Symbolism Art Movement

1880 – 1910

How to identify Symbolist art? (Five Features)

Feature 1:
Symbolist paintings are dim, nightmarish scenes where artistic imagination is overtaken by the morbid and the macabre. The visions are otherworldly and mystical. You’ll find haunting, mysterious figures, evil women, supernatural monsters and demons, and imagery of sex and death. The atmosphere is always unsettling and gloomy.

Symbolism vs. Romanticism: Although both Romantic and Symbolist artists had an interest in mysticism and horrific visions, they differed on multiple points. The Romantics had a fascination with nature and how we’ve become alienated from it. The Symbolists were not interested in that. As for the violent, dream-like scenes of Romantic art, unlike the Symbolist ones, they were moments of action – heavily dramatic. They were also rebellious and often contained a political message. On the other hand, the Symbolist figures are statuesque, eternally suspended in motion against haunting landscapes.

Arnold Böcklin - Isle of the Dead
Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin

In this painting an oarsman is slowly rowing towards a small, desolate islet with openings that suggest of sepulchres. On the boat, there’s a draped coffin and a mysterious, statuesque figure shrouded in white. The atmosphere evokes feelings of gloominess and other-worldliness.

Hugo Simberg - The Wounded Angel
The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg
This Finnish masterpiece inspired a music video by fellow countrymen and women of heavy metal band Nightwish

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes - The Dream
The Dream by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
In this painting, Love, Wealth and Glory appear to a sleeping traveler.

Jean Delville - Madam Stuart Merrill - Mysteriosa
Madam Stuart Merrill – Mysteriosa by Jean Delville

Feature 2:
As the name of the art movement implies, the paintings display objects–symbols–that represent abstract ideas. For example, the terrifying angel in The Death of the Grave Digger (below) symbolizes death. Most of the symbolism referred to death, decadence and debauchery. Extending the symbolism to a whole painting makes it allegorical. The Three Brides below is an example where the three brides represent three states of the soul. The artists used mythological characters and biblical events: dark spirits, angels, gods and goddesses.

Symbolism vs. Surrealism: Despite the common characteristic of placing objects in bizarre juxtapositions in both art styles, there is one main difference: in a Symbolist artwork, everything is meaningful. Also there is always a single, coherent idea that ties up all the strange symbols in one painting. As for Surrealist art, symbols are often irrational and nonsensical. Sometimes they’re used in a playful and humorous way which is foreign to Symbolist art.

Carlos Schwabe - The Death of the Grave Digger
The Death of the Grave Digger by Carlos Schwabe

In this painting the black dress and wings of the Angel of Death contrast with the white background of the snow-covered graveyard. She had just caught an old gravedigger by surprise, as evident from his tense hand grasping at his own heart. The green light she holds most likely represents his soul. Surrounding the grave where the old man had been standing and which will be his ultimate resting place, there’s growing grass. It symbolizes the start of a new life while another is ending.

Jan Toorop - The Three Brides
The Three Brides by Jan Toorop
Tell me more about Toorop’s painting.

Félicien Rops - Pornocrates La dame au cochon - The Lady with the Pig
Pornocrates La dame au cochon – The Lady with the Pig by Félicien Rops
Tell me more about Rops’ painting.

Gustave Moreau - Hesiod and the Muse
Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau
Hesiod, a Greek poet, is shown here with a lyre in the presence of the Muse of song and poetry.

Fernand Khnopff - I lock my door upon myself
I lock my door upon myself by Fernand Khnopff
Note the Pre-Raphaelite influence on this painting: the woman of ideal beauty with long, flowing red hair, her wistful gaze and the title of the painting which is based on a line from a poem.

Gustave Moreau - Jupiter and Semele
Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau
Tell me more about Moreau’s painting.

Edvard Munch - The Dance of Life
The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch
Tell me more about Munch’s painting.

Odilon Redon - The Cyclops
The Cyclops by Odilon Redon
Note the influence of Impressionism on the color composition of this painting.

Feature 3:
Look for the recurring dark theme of death and mortality (hint: skulls and skeletons)

Hugo Simberg - The Garden of Death
The Garden of Death by Hugo Simberg

According to to the artist, this is a waiting place before arriving at heaven. The strange flowers are symbols of the souls of the dead. It might have been inspired by the traditional idea of the purgatory. Perhaps the the road at the top of the painting is what leads towards heaven. What’s innovative about this painting is that the skeletons in black robes, who are reminiscent of the frightening Grim Reaper, are depicted as lovable and gentle figures tending to flowers: One is shown with a watering can and the other is holding up to his chest a bunch of flowers. A possible interpretation of this gloomy yet peaceful painting is to tell the viewers that there is no reason to fear death.

Gustav Klimt - Death and Life
Death and Life by Gustav Klimt

In this allegorical painting, Death is personified in the traditional Grim Reaper looking down on Life represented by all ages, incluing a mother, grandmother and a baby. They’re all huddled together making a “monolith of life.” The Grim Reaper is holding a club (not a scythe) eagerly watching like a predator. People seem unaware of his presence, and his closeness. He is wearing a robe covered with crosses to symbolize death. In contrast, the women, on the other side, are sleeping on a flower bed, as a symbol of beauty and youth.

Arnold Böcklin - Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin
The skeleton in the background playing a violin is a centuries-old symbol of inevitable death.

James Ensor - Death and the Masks
Death and the Masks by James Ensor
None of the faces in this painting is real: The masks in the painting stand for the decadence and materialism of the bourgeosie while in the middle there’s a skull, representing death, showing a creepy grin, as if bemused by their acting that the party will never come to an end.

Feature 4:
Femme fatale: Look for the theme of sin and sensuality, famously portrayed in the popular motif of the femme fatale (‘dangerous woman’). Traditional social view of women had always influenced art which would often fit them in one of two main archetypes: virgin or whore. The femme fatale reappeared in Symbolist art, and it was nothing short of obscene. From the perspective of artists (or many men of that era), women were dangerous and deceptive, sexually deviant and insatiable. They could even turn ruthlessly violent. Artists used that theme as a cautionary tale against submitting to their allure. They didn’t need to make up new subject matter because they were able to reuse familiar scenes from ancient mythology (e.g. Medusa) or the Bible (Eve or Salome).

Symbolism vs. Pre-Raphaelite art: Contrast the ideal, virginal beauty of Pre-Rapaelite women with their evil, monstrous counterparts below.

Franz Stuck - The Sin
The Sin by Franz Stuck
Note Eve’s gaze towards you and the serpent around her torso which is usually a symbol of her seduction.

Jean Delville - Idol of Perversity -L'Idole de la perversité
Idol of Perversity -L’Idole de la perversité by Jean Delville
Note the snake slithering between her breasts and the supernatural energy radiating from her head.

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer - Eve
Eve by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

Alfred Kubin - The Egg
The Egg by Alfred Kubin
Don’t miss the open grave next to the skeletal woman with an enormously swollen belly (pregnant?).

Gustave Moreau - The Apparition
The Apparition by Gustave Moreau
Tell me more about Moreau’s painting.

Gustav Klimt - Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt
Note the severed head (view Feature 5 below).

Feature 5:
A hallucinatory world of creepy, disembodied/severed heads, and hybrid human-animal and human-monster creatures

Fernand Khnopff - The Sphinx or The Caresses
The Sphinx or The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff

Gustave Moreau - Oedipus and the Sphinx
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau
Tell me more about Moreau’s painting.

Odilon Redon - Guardian Spirit of the Waters
Guardian Spirit of the Waters by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon - Eye Balloon
Eye Balloon by Odilon Redon
Note the skull on a saucer being dragged up by the eye balloon.

Odilon Redon - The Crying Spider
The Crying Spider by Odilon Redon, a hybrid human-monster

Odilon Redon - Cactus Man
Cactus Man by Odilon Redon, a hybrid human-plant

Read History of Symbolist art: Why and how it happened.