What Is Symbolism? From Femmes Fatales to Exoticism

Between traditional academic and emerging modern art, new spiritual currents in European culture gave way to the Symbolism movement, initially in poetry and later in visual arts.

Jul 20, 2023By Dusan Nikolic, BA History of Art
what is symbolism art


The use of symbols can be found in practically every stylistic period in art history. What makes the 19th-century Symbolist movement different is the use of symbols in new, unfamiliar contexts. Instead of conveying definitive content, symbols became ambiguous, oscillating between literal and figurative meaning. In an article published in the Parisian Le Figaro in 1886, Jean Moréas, a Greek-born poet living in France, gives the core idea of an art movement he dubbed “symbolism.” In it, Moréas writes:


“The essential trait of Symbolist art consists in never conceptually fixing or directly expressing an idea… actual appearances of whatever kind, do not themselves become visible in this art, but instead are symbolized through subtly perceptible traces, through covert affinities with the original ideas…”


Shortly put, Symbolism is the art of evoking ideas that are not explicitly represented for the viewer to read.


The Emergence of Symbolism in Europe 

arnold bocklin chained prometheus painting
Chained Prometheus by Arnold Böcklin, 1885, via Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt


The timeline of Symbolism in visual art is hard to define, as it developed independently in many European countries and even in the works of individual artists. As such, it is better understood as a specific spiritual current that engulfed the imagination of musicians, poets, and visual artists. This current was sparked by the challenges posed by the modernist worldview. By the end of the 19th century, the optimism of progress linked to industrialization had dissipated. The proclaimed and expected total control of nature by science and technology was exposed as an illusion, prompting the emergence of a broad front against materialism and positivism.


In a reflex to this crisis of faith and cultural pessimism, numerous attempts were made at a new interpretation of the world, often leading to a new kind of spirituality. The enigmatic, the mystical, and the occult were seen with new desirability. Art was given a new meaning in the new worldview, and artists had a unique role. In Symbolism, the world of appearances was now interpreted as a symbol of a deeper reality and art as a mediator between the various levels. In a sort of escapism, the subjective fantastic dream worlds emerged as counter-images to the real world.

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Subject-Matter & Means of Expression 

arnold bocklin selfportrait with dead playing a fiddle
Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle by Arnold Böcklin, 1872, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


The subject matter of Symbolism is anything that takes one to the frontiers of normality and reality, such as religious fervor, intoxication, dream, love, and death. For such subjects, Symbolists needed to use a wide variety of expressions to manifest things and figures that could never occur in reality. Naturalistic and stylistic permutations were common ways of expressing these sensations. Arnold Böcklin’s Self-Portrait with Death Playing a Fiddle depicts a scene in which the “unreal” (skeleton with a violin approaching) is just as real as the artist’s portrait.


Symbolists mixed various styles and historical forms, such as Gustave Moreau’s Salomé, who danced in a temple with Christian and ancient Indian cultic symbols. Stylistic permutation took the shape of a combination of natural and abstract forms. Again, Moreau surrounded his realistically-depicted human figure with free-form flecks of color. In Vienna, Gustav Klimt placed mildly stylized portraits in swirls of golden ornament.


odilon redon quasimodo etching
Quasimodo by Odilon Redon, 1875-1880, via The Cleveland Museum of Art


Symbolists veil their subjects and make them vague, looking for beauty in phenomena that elude visual perception. Spatial arrangements and natural proportions ran counter to the classical academic aesthetic. Indefinite or indeterminate space, often without linear perspective, is used as a shell where ideas are placed. Light and color became forms of expression independently, divorced from the picture’s subject. The monochrome or reduced palette gives the image a certain mood or atmosphere. That is why Symbolist imagery eludes normal, everyday perception, as in the works of Odilon Redon. The French artist avoided using colors in his works prior to the year 1900 because those represented the real world, while his works visualized a non-visible, dream-like world.


The Artist’s Role in Symbolism

lovis corinth self portrait skeleton painting
Self-portrait with a Skeleton by Lovis Corinth, 1896, via Lenbachhaus


Throughout the 19th century, the role of the artist continually changed. The old Romantic idea of the lonely artist experienced a rebirth in Symbolism at the end of the 19th century. The artist’s experience of being misunderstood made this archetypal figure all the more alluring. The cult status of artists of the day resulted in the phenomenon of artist “princes” such as Alexander Cabanel or Franz von Lenbach.


Against this background were the biographies of Arnold Böcklin and Hans von Marees. Their personal stories became prototypes for a new attitude, in which the myth of the lonely and misunderstood genius gradually acquired positive connotation. The artist became a fighter and reformer who received a belated justification. The artist no longer wants to play the successful citizen. He is a hero whose legitimization is validated through extraordinary experiences. Estrangement and hardship, together with the knowledge of dreams, nightmares, Eros, and death, enhanced the meaning of the artist’s image. As the creator of the image, the artists played a central role as seers and mediators between these experiences and the public, already receptive to the same values.


Relationship of the Sexes

edward burne jones rock of doom
Rock of Fate by Edward Burne-Jones, 1885-1888, via Southampton City Art Gallery


The relationship between the sexes was a common theme treated by the Symbolists in multiple aspects, from puberty to the castration complex. Contemporary strict morals, which led to the repression of desire and sexual instincts, found expression in various depictions of womanhood. Idolization of women took the form of female figures surrounded by flowers and ornamentation. In other instances, feminine innocence seems endangered, visualized often through the myth of Perseus freeing Andromeda, as in Edward Burne-Jones’s Rock of Fate.


The image of the femme fatale was one of the most common subjects of Symbolist artists. Franz von Stuck painted at least 11 versions of a nude female figure with a snake coiled around her, entitling it either Sin or Sensuality. Women are frequently related to animals in classical myths. A girl surrounded by swans, alluding to the myth of Zeus and Leda, was a repeatedly-employed motif in Symbolism. This theme also includes the hybrid of a human female and a tiger, lion, or panther, often standing as the downfall of men. She is a Sphinx who poses riddles for men to solve and devours them when they fail.


Nature: Paradise & a Home to Dionysus 

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, 1883, via Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


To counterbalance the cultural pessimism, the notion of paradisal innocence was expressed in visions of the Golden Age or simply in idyllic, natural scenes. The imagery was set in untouched natural surroundings populated by nude human figures. Artists imagined a desirable world of harmony, entirely unlike the decadent real world. Such ideas are found in the works of Puvis de Chavannes, Hans von Marees, and Arnold Böcklin. The Swiss artist Giovanni Segantini depicted peasant life in the Swiss mountains, emphasizing the oneness of human beings with nature.


Landscapes in Symbolist art could be more than a setting for the paradisal. They could take a complex symbolic character, as in Böcklin’s eerie landscapes that were internal projections of the artist. Using traditional literary sources, the artist recreated the mythical fantasy world. These paintings have a strong sense of tragedy and culminate in the Isle of the Dead, which recalls an island burial scene from ancient Greek history. The isolated figure shrouded in white has its back to the viewer as it moves in a boat towards the rocks and giant poplars of the island. The passenger is reimagined as a potent symbol meant to evoke the viewer’s sense of unspeakable longing and hidden desires.


Exoticism in Symbolism 

gustave moreu salome
Salome Dancing before Herod by Gustave Moreau, 1874-1876, via Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


European interest in non-Western art and culture accelerated with easier access to the “Eastern” lands. As more Europeans traveled beyond the established educational routes of the Grand Tour, their experiences abroad influenced their tastes at home. Other influences came from the massive European imperial control over Africa and Asia. By the mid-century, many non-Western forms and ornamental motifs found their way into the vocabulary of European visual arts. Gustave Moreau’s Salome Dancing before Herod demonstrates how “exotic” elements permeated Symbolist art. Contemporary Algerian dancers, dressed in transparent veils and rich jewelry, inspired Salome’s figure. His most regular sources of exotic imagery were contemporary periodical magazines Magasin pittoresque and Tour du monde. For example, one of their illustrations of the Tibetan religious leaders was used for the crown of Herod.


Moreau rejected the notion of historical realism and decorum and gave his imagination, nourished by a great variety of images, free reign to devise visual expressions of his ideas. He exploited an accumulation of documents to create his own visual repertoire. In Japanese and Indian models, he found justification for his daring use of a palette of pure reds, violets, greens, and intense blues.


Dreams and Death in Symbolism

giovanni segantini death painting
Death by Giovanni Segantini, 1896-1899, via Segantini Museum, St. Moritz


Another withdrawal from everyday reality is experienced in sleep and dream. They do not necessarily bring a sense of liberation but surrender the psyche to the dark powers of the unconscious. Francisco Goya realized this in the 1790s in his The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Henry Fuseli painted a series of pictures showing a woman asleep with a little demon perched on her breast, disturbing her slumbers with nightmares. The theme is repeated in Ferdinand Hodler’s Night. It shows, among other figures, a frightened man lying naked and recoiling at the sight of the shadowy figure crouching over his genitals.


Death as the end of life, as the soul’s redemption or its dissolution in nothingness, was an image prevalent since the Romantic era. Caspar David Friedrich often depicted cemeteries as places of peace and refuge. Giovanni Segantini continued the theme in works such as the triptych Nature – Life – Death. The Symbolists often depicted the circumstances of dying and of death. Franz von Stuck, James Ensor, and Oscar Zwintscher even recorded the moments after a corpse grew livid. The myths surrounding the death were often given pictorial form: Ophelia drowning herself, Orpheus dying after losing Eurydice, and Three Fates in the process of cutting the thread of life. Many Symbolist artists even associated the image of death with their self-portraits, raising the question of the meaning and use of their lives.

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By Dusan NikolicBA History of ArtDusan is an art historian and graduate of the University of Belgrade, specializing in Byzantine church architecture with an interest in the history and creation of art. Formerly a museum worker, he spends most of his research and free time on interdisciplinary work between art history and psychology.