The art movement of Symbolism emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century as a conservative reaction to the more avant-garde movements of the time like Impressionism. Symbolists believed that true art should focus on dreams, feelings, and eternal archetypes, instead of aiming to represent objective reality. Below is the list of 10 famous Symbolist painters you should know.
1. Gustave Moreau, The Legendary Symbolist (1826 – 1898)
Gustave Moreau was a French artist almost single-handedly responsible for defining the aesthetics of Symbolism. Moreau left a massive number of paintings and drawings of mythological heroes and monsters, Old Testament scenes, and pseudo-historical motives. His works were full of intricate details, allegories, and coded messages. Generations of Symbolists, including Odilon Redon and Fernand Khnoppf, used Moreau’s work as the blueprint for the genre.
For Moreau, his art was a way to substitute the unpleasant and boring reality. Unlike many other artists, he preferred creating his own world instead of accustoming to the existing one. He believed that the inner vision of the artist, their feelings, and their imagination were the only true and real things in the universe.
2. Franz von Stuck (1863 – 1928)
Symbolist paintings of the German artist Franz von Stuck can be recognized instantly because of their intense darkness that contrasts the ornamented gilded frames. There are also his signature evil femme fatales basking in their own monstrosity. Franz von Stuck was one of the staunch conservatives of the movement with his painting style and compositions often referencing the art of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Still, despite his conservatism, Franz von Stuck was partially responsible for giving the world one of the most progressive and groundbreaking artists ever. He was the teacher of Wassily Kandinsky, the legend of Abstract and Expressionist art.
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Apart from his artistic practice, Franz von Stuck also worked as an interior designer. One of his most important creations was his own home called Villa von Stuck. He filled every room of this dark house with paintings, custom furniture, tiles, frescos, and sculptures inspired by his fantasies about Greek and Egyptian cultures.
3. Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944)
The legendary Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is associated with two different movements, Expressionism and Symbolism. In accordance with Symbolist theory, Munch discarded objective reality in favor of the feelings of the characters involved in the scene. His brand of Symbolism was less dramatic and glittery, but certainly more anxiety-provoking.
Munch’s dark fascination with grief, loss, and death started early in his childhood, with his father reading stories by Edgar Allan Poe to him. The early deaths of the artist’s mother and sister also left a lasting mark on his worldview. His father was a mentally unstable religious fanatic, and Edvard Munch would spend his entire life in fear of turning into him. Still, Munch admitted that his mental illnesses as well as his fear of life were necessary for him in order to create art. For a while, he even refused medical treatment, afraid that a stable condition would stop him from painting.
4. Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)
The legendary Viennese Symbolist Gustave Klimt barely needs an introduction. In his works, he combined complex allegories with elaborate decorations and deep sensuality with unsettling emotion. Unlike the paintings of his many colleagues, Klimt’s works often had much more to do with the science of his contemporary age than with pure escapism. While Klimt was maturing as an artist, groundbreaking discoveries were made in the fields of biology and medicine. The ornaments on many paintings made by Klimt were reminiscent of the drawings of cells found in biological atlases of the time. He managed to marry European spiritualism and the latest scientific developments that forced the radical worldview re-evaluation against his contemporaries.
5. Arnold Bocklin (1827 – 1901)
The Symbolist art of Swiss-born Arnold Bocklin developed from the legacy of German Romanticist painting. Island of the Dead was the most commercially successful work of Bocklin. He created more than a dozen copies of it, altering the position of figures and manipulating light and color value. One of the versions, now on display in Berlin, belonged to Adolf Hitler, who believed Bocklin represented the essence of German art.
The iconography of water was particularly important for Bocklin. In the 1880s, he painted a series of works featuring roaring waves, tritons, and singing sirens. He was interested not in the water itself but in translating the sound it made into the visual form. Island of the Dead is silent and solemn, while his other painting, Ocean Breakers (1879) emits the sound of crashing waves.
6. Jean Delville (1867 – 1953)
Belgian master of Symbolism Jean Delville was an admirer of Richard Wagner’s music and the adherent of Theosophy. Theosophy was a belief system that relied on the idea of the essential unity of all religions and social improvement through spiritual growth. Originating in the late nineteenth century, it was a common influence for many artists and writers of the time, such as Piet Mondrian, Hilma af Klint, and Kazimir Malevich. While most Theosophists often took Eastern religious concepts and imagery as the basis, Delville relied mostly on Christianity and Western mythology.
Delville’s male figures like the Greek poet Orpheus often have androgynous appearances. This referred to the Symbolist idea that the ideal human being should transgress the boundaries of body and gender. The Symbolist superhuman would combine the best qualities attributed to the male and female gender according to philosophers at the time, reason and intuition.
7. Maurice Denis (1870 – 1943)
Unlike many artists on this list, Maurice Denis found his Symbolist inspiration not in the intricate compositions of Gustave Moreau but in the bold-colored paintings of Paul Gauguin. Denis wrote that any painting before being a nude model or a battle horse was essentially a flat surface covered in colors assembled in a certain order.
Maurice Denis was part of a group of Symbolist painters who called themselves Les Nabis. The name, translated from Hebrew as prophets signified their new approach to painting. Inspired by traditional forms of craft like ceramics or tapestry weaving, as well as Japanese decorative art, they sought to overcome the boundaries of easel painting. For them, interior designs and small decorations had the same value and potential as the art exhibited in galleries.
8. Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916)
Dubbed the prince of dreams by art critics, Odilon Redon started his artistic career making black-and-white charcoal lithographs called noirs. As years went by, he focused on colorful semi-abstract painting. Many of these look unfinished, yet the blurriness and imperfections give the paintings the feel of mysterious dreams.
Starting from Goya-esque etchings, he moved to painting compositions that were more decorative. What remained constant was his interest in mythological beings, fantastic beasts, and chimeras. His monstrous creatures like crying spiders, giant cyclops, or cacti with faces look terrifying at first glance but, upon further examination, they turn out to be not so frightening at all. These beings that are so different from humans feel and express the same emotions of pain, sorrow, and joy, they dream and reflect on their existence in the same way.
9. Fernand Khnoppf (1858 – 1921)
An art critic once described the work of a Belgian Symbolist Fernand Khnoppf in four words: pride, isolation, cruelty, and contempt. The figures in his paintings are distant and cold, self-centered, and consumed by melancholy. His characters were almost exclusively women, with rare male figures still demonstrating feminine facial features.
His sister Marguerite was his preferred model for his idealized images of tall, thin, and emotionally distant women. An introverted and reclusive character, he preferred to work with photographs instead of live models. Unlike many other Symbolists who were conservative in their political beliefs, Khnoppf was a supporter of the Suffragettes.
10. Felicien Rops, the Decadent Symbolist (1833 – 1898)
Felicien Rops was a Symbolist closely associated with the Decadent movement in art and literature. Decadent art celebrated excess, artifice, and lavishness, while also leaving an undertone of a deep moral decline. For Decadents, in a world unworthy of saving, overindulgence in physical pleasures was the only way to cope with disillusionment and despair.
Decades before the Surrealists started to explore the subconscious, the Symbolists turned their attention to it. Felicien Rops focused on the darkest corners of the human mind, filled with sexual fantasies and desires. Apart from his more or less normative art practice, he was famous for his explicit illustrations of erotic novels.