutation. 

 Every revolution, political, religious or industrial, is followed by a phase of puritanical public discourse and legislation. This can best be understood if we allow that relations between the sexes are profoundly influenced by the unspoken rules of a symbolic social order. 

 When the old rules and cultural forms are rejected or ignored, individuals lose their bearings. Thus a young man, confronted with a woman whom he desires, asks himself how he must behave if she is to acknowledge him life poignantly expresses the fallacy of dialectics of "nature" and "culture", the "spontaneous" and the "artificial". Even today, these notions fundamentally distort our perception of the manner in which the self is constructed through culture.


Known as the "painter of Salomes", Moreau interpreted this subject many times, producing numerous versions after 1870. Some, likethis one, were left unfinished or, in the artist's words 'in the process of execution": in fact, part of his method was to start a painting, then continue it later, often after a long interval. Moreau's Salome, a symbol of lascivious-ness "amid the heavy odour of perfumes", was the inspiration for A Reborns (1884), a decadent novel by the important art critic and writer Joris Karl Huysmans, and for the poet Jose-Maria de Heredia, who described these paintings as having "a magic air in which the smell of poison lingers". In his Salomepaintings, Moreau embodied in his work the essence of a particular artistic and literary culture.


Gustave Moreau
Salome Dancing

Gustave Moreau
The Apparition.1879
Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris

"Of all artists there was one that threw him into long periods of ecstasy and from whom he acquired both masterpieces: Gustave Moreau. Des Esseintes lingered entire nights in contemplation over the painting representing Salome... In this work by Gustave Moreau, conceived quite differently from the details in the Bible, Des Esseintes finally found the extraordinary, superhuman Salome of which he had dreamt... an overpowering fascination emanated from that canvas. And yet perhaps the watercolour entitled The Apparition was more disquieting."

This was how Huysmans recorded Moreau's Salome in his novel A Rebours (1884). The subject was extremely popular in the figurative arts, literature, and music towards the end of the centurv. This concurred with the misogynous attitude of the Symbolists; in the interpretation given in Heinrich Heine's text, we can see the prototype of the unbalanced, destructive female who seduces Herod to obtain the head of John the Baptist. Moreau had used this subject many times in his works, among which was the famous canvas exhibited at the Salon in 1876; it depicts a dancer whose whole body is tattooed in bold, swirling designs, an effect that adds to the sensuality of the figure.

In contrast to Salome is the delicate female figure, reclining comfortably on the grass in the painting The Unicorns. The unicorns are symbols of chastity and purity, and the work suggests a feeling of serenity and comfort within the mythological subject matter.


Gustave Moreau
Jupiter and Semele
Pierre  Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), for instance, might be be considered the official painter of the Third Republic. He produced a large number of allegorical subjects, but there is nothing particularly Symbolist about that. Innumerable academic painters treated subjects such as "Progress guiding industry" or "The arts bestowing their blessings on mankind".

Today, Puvis de Chavannes' paintings strike one as insipid in colour and subject matter - to say nothing of the simpering expressions he confers on certain of his characters. Yet we cannot deny him a degree of originality in his formal and simplified organization of space and in the way he handles large planes of colour in works such as The Poor Fisherman. If we describe him as Symbolist, it is largely because a naturalistic or illusionistic representation of the world is not his primary concern.


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
The Dream.
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98) was almost contemporary with Gustave Moreauand the two artists are often associated with one another because of their different interpretations of the same concept of Symbolism. During a stay in Italy. Puvis was inspired to adopt classical models for a large series of allegorical works that celebrated personal and civic virtues. These were hung in various important buildings throughout France (from the Sorbonne and the Pantheon to the museums of Poitiers and Marseilles). His misty, poetic art sought mainly to achieve a linear rhythm applicable to the composition as a whole rather than to the single image. Puvis adopted traditional figurative values and kept his work clear and simple, with delicate, anti-naturalistic colours, in order to obtain an effect of unity. He expressed the fears of the contemporary human condition symbolically, through the nostalgic-evocation of an unchanging, archaic world of pure beauty and harmony.


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Young Girls by the Edge of the Sea.
Musйe d'Orsay, Paris
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
The Poor Fisherman.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris
His influence is perceptible in the work and theories of various artists. Its first theoreticalformulation was given by Maurice Denis, when, in the late 1880s, he defined a painting as "a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order". He had taken the idea from his friend Paul Serusier, who had it from Paul Gauguin; he, in his turn, owed it (as we shall see) to the young Emile Bernard. Symbolism, thus defined, opens the way to abstraction, as Serusier's painting The Talisman first showed. Indeed, the major pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Malevich, Kupka and Mondrian all began their careers as Symbolist painters.

Criticism and art history have, on occasion, bestowed a high status on the precursors of a movement later deemed significant. This is a notion that should be handled with the utmost care; it suggests that art progresses in the same way as science, one discovery becoming possible thanks to an earlier one, whose sole importance was its pioneering role. Unlike science, art does not "progress". It adapts to changing social relationships and modes of production and registers transformations in everyday life and in the representation of the world. As the circumstances of life and the way it is perceived change, so old forms come to seem irrelevant and new forms are needed. An artist does not make a "discovery" in the sense that scientists do. But he does discover a "means". Thanks to this "means", he can avoid repeating the familiar forms derived from an obsolete conception of the world; he can once more touch upon the heart of the matter.

The eighth of nine children of a poor insurance salesman, Carriere was brought up in Strasbourg, where he received his initial training in art at the Ecole Municipale de Dessin as part of his apprenticeship in commercial lithography. In 1868, while briefly employed as a lithographer, he visited Paris and was so inspired by the paintings of Rubens in the Louvre that he resolved to become an artist. His studies under Alexandre Cabanel at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts were interrupted by the Franco–Prussian War (1870–71), during which he was taken prisoner. In 1872–3 he worked in the studio of Jules Cheret. In 1878 he participated in the Salon for the first time, but his work went unnoticed. The following year he ended his studies under Cabanel, married and moved briefly to London where he saw and admired the works of Turner. Success eluded him for a number of years after he returned to Paris and he was forced to find occasional employment, usually with printers, until as late as 1889, to support his growing family. Between 1880 and 1885 his brother Ernest (1858–1908), a ceramicist, arranged part-time work for him at the Sиvres porcelain factory. There he met Auguste Rodin who became and remained an extremely close friend.


Jeanne Jacquemin
The Painful and Glorious Clown

Paul Serusier.
The Talisman.

Albert Marquet.
Andre Rouveyre.
Thus Emile Bernard understood the expressive power of colour treated as a unified plane (with greater intensity than in Puvis de Chavannes). But Bernard communicated his intuition to Paul Gauguin, and it was Gauguin who took it to its logical conclusion and to its highest pitch of intensity. Symbolism thus tends to include all those artists who were not primarily concerned with a so-called "realistic" representation of the world. It also includes artists such as the Belgians Jean Delville and Leon Frederic, the occult idealism of whose subject matter clearly designates them as Symbolist despite their overtly academic style. But the most convincing Symbolists are those who, like GustavesMoreau, may be classified as such for both the form and content of their work.

  Moreau's manner was initially academic, but underwent a slow transformation to encompass surprising audacities of impasto and colour. This may not prevent us from thinking it mannered and precious. Odilon Redon aptly defined it as "the art of a bachelor". Yet it is worth noting that, during the few years late in his life when he taught at the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Moreau's pupils included Georges Rouault, Henri Matisse  and Albert Marquet.


Eugene Carriere
La Peinture
Eugene Carriere
The Contemplator
His work is narrative; he was occasionally driven to deny, in tones of disabused weariness, that he was a "literary" artist. But biblical or mythological subjects do not, in themselves, make a painting Symbolist. Moreau fits into this category because he chose subjects which gave expression to the fantasies - one might almost say psychodrama - of sexual roles and identity that characterise his age. He did this by depicting figures like Salome, but also by the surprising and almost invariable androgyny of his male subjects. 

Symbolism thus touched upon the fantasies of the age as it did upon the realm of dreams, though the latter was by no means its exclusive preserve, dreams having been a favourite subject of the Romantics. But the Symbolist dream had lost the confident elan of Romanticism; it had become more enigmatic, more perverse.

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. Certain artists, like Fernand Khnopff, made a virtue of their solipsism. Others, like Redon, sought a technique capable of rendering the elusive, enigmatic qualities of experience.

 It follows that our subject can be divided into a number of more or less overlapping circles. A significant part of Symbolist art is tinged with a religiosity of a Catholic, syncretic or esoteric kind. Symbolism also produced a certain mystique of art for art's sake, in the spirit of James Abbott McNeill Whistler or Stephane Mallarme. Though these trends are, in theory, easy to distinguish, they tended in practice to mingle; the artists' needs were not so various as their styles, and their works frequently hung side by side in the salons. Finally, certain artists were Symbolists only for a certain period, while others remained so throughout their lives.

French sculptor Claudel is best known for her love affair with fellow artist Auguste Rodin, the basis for a late '80s French film starring Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani. Ayral-Clause, a professor of French and the humanities at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, cites original documents and other research to argue that althoughRodin is usually depicted as having abandoned a wimpy Camille, in fact Camille was so feisty and in-your-face (a necessity for a woman artist in a man's world) that he wound up running for cover to escape her "insults" once their 15-year-long affair was over. Camillewent mad and spent her last 30 years in an asylum. Ayral-Clause's account of these events is clear, although sometimes marred by an artificial prose style with odd syntax: "Events that are denied at the time they occur are often brought back to life through letters or journals discovered later on." Art history students may be disappointed by the generalized comments about Claudel's artworks themselves (shown, along with photos, in 69 b&w illustrations), since the woman, rather than the artist, is in the limelight in this biography. By contrast, Ayral-Clause fully accepts Rodin as a great artist and great man, reserving criticism for Camille's brother, the far-right-wing poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, who ensured she was buried in a common grave for paupers despite the family's great wealth.
Camille Claudel


born Dec. 8, 1864, Villeneuve-sur-Fиre, Fr. 
died Oct. 19, 1943, Montdevergues asylum, Montfavet, near Avignon 

French sculptor of whose work little remains and who for many years was best known as the mistress and muse of Auguste Rodin. She was also the sister of Paul Claudel, whose journals and memoirs provide much of the scant information available on his sister'slife.

Between the ages of about 5 and 12, Camille Claudel was taught by the Sisters of Christian Doctrine. When the family moved to Nogent-sur-Seine, the educationof the Claudel children was continued by atutor. Camille had little formal education from that point on, but she read widely in her father's well-stocked library. By her teenage years she was already a remarkably gifted sculptor, and her abilities were recognized by other artists of the time. When in 1881 her father was once again transferred, he moved his family to Paris. There Camille entered the Colarossi Academy (now the Grande Chaumiиre) and met a lifelong friend, Jessie Lipscomb (later Elborne). Her first extant works are from this period.

Claudel and Rodin probably first met in 1883. Shortly thereafter she became his student, collaborator, model, and mistress. While continuing to work on her own pieces, she is believed to have contributed whole figures and parts of figures to Rodin's projects of that period, particularly to The Gates of Hell. She continued to live at home until 1888, when she moved to her own quarters near Rodin's studio at La Folie Neubourg. By 1892 her relationship with Rodin had begun to crumble, and by 1893 she was both living and working alone, though she continued to communicate with him until 1898. From this point on she worked ceaselessly, impoverished and increasingly reclusive. She continued to exhibit at recognized salons (the Salon d'Automne, the Salondes Indйpendents) and at the Bing and Eugиne Blot galleries,though just as often she would utterly destroy every piece ofwork in her studio. She became obsessed with Rodin's injustice to her and began to feel persecuted by him and his “gang.” Alienated from most human society, living at a great distance from Paul—the one family member close to her—her condition overwhelmed her. On March 10, 1913, she was committed by force to an asylum at Ville-Йvrard. In September 1914 she was transferred to the asylum of Montdevergues, where she remained until her death.

Encyclopædia Britannica


Camille Claudel
The God Has Flown, 
or The Imploring Woman.

Musee Rodin, Paris

Camille Claudel
The Age of Maturity. Destiny, 
or Life.

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Auguste Rodin, who was born in Paris in 1840 and died in Meudon in 1917, was similar in age to many of the Impressionists. He was attracted and inspired by all the proposals and formal suggestions that came from their movement, but also by the newly emerging "ideiste" art - painting from the imagination. A highly gifted artist, who developed great skill as a sculptor. Rodin began his career under the sculptor Carrier Belleuse, working on the decoration of the Commercial Exchange in Brussels. His liberation from academism came through his study of Michelangelo on a trip to Italy in 1875. He was impressed by the epic nature of nude muscular figures and by the technique of "incompleteness". The creation of The Gates of Hell in 1880 revealed Rodin's search for a new, vital, and impassioned monumentality, with a Dionysian rhythm, in which the core of the sculpture seems to explode into the surrounding space and the figures appear to dissolve in the luminosity of the whole.

Rodin was mainly interested in the subject of movement. Although he was not a great theorist, it is clear from his thoughts on sculpture, collected by his students and his secretary, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, that he believed in the need to overcome "closed form" and to "transfer inner feelings to muscular movements; give movement to express life". "The expression of life," he said, "can never be halted or frozen if it is to conserve the infinite flexibility of reality." The statues and groups that he created, both the famous monumental examples and smaller works such as the sensitive nude ballerina figures (Iris, Messenger of the Gods, 1890-91), are rarely calm and restful, even when action is not crucial. Rodin was accused by many artists and critics - including Matisse, who visited him in 1906 and sought his advice in the medium - of neglecting the whole, of not achieving a compositional or sculptural synthesis, but rather of proceeding with an assembly of separate details, albeit each realized with the inspiration of genius. However, he continued with his research into the many-faceted and ever-changing profiles of an object, pursuing the organic vitality that seemed to animate the sculpture from within. A great modeller rather than a sculptor, Rodin found it very difficult to work in stone, so the job of translating his extraordinary inventions into marble was left to the skilful collaborators whom he had gathered around him: Emile-Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), who worked as an assistant in his studio from 1893 to 1908, and Charles Despiau (1874-1946). Together with Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), they continued the debate into this new form of sculpture, by now free from academic mannerism and devoted to recapturing essential formal values derived from the relationships between mass and light and filled and empty space, and from the rhvthmic articulation of planes and lines. For Maillol this renewal process ranged from a return to the classical ideal forward to the neo-Hellenic plastic arts (he lived in Greece for a year and was inspired by the ancient statues). In contrast, Bourdelle, boosted by his Christian faith, reverted to medieval-inspired sculpture of simplified, robust, and heroic figures.


Rodin's first sculptural assignment was the ornamental doors (The Gates of Hell) for the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, commissioned by the Ministry of Fine Arts in 1880. The narrative scenes, taken from Dante's Divine Comedy and from Ovid's Metamorphoses, comprised more than 186 figures in high and low relief, their dramatic passion reflected in the pained faces and exaggerated movements. The doors were never completed and were broken up into smaller sections; Bourdelle then reassembled them according to Rodin's elaborate scheme, producing four examples to be found today in museums in Paris, Zurich, Philadelphia, and Tokyo. Various motifs were taken by Rodin and enlarged in later elaborations — The Three Shadows (1880), The Kiss (1886), and The Thinker (1888) - the last being an enigmatic and symbolic meditation on human destiny. From 1884 to 1886 Rodin worked on the Burghers of Calais group, erected later in 1895. This was a realistic depiction of the six French citizens who during the Hundred Years' War offered to give their lives to King Edward III if he were to raise the siege on their, by then, destitute city. When Rodin was commissioned in 1885 to sculpt the funerary monument of Victor Hugo, destined for the Pantheon, he planned a group featuring the poet naked and pensive, accompanied by gesticulating Muses. This interpretation, not being sufficiently conventional, was rejected, and the work was not finished (albeit in an altered form) until 1909. when it was placed in the gardens of the Palais Royal. A similar fate befell the monument to Balzac, commissioned in 1883 by the Societe des Gens de Lettres and rejected by them following a discussion over its excessively free technique and its originality, deemed too superficial and inadequate in its portrayal of the subject. Cast in bronze after Rodin's death, it v. as placed in the Boulevard Raspail in 1939.


Auguste-Rene Rodin
Eternal Idol
Musee Rodin, Paris
Gauguin was only episodically a Symbolist painter. Some of his canvases are more Symbolist than others, and his most ambitious work, his artistic testament Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?draws its formal inspiration from the great murals of Puvis de Chavannes. His painting is not allegorical, as Puvis de Chavannes' compositions were, nor is it programmatic; Gauguin offered different interpretations to different people. But it is imbued with a mood of sensual melancholy. The veiled, allusive Symbolism that results has considerable resonance.

Gauguin set himself apart from the more conventional aspects of Symbolism, but the style he created has no truck with naturalism; it emphasised the emotional value of colour in ways to which no reproduction can do justice. Moreover, his ideas about colour were of considerable interest to the next generation of painters.

The site of this influence was Pont-Aven, in Brittany, where a small colony of painters had settled. The year was 1888. 

Emile Bernard (1868-1941), a precociously gifted painter born into modest circumstances, came to spend the summer there. He was twenty years old and a fervent Catholic, a point not without relevance in the ideological context of the time. Gauguin was forty. In Paris, Bernard had already metToulouse-Lautrec, Signac and van Gogh. And he had worked out a theory of painting, which he explained to Gauguin. It called for a more autonomous use of colour, which was to be applied in flat areas separated by a black line as in stained-glass windows.

During the summer of 1888 Paul Serusier (1864-1927) also arrived in Pont-Aven. He was twenty-four. His father, director of the Houbigant perfumery, had marked him down for a commercial career. Serusier refused; enrolling at the Academie Julian, he found himself in the company of Maurice Denis, PaulRanson and Pierre Bonnard. At Pont-Aven, Gauguin took him in hand. Together they went out to paint.

Gauguin's advice to Serusier was noted down by Maurice Denis (1870-1943): "How do you see that tree?" Gauguin asked as they stood in a wood called the Bois d'Amour, "Is it really green? Then put it down in green - the most beautiful green in your palette - and that shadow is rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible."
 Serusier painted the Bois d'Amour on the back of a cigar box. Returning to Paris, he unwrapped it under the eyes of his friends. "Thus, in paradoxical, unforgettable form," Maurice Denis noted, "we were presented for the first time with the fertile concept of 'a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order'. 
Thus did we learn that every work of art is a transposition, a caricature, the passionate equivalent of a sensation received." Realizing the significance ofSerusier's little painting, they dubbed it The Talisman.


Paul Signac
Portrait of Felix Feneon in Front of an Enamel of a Rhythmic Background of Measures and Angles, Shades and Colours.1890
Vincent van Gogh
Trees in the Asylum Garden.
Charles Filiger the most mystical of the Pont-Aven painters. Alfred Jarry entrusted him with the illustration of the Symbolist magazine l'Ymagier. He exhibited at Rose+Croix Salon in 1892.

Charles Filiger
Christ Entombed

Charles Filiger
Pouldu Landscape

Paul Serusier
The Talisman

Paul Serusier
Portrait of Paul Ranson Wearing Nabic Costume
Charless Maurin  was one of the most influential artists in the revival of interest in the art of the colour etching at the end of the 19th century in France. An associate of the painters of the Nabis  circle, Bonnard, Vuillard,Denis etc., his themes were mostly inspired by the quiet emotion of interior domestic life - frequently depictions of mothers with their children.

Maurin Charles

Emile Bernard
Madeleine au Bois d'Amour.
Anquetin Louis
Avenue de Clichy

In art, method of painting evolved by Gauguin Paul , Bernard Emile, Anquetin Louis, Maurin Charles and others in the 1880s to emphasize two-dimensional flat patterns, thus breaking with Impressionist art and theory. The styleshows a conscious effort to work less directly from nature and to rely more upon memory.

It was Gauguin who used the word Synthetism, by which hemeant a style of art in which the form (colour planes and lines) is synthesized with the major idea or feeling of the subject. Although he had exhibited with the Impressionists until 1886, he did not share their disregard for defined forms or compositional elements. He felt that their preoccupation with the study of light effects in nature was confining, superficial, and neglectful of thought and ideas. He sought todevelop a new decorative style in art based on areas of pure colour (e.g., without shaded areas or modeling), a few strong lines, and an almost two-dimensional arrangement of parts. He spent the summers of 1886 and 1888 in Pont-Aven and Le Pouldu, Brittany, France, with Bernard and other disciples, where he founded the Synthetist group. An example of this new decorative style is Gauguin's “Vision After the Sermon” (1888; National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh). This large work includes peasant women leaving the church in thelower part of the canvas; above them is the vision of Jacob wrestling with the angel, which was the sermon of the day. Gauguin attempts to combine in one setting two levels of reality, the everyday world and the dream world. The lower figures are reduced to areas of flat patterns, without modeling or perspective. The large colour areas are intense and without shadows. The design is so strong that the two realities fuse into one visual experience.

Bernard and Anquetin used the name Cloisonnism to describe their painting method, equating the design effect oflarge areas of pure colour and wide black outlines to the medieval cloisonnй enamel technique. In addition to his interest in medieval art, Bernard enjoyed Japanese prints (ukiyo-e) and the art of primitive cultures. Synthetism was to influence the Nabis, a group of artists in the next decade, and, for a while, the work of Vincent van Gogh.


in the decorative arts, an enameling technique or any product of that technique, which consists of soldering toa metal surface delicate metal strips bent to the outline of a design and filling the resulting cellular spaces, called cloisons (French: “partitions,” or “compartments”), with vitreous enamel paste. The object then is fired, ground smooth, and polished. Sometimes metal wire is used in place of the usual gold, brass,silver, or copper strips.

Among the earliest examples of cloisonnй are six Mycenaean rings of the 13th century BC. The great Western period of cloisonnй enameling was from the 10th to the 12th century, especially in the Byzantine Empire. In China cloisonnй was widely produced during the Ming (1368–1644) and Ch'ing (1644–1911/12) dynasties. In Japan, it was especially popular during the Tokugawa (1603–1868) and Meiji (1868–1912) periods.

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Pont-Aven school

Group of young painters who espousedthe style known as Synthetism and united under Paul Gauguin's informal tutelage at Pont-Aven, Brittany, France, in the summer of 1888. The artists included Bernard Emile, Charles Laval, Maxime Maufra, Serusier Paul , Filiger Charles, Meyer de Haan, Armand Seguin, and Henri de Chamaillard.

Gauguin and Bernard were the first to reject Impressionist and pointillist techniques in favour of Synthetist methods. The paintings executed by these artists in the years between 1886, when they first met at Pont-Aven, and 1888 show an overall simplification, a highly expressive use of colour, and an intensely spiritual approach to their subject matter. In their Breton landscapes, Gauguin and Bernard employed bright areas of colour surrounded with heavy, darkoutlines that give the painted surface the appearance of medieval enamel and stained-glass work. The content of their paintings often derived from the everyday life of the Breton people.

Gauguin's disciples, enthusiastically accepting his advice not to paint exclusively from nature, gradually abandoned the Neo-Impressionist styles that they had adopted in Paris. In their revolt against naturalism, the early Synthetist painters emphasized the decorative potentials of colour and line: a painting was to be primarily a flat surface upon which colour was laid ornamentally. The Swallow-Hole in the Bois d'Amour, Pont Aven, or The Talisman (1888), painted by Paul Sйrusier under the direct guidance of Gauguin, became the talisman of the young disciples. Gauguin had instructed Sйrusier not only to paint the landscape from memory but to be certain to paint the different-coloured areas as intensely as possible. Upon the return of the Pont-Aven school to Paris in the fall of 1888, the members met regularly to discuss new developments in French art, particularly Symbolism. In 1889 Gauguin arranged an important exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetist art that featured his own and others' works.

At one point in the existence of the Pont-Aven school, the idea of an artistic and communal society had seemed feasible, but, once Gauguin left for Tahiti, members of the original group abandoned their hopes for this to materialize. These artists became increasingly involved in the development of Symbolistart theories and techniques. Artists such as Sйrusier eventually became active in the Acadйmie Julian and in the group of artists known as the Nabis.

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