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

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 that represent abstract ideas, i.e symbols. 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 even used in a playful and humorous way which would never be seen in Symbolist art.

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

Jan Toorop - The Three Brides
The Three Brides by Jan Toorop

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

Gustave Moreau - Hesiod and the Muse
Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau

Fernand Khnopff - I lock my door upon myself
I lock my door upon myself by Fernand Khnopff

Gustave Moreau - Jupiter and Semele
Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau

Edvard Munch - The Dance of Life
The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch

Odilon Redon - The Cyclops
The Cyclops by Odilon Redon

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

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

Arnold Böcklin - Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle
Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin

James Ensor - Death and the Masks
Death and the Masks by James Ensor

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 made a comeback 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 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.

Jean Delville - Idol of Perversity -L'Idole de la perversité
Idol of Perversity -L’Idole de la perversité by Jean Delville

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

Alfred Kubin - The Egg
The Egg by Alfred Kubin

Franz Stuck - The Sin
The Sin by Franz Stuck

Gustave Moreau - The Apparition
The Apparition by Gustave Moreau

Gustav Klimt - Judith and the Head of Holofernes
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt

Feature 5:
A hallucinatory world of creepy, disembodied 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

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

Odilon Redon - Eye Balloon
Eye Balloon by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon - Cactus Man
Cactus Man by Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon - The Crying Spider
The Crying Spider by Odilon Redon

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