4 Key Characteristics of Symbolist Art

Symbolist art is known for depictions of mythological scenes and dramatic heroines. But what was the ideology behind these images?

Nov 20, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

symbolist art characteristics


Symbolism is an art movement that originated in Europe during the era of industrialization. Although typical Symbolist artists painted dreamlike mythological scenes, their art expressed deep feelings of disillusionment with the contemporary world. Symbolism was essentially a conservative reaction to more progressive art movements that were happening at the time. Here are four key characteristics of symbolist art that you should know.


1. Symbolist Art Grew Out of Literature

waterhouse circe painting
Circe Invidiosa by John William Waterhouse, 1892, via Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 publication Les Fleurs du Mal was the starting point of Symbolism as a coherent movement. The work was also the first truly Symbolist piece that set the tone for the next generations of artists and writers. Baudelaire’s work dealt with the disillusionment in progress, the amorality of the present age, and the loneliness that crushed the residents of Paris.


Three decades later, the Greek poet Jean Moreas published his Symbolist Manifesto, proclaiming his fellow artists the enemies of wrong feelings and objective description. This idea migrated from literature towards visual arts, with Symbolist artists focusing on emotion and aesthetic qualities rather than realism and objectivity. In Symbolist literature, plot and character development were much less relevant than detailed descriptions of their feelings and surroundings. Symbolist painting worked using essentially the same formula.


Since the basis of Symbolist art was literature, its visual language was highly descriptive, with detailed scenes and elaborate decoration. There is not much movement or dynamism in compositions and no action behind the picture frame: a Symbolist painting is limited by the edges of the canvas, with no implied depth of the world on it. The artists associated with the movement mostly used dark backgrounds and saturated colors to achieve the same feeling of gloom and suspense present in written works.

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moreau salome painting
Salome Dancing before Herod by Gustave Moreau, 1876, via Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


Another Bible of Symbolists was a decadent novel A Rebours (Against Nature), written by Joris-Karl Huysmans. A young aristocrat Des Esseintes, tired and disillusioned with life despite his age, settles in recluse in his mansion and tries to construct an artificial reality that would bring only pleasures to him. He spends days experimenting with bending nature to his will, but his experiments always end badly. For example, he grows a garden of poisonous flowers and kills a tortoise by encrusting gemstones into its shell.


Among other essentially pointless activities of Des Esseintes is the contemplation of his art collection, which includes artists now known as the main Symbolists, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon. One of Des Esseintes’ favorite paintings, Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing before Herod, becomes a subject of the character’s long musing, during which he explains the inherently vile and evil nature of women. This topic would become one of the central ideas of male-dominated Symbolist art.


2. Symbolist Artists Were Conservative Escapists 

vrubel swan painting
The Swan Princess by Mikhail Vrubel, 1900, via Tretyakov Gallery Magazine


The development of Symbolism happened parallel to the gradual de-figuration of art and its rapid movement from realistic forms toward abstraction. In many ways, Symbolism was a counter-movement to Impressionism. While Impressionists like Renoir or Monet focused on present-day cityscapes and the rapidly changing daily life, the Symbolists were appalled by this. While some artists praised the new age, others regarded industrialization and growing cities as the era of abandoned spirituality and decadence. Instead of depicting the unpleasant reality, the Symbolists chose to address the realm of myths and archetypes.


As the avant-garde forms of art departed reality to focus on intangible concepts and subjective feelings, the Symbolists – ironically – did essentially the same. They exchanged the present for an imaginary non-existent past, eternal symbols, dreams, and aestheticism. Some Symbolist Salons explicitly banned mundane scenes, portraits, and history paintings. A truly symbolist work should have expressed ‘universal truths’ like Christian spirituality and ideal beauty, employing the language of universally recognized symbols and metaphors. Of course, the word ‘universal’ referred not to the common knowledge shared by every social group of the time but to the information available to educated men of higher classes. Symbolist painters addressed ancient Greek and Roman mythology, as well as the Old Testament stories.


symbolist art bocklin sound painting
Ocean Breakers (The Sound) by Arnold Böcklin, 1879, via Google Arts & Culture


The art movement of Symbolism was rather widespread and had the most remarkable impact in France, Belgium, Germany, and Russia. The Russian branch of Symbolism had a distinctive set of topics and forms based on Eastern European folklore and literature. However, regardless of cultural and regional differences, the general penchant for escapism remained permanent.


Despite their conservatism, in some ways, the Symbolists approached certain aspects of their art in a manner similar to more avant-garde artists. For instance, one of their preoccupations was music and the ways in which one could translate it into visual language. The great German Symbolist Arnold Böcklin explored this concept in his painting Ocean Breakers, trying to interpret the sound of roaring waves and the siren singing through painted elements. Abstract artists like Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky would later treat music similarly in their abstract works. Kandinsky was the student of another celebrated German Symbolist, Franz von Stuck. According to Kandinsky’s notes, Von Stuck noticed his student’s exceptional work with color and urged him to paint in only black and white for several years. The goal was for Kandinsky to develop a deeper understanding of line, composition, and expressive qualities.


3. Symbolist Paintings Often Had Morbid Undertones

beardsley salome print
Salome by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896, via Wikimedia Commons


Symbolism in art and literature had an inseparable connection with the Decadent movement. The Decadents celebrated artificiality and excess, but this celebration was far from optimistic. The victory of men over nature was not a starting point for the new era, as some believed, but the end of civilization. Death, decay, and illness were the primary topics for Decadent artists and writers. These topics also found their way into Symbolist work, expressing the horrors of human nature and the fallen morals.


Although the two movements had distinctive features, many Symbolist artists of the time fell into the category of Decadents. One of the most famous Decadents was the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. Beardsley is best known for his series of illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, full of morbid eroticism.


The Sin by Franz von Stuck, 1893, via Neue Pinakotheken, Munich


Although Symbolism often addressed disturbing and uncomfortable subjects, it rarely touched upon morbid aspects of physical existence. In a Symbolist painting, one would never encounter accurate depictions of illness or injury. Symbolist bodies transgressed the limits of physicality—their decay was more moral than physical, indicated by pale and greenish skin tones.


The excessive sexualization of human figures (mostly female) was another indication of the Symbolists’ concern with the declining morals of their century. Most artists associated with the movement regarded the gradual sexual liberation of women as a sign of the degeneracy of humankind. Sexual undertones of their works had no connection to feelings of joy, instead associated with sin and carnal desires leading men away from their spiritual purpose.


4. Women Were The Main Subjects in Symbolist Art

klimt judith painting
Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Gustave Klimt, 1901, via Belvedere, Vienna


Feminine figures were one of the most popular subjects for Symbolist artists, but they barely had anything in common with real women. A woman in Symbolist art was just another symbol, signifying the dangers of progress and social change. A woman in Symbolist ideology equaled to nature, soft and nurturing if harnessed by a man, but uncontrollable, wild, and destructive if left unattended. This idea resulted in two opposite images: the idealized ethereal muse, obedient and pure, and the wild and uncontrollable femme fatale.


The femme fatale expressed the Symbolist disapproval of progress and emancipation. She was a woman who had no master, no god, and no moral compass, driven solely by her sexual appetite and desire for destruction. The Symbolists expressed their belief in the inherently evil nature of an independent woman through a distinctive set of mythological and biblical heroines like Medusa, Cassandra, Circe, Salome, and others. The same fate fell on Judith. Although originally described in the Old Testament as the patriotic heroine, the Symbolists equaled Judith to cruel and bloodthirsty Salome on the sole basis of their enemies’ severed heads. Although femmes fatales were obvious antagonists of Symbolist stories, they were almost always highly sexualized and nude, addressing both the deepest fears and darkest fantasies of men who painted them and observed them in art galleries.


moreau oedipus painting
Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Symbolists often expressed the wild and dangerous nature of women by creating monsters like sirens or sphinxes with sharp claws and teeth, waiting for the right moment to attack the protagonist. By associating strong and uncontrollable women with wild beasts, the Symbolists further painted the image of the abnormality of these women. At the same time, they highlighted the purity of their male subjects, who looked and behaved completely human.


Not many women were associated with the Symbolist movement, but those who surpassed the gendered boundaries treated the subject of the femme fatale differently. Being able to relate to these characters, women Symbolists often reclaimed those images as the symbols of feminine power and the intolerance of the world around them. The actress and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt depicted herself as a chimera, while sculptor Camille Claudel incorporated her self-portrait into the severed head of Medusa.


symbolist art delville orpheus painting
The Death of Orpheus by Jean Delville, 1893, via Sotheby’s


Gender was an important preoccupation for Symbolists. In many Symbolist paintings, the protagonist, who is always a white young man, has distinctive androgynous features. Although he looked unmistakably male, his feminine features were evident and far from being simply an aesthetic choice. The dominant idea in Symbolist circles at the time was that men were blessed with the virtue of reason, while women had the gift of intuition and connection to the non-physical world. The ideal human being should have possessed both, surpassing the limits of their physical body and gender. Thus, the Symbolist protagonist, often painted as the legendary poet Orpheus or Prince Oedipus, was not a mere mortal but the perfect human who obtained both masculine reason and feminine spirituality.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.