Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French, Russian and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the style had its beginnings with the publication Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire admired greatly and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and ’70s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated by a series of manifestos and attracted a generation of writers. The name “symbolist” itself was first applied by the critic Jean Moréas, who invented the term to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadents of literature and of art.

Symbolism in literature is distinct from symbolism in art although the two were similar in many respects. In painting, symbolism can be seen as a revival of some mystical tendencies in the Romantic tradition, and was close to the self-consciously morbid and private decadent movement. Symbolism was soon identified with the artwork of a younger generation of painters who were similarly rejecting the conventions of Naturalism. Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism and Impressionism. Returning to the personal expressivity advocated by the Romantics earlier in the nineteenth century, they felt that the symbolic value or meaning of a work of art stemmed from the recreation of emotional experiences in the viewer through color, line, and composition. In painting, Symbolism represents a synthesis of form and feeling, of reality and the artist’s inner subjectivity.

There were several rather dissimilar groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists, which included Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Odilon Redon, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gaston Bussière, Edvard Munch, Félicien Rops, and Jan Toorop. Symbolism in painting was even more widespread geographically than symbolism in poetry, affecting Mikhail Vrubel, Nicholas Roerich, Victor Borisov-Musatov, Martiros Saryan, Mikhail Nesterov, Léon Bakst, Elena Gorokhova in Russia, as well as Frida Kahlo in Mexico, Elihu Vedder, Remedios Varo, Morris Graves and David Chetlahe Paladin in the United States. Auguste Rodin is sometimes considered a symbolist sculptor. The symbolist painters used mythological and dream imagery. The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems of mainstream iconography but intensely personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references. More a philosophy than an actual style of art, symbolism in painting influenced the contemporary Art Nouveau style and Les Nabis.


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