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

This monochrome painting shows three states of the soul. The first on the far left is an innocent bride in a Madonna-like pose, who has dedicated her life to God. Contrast her spirituality and lack of sexuality with the other two brides. The one in the middle dedicated herself to earthly and profane love. The one on the far right, whose looks appear to be influenced by Egyptian art, is Satanic. Her attachment to carnal pleasures and material possessions are symbolized by her evil facial look and the string small skulls around her neck. The handmaidens in the foreground bring bells and lilies, and there’s a bed of thorns on which the scene is set. Collectively, this painting aggregates common Symbolist elements that associate women with dangerous sensuality, sin and death.

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

Why a blindfolded, naked woman has a pig on a leash? The artist meant to attack the material decadence of Paris at the time, which is symbolized by the pig’s golden tail and the woman’s feathered hat and band of gold and blue silk. Also, sexual decadence is represented by the pig steering the naked woman who’s in “blind” submission to “her sexual urges.” The pig might stand for debauchery, the devil himself or the philandering man. The brilliance of this masterpiece lies in its possibility to be read in reverse: the woman is a ruthless femme fatale (view Feature 4 below) who’s in control of the pig. So, the painting is yet another Symbolist sexist artwork warning its audience that men are controlled by women and women by Satan. The name of the painting is inspired by a misogynist book by French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: La pornocratie, ou Les femmes dans les temps modernes (Pornocracy, or Women in Modern Times). Pornocracy means government, or domination, by whores, or corrupt people. Note that “Pornokrates” in Greek letters are carved on the frieze at the bottom. Although his masterpiece might have misogynistic undertones, Rops was not a man who could bear life without women; he shared a household with two sisters, both of whom carried his children! The painting is almost as shocking today as it was back then. Rops understood its effect, hence he included three cherubs flying away in horror. He saw Parisian society as a place where fine arts are being trampled on by sensuality and decadence, which explains the four allegories on the frieze under the woman’s feet representing sculpture, music, literature and painting. He depicted them as male figures from antiquity looking despondent and defeated. Keeping to the spirit of the painting, unfortunately, he replaced even music (think of “the muse”) who’s traditionally symbolized by a beautiful female figure (as in fellow Symbolist Moreau’s Hesiod and the Muse below) with by a male one.

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
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

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

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

Oedipus (right) was born to a royal family. His father, King Laius, heard a prophecy from an oracle that his son would one day grow up to kill him and marry his own mother, so he abandoned him as a baby on a mountain. A shepherd found him and took him to the King of another city, Corinth, who brought him up as one of their own. On a journey to Thebes, he had a fight on the road with a man and killed him. That stranger was King Laius. At the gate of Thebes he enounctered a monster, the sphinx, who had been terrorizing the city. But his victory over the monster was celebrated in Thebes that they gave him the vacant throne and the widowed queen as a wife, by which the prophecy was fulfilled. There is no happy ending because eventually after discovering the truth, the queen kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. This painting shows Oedipus’s confrontation with the Sphinx which is simmering with sexual tension. She has the body of a lion, the wings of a bird and the face, breast and coiffured hair of a young beautiful blonde woman. She’s presented as a “castrating” femme fatale (view Feature 4 above). Her painful claws are digging into his flesh and hind legs are pressing onto his genital area. He seems to be staring her down in defiance and she seems to be dangerously hypnotizing him. The danger she poses is clear to the viewer from the dead bodies torn to pieces at the bottom of the painting. They were once travelers on that mountain path like Oedipus but failed to answer her riddle. “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?” He answered, “Man, who crawls as an infant, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a walking stick at old age.” The she-monster was so upset about him answering her correctly that she killed herself.

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.