Symbolism began as a literature movement in France in the 1880s and the art movement soon followed. Jean Moréas’s manifesto, published in the Le Figaro art supplement in 1886, helped to inaugurate the name “Symbolism” for the movement (Myers). It was a reaction against Realism’s triviality, the crudeness of materialism and “the conventional mores of industrial and middle class society” (Kleiner 819).
Symbolist artists sought to move beyond the superficial surface of things and find a deeper reality. They painted a fantastical and imaginative world where the artist’s subjective experience, including emotions and ideas, was paramount. Artists incorporated “…exotic, mysterious, visionary, dreamlike, and fantastic” elements into their paintings (Kleiner 819).
Even before the term “Symbolism” was used, artists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavennes, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon initiated works with elements in the style. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes did not call himself a Symbolist, but Symbolists considered this French artist the “prophet” for the movement (Kleiner 819). In his painting, Sacred Grove, Puvis painted “statuesque figures in timeless poses” in a “tranquil landscape with a classical shrine” (Kleiner 829). With the unnatural stillness in the scene and shallow modeling of the figures, this painting is the antithesis of Realism. Puvis appealed both to the French Academy and the government with his classicism, as well to the Symbolists because he moved beyond the current, material world and looked into an imaginary world (Kleiner 820).
Gustave Moreau was another contributor to the Symbolist movement. His 1874 painting, The Apparition, shows the Biblical character and femme fatale Salome dancing before her stepfather Herod. She desires the head of St. John the Baptist. To drive home this point, the head, in a hallucinatory manner, floats above her, staring. Moreau’s style is very original, with a “combination of hallucinatory imagery, eroticism, precise drawing, rich color, and opulent setting” (Kleiner 820). His works are a precursor to the paintings of the Surrealists in the 20th century.
A third Symbolist was Odilon Redon. His painting, The Cyclops, shows Polyphemus rising from the sleeping Galatea. With Impressionist techniques, such as the same color palette and stippling brushstrokes, Redon painted a fantastical image about a dream that could have come from a dream itself (Kleiner 820). Redon rendered imagination as an image, which was very groundbreaking at the time.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: a Global History. Vol. 2. 14th ed. [Australia]: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.
Myers, Nicole. "Symbolism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm (August 2007)
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