Even though it has a manifesto, published in 1886 in Parisian Le Figaro by poet Jean Moreas, Symbolism is not a strictly defined movement. It consists of individuals living throughout Europe and of various ages working in different styles and techniques. However, writers, intellectuals, and artists of Symbolism collectively championed depicting ideas through art rather than description.
Symbolist artists advocated turning inward to the worlds of dream and imagination, thought and feeling. The invisible world and its experience took precedence over the everyday, visible reality and naturalism, which were related to materialism and the degeneration of contemporary society. In a sort of escapism, Symbolist artists plunged into themselves and recreated the particular states of the human soul. Here are 10 exemplary Symbolist artists who did just that.
1. Proto-Symbolist Artist: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Born in Lyon in 1824, Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes took up painting relatively late in life. He studied literature and mathematics before entering the École Polytechnique in Paris to pursue a career in his father’s footsteps as an engineer in the French army. In a change of heart, Chavannes decided to devote himself to painting in 1846. He went on to study under Eugène Delacroix and Thomas Couture. From this early period, one of his drawings appeared in the Salon of 1850.
In 1881, after several rejections from the Salon, Puvis de Chavannes completed The Poor Fisherman, one of his best-known works. This work, remarkable as much for its composition as for its mood, earned him the title of “forerunner of Symbolist artists.” Puvis de Chavannes achieved public recognition mainly through his fresco commissions, particularly for the Musée de Picardie in Amiens as well as the Pantheon and the Sorbonne in Paris. More symbolic in form than in subject matter, his work had an aura of mystical timelessness that transported the viewer to an ethereal realm.
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Chavannes participated in the founding of the National Society of Fine Art and served as its chairman, next to Eugène Delacroix and Carrier-Belleuse. At the time of his death in Paris on October 24, 1898, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was considered one of the greatest 19th-century French artists.
2. Arnold Böcklin
Born in 1827 in Basel, Switzerland, Arnold Böcklin began his artistic training while residing in Germany, entering the Academy in Düsseldorf at nineteen. His professor promptly advised him to continue his education in Brussels and Paris and proceed to Rome. Once in Italy, he copied the old masters and developed his highly-individual art, taking the Roman countryside as the inspiration for his many landscapes. Simultaneously majestic and sad, these works invariably provoke deep melancholy and longing.
In 1880, Böcklin completed the first version of The Isle of the Dead. Within six years, he would complete five variations of this painting, now considered his most influential work. As with many of his works, the scene’s source is found in the classical world, but the image is completely fictional, a product of the artist’s imagination.
During his life, Böcklin’s works greatly influenced younger Symbolist artists. After he died in 1901, Böcklin already had a cult of personality behind him, with his works being praised for their universal value. In the 1920s, his artistic influence emerged again in the works of Surrealists, such as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico.
3. Gustave Moreau
Gustave Moreau was born in Paris in 1828, where his artistic career primarily unfolded. After attending classes at Rollin College, Moreau made his first trip to Italy in 1841 and afterward frequented the private studio of the painter François-Édouard Picot, a decorator of public monuments and Parisian churches. These experiences made him a suitable applicant for admission to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to which he applied in 1846. However, he soon left in 1849 after a failed attempt to win the Prix de Rome.
In 1876, when Moreau exhibited The Apparition at the Paris Salon, the public and critics finally opened their eyes to the beauty of his work. Several themes are common in Moreau’s art: the importance of imagination and artistic creation, as well as the use of Christian symbols and figures interacting with pagan elements. He depicted femme fatale women and androgynous men in line with fin-de-siècle aesthetics.
In 1888, Moreau was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, then appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1892. Gustave Moreau died in Paris in 1898 as a renowned painter.
4. Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones was born in Birmingham in 1833. He was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied theology. There, he met William Morris, and two years later, having discovered the work of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the two friends went to live in London. Burne-Jones had decided to become a painter, and Morris, an architect. Taking his inspiration from Romantic literature, Burne-Jones started working on pencil and ink drawings and watercolors.
Under the guidance of Rossetti, Burne-Jones joined the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites but developed a distinctive style. His work transcended Pre-Raphaelite and Italian influences in a subtle mixture of Romanticism and Symbolism. Always looking for inspiration in literature, myths, and medieval legends, Burne-Jones applied himself, particularly to depicting figures he often observed from nature. Line and form took precedence over color, and the tones of his canvases were often softened, sometimes resulting in a faded appearance.
Burne-Jones became a Royal Academy of Arts member in 1885 but resigned in 1893. Two years later, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. Having become a significant artist of his era, known throughout Europe, Burne-Jones died in London in 1898.
5. Odilon Redon
Bertrand-Jean Redon, called Odilon, one of the most original Symbolist artists, was born on April 20, 1840 in Bordeaux. Spending most of his childhood isolated in rural France, Redon created his first drawings and charcoals. However, it was undoubtedly his journey to Paris and subsequent visits to Parisian museums that persuaded Redon, at the time seven years old, to choose a career as an artist.
Pursuing architectural studies hardly changed Redon’s plans in the least, but it contributed to the development of his skill at drawing and his lifelong attention to detail. From 1855, Redon took drawing classes under the guidance of Stanislas Gorin, who led him to discover the art of Millet, Corot, and even Gustave Moreau. In 1863, Redon met Rodolphe Bresdin, who introduced him to the art of printmaking and, in particular, the etching technique. Redon completed various albums and illustrations, primarily of Romantic and Symbolist texts, including Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. His noir compositions are significant for their expressive and suggestive possibilities of monochromatic works.
After the turn of the 20th century and overcoming health problems, Redon’s art evolved as he began using clear and bright colors, discarding the somber subjects of his early work. Odilon Redon died in Paris in 1916 at 76, leaving behind a considerable body of work as his legacy. The Nabis would claim ownership of this legacy, and the Symbolist artists would draw on it as a source.
6. Eugène Carrière
Eugène Carrière was born in Gournay-sur-Marne on January 16, 1849. He attended the design school in Strasbourg from the age of thirteen, entering a lithography studio in 1864. Carrière grew up in Strasbourg but would go to Paris to enroll in the École des Beaux-Arts in 1869. In Paris, Carrière frequented the studio of the academic painter Alexandre Cabanel. Carrière’s style began to evolve in the 1880s, and he freed himself from the academic influences stemming from his previously received education.
In 1890, he participated in the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Salon and took up lithography again. From then on, his works were characterized by monochrome, stylized detail, and sometimes distorted elements. Carrière participated in the debates of his time, particularly during the Dreyfus Affair (where he sided with Émile Zola) and on the subject of the emancipation of women. In 1898, he opened a studio where, among other artists, Derain and Matisse studied. Suffering from throat cancer, Carrière underwent surgery that left him paralyzed and unable to talk during the last year of his life before dying in Paris on March 27, 1906.
7. Fernand Khnopff
Fernand Khnopff was born in Grembergen lez-Termonde, Belgium, in 1858. He studied at the Faculty of Law at the Université Libre in Brussels, but after one year, he moved to the city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Khnopff painted his first Symbolist works in 1882, inspired by the writings of Gustave Flaubert.
In 1887, Khnopff completed the enigmatic portrait of his younger sister, Marguerite, which he always kept with him. As a woman who was both pure and attractive in the eyes of the painter, she represented a type of feminine ideal. It was she whom Khnopff depicted several times in his masterpiece Memories, painted in the subsequent year. He is known for the soft tonalities of his colors that increase the viewer’s experience of nostalgia and detachment.
Khnopff also showed several mysterious, erotic drawings, which served, among other things, as frontispieces to the writings of the Belgian Symbolists Verhaeren, Rodenbach, Joséphin Péladan, and Grégoire Le Roy. Fernand Khnopff, the “painter of closed eyes,” died in Brussels on November 12, 1921, an essential representative of the Symbolist movement.
8. Jan Toorop
Johannes Théodor Toorop, known as Jan Toorop, was born in Java, Indonesia, in 1858. In 1863, the Toorop family moved to the island of Banka in southern Sumatra. Upon returning to the Netherlands in 1869, Jan Toorop attended secondary schools in Leiden and Winterswijk. In 1881, he continued his education at the Academy of Amsterdam before moving to Brussels in 1882, where he enrolled in the Academy of Decorative Arts.
Toorop also made several trips to England, where he discovered the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. His art would henceforth appear Symbolist, primarily because of his interest in Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Work of Art) and the frequent use of mythological subjects. Toorop developed a highly individual, linear style, even among other Symbolist artists, combining Javanese motifs with Symbolist influences. He produced expressive drawings of Karwijk fishermen before turning to religious subjects in 1908. Toorop died in 1928 in The Hague, leaving behind an extensive and diverse body of work.
9. Edvard Munch
Born in Løten in 1863, Edvard Munch grew up in the Norwegian capital of Christiana, now known as Oslo. In 1881, he enrolled in the Royal College of Art and Design under the direction of the sculptor Julius Middelthum, where he gradually turned to painting. Munch’s canvases were marked by the profound personal torments that haunted the painter and gave birth to Expressionism.
Munch’s works were often symbolic indications of his emotions and feelings. In 1893, he started working on The Frieze of Life, a series of four canvases, including paintings The Voice, The Scream, Anxiety, and The Ashes, and made several prints and drawings. In the series, Munch uses a new innovative technique, which appeared unfinished to most of the public. He uses the art forms not as decoration but as a vehicle for profound psychological revelation and to deal with the themes of love, illness, and death. Despite health problems, Munch entered a productive period at the dawn of the twentieth century and experienced significant success, particularly at the Exposition of Prague in 1905. Munch led a solitary life of seclusion before dying on January 23, 1944.
10, Jens Ferdinand Willumsen
Born in Copenhagen in 1863, Jens Ferdinand Willumsen entered that city’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1881. Willumsen took architecture classes simultaneously and later sharpened his technique under the painter Peder Severin Kroyer. In 1888, he made his first trip to France, where he found the culture of fin-de-siècle Paris highly inspiring. There, he discovered the work of the Symbolist Odilon Redon through Theo Van Gogh.
Willumsen’s fame grew after the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, where he exhibited Jotunheim. It is a work of masterful geometricized Symbolism in which sculpture combines perfectly with a painting, particularly in the intensity of the canvas and its frame. Painted between 1892 and 1893 after a stay in Norway, the work was very popular with the public. Painting was Willumsen’s preferred means of expression, but he explored different visual art forms and techniques throughout his career.
Additionally, his style was constantly changing and following the various aesthetic trends of the period. Willumsen adapted his themes, simultaneously becoming Naturalist, Symbolist, and Expressionist. Jens Ferdinand Willumsen died in Cannes, France, in 1958 at the age of eighty-five.