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  • 8/15/2004


Symbolism is an artistic movement which rejected the purely visua lrealism of the Impressionists, and the rationality of the Industrial Age, in order to depict the symbols of ideas. The term Symbolism means the systematic use of symbols or pictorial conventions to express an allegorical meaning.

 Influenced by Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it thrived in France in the late nineteenth century, its influence spreading throughout much of Europe. Symbolism is an important element of most religious arts and reading symbols plays a main role in psychoanalysis. Thus, the Symbolist painters used these symbols from mythology and dream imagery for a visual language of the soul. Rather than the precise equivalents of ideas or emotions, its symbols were meant to be more mysterious, ambiguous suggestions of meanings. The work of one group, including Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824-1898), Gustavo Moreau (French, 1826-1898), and Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916), took a literary approach, employing some of the imagery of Symbolist writers, including such icons as severed heads, monsters and glowing or smoky spirits, synthesized from elements of Bible stories and ancient myths. Later, the imaginative incongruities in these works were to influence the Surrealists. Another group, taking a formal approach, in which linear stylizations and innovative uses of color produced emotional effects, included Paul Gauguin (French, 1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853-1890) and the Nabis.
Not so much a style of art, Symbolism was more an international ideological trend. Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly.
Symbolism in painting had a large geographical reach, reaching several Russian artists, as well as American. The closest to Symbolism was Aestheticism.


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,

Beheading of St. John the Baptist (La Décollation de St. Jean Baptiste), 1869, oil on canvas, about 48 x 64 inches, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England. This was exhibited in the influential Armory Show of 1913

Arnold Bِcklin (Swiss, 1827-1901),

The Island of the Dead, 1883, oil on wood panel, 80 x 150 cm, Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916),

The Light of Day (Le Jour), Plate VI from "Songes", 1891, lithograph, 8 1/4 x 6 1/8 inches. This was exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913

Odilon Redon,

Silence, n.d., oil on canvas, 29 1/4 x 29 inches, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Odilon Redon (French, 1840-1916),

Roger and Angelica, c. 1910, pastel on paper, 36 1/2 x 28 3/4 inches, Museum of Modern Art, NY. This was exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913

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