Who Put the “S” in Symbolism

According to textual findings pulled from the book, the term Symbolism was a French movement where artists, and poets, alike, would support art forms that enticed the minds and the tempted senses. As a result, this allowed the audience to be able to “escape into a dreamy world of visionary elements prefigured by Victorian Romanticism”. While brief in description, the definition alone was enough to fuel my investigation as to what it is, and how it became to be.

My search began on a site titled The Art Story. Here, I learned that in opposition to impressionism, Symbolism was both an artistic and literary movement that suggested ideas through symbols and emphasized emotions, feelings, ideas, and subjectivity rather than realism. It’s even accounted for that Symbolists combined obscure religious thoughts that were centered on, and/or about the occult, the dream world, evil and death. The site goes on to describe the numerous characteristics of Symbolism, as well as its journey throughout civilization.

Tainted in secrecy through the works of writers, Symbolism was brought forth by Jean Moreas in 1886, when he published a manifesto by the name of Le Figaro  (britannica.com). This manifesto served as a guideline for other poets and artists, such as Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin and opened doors for more artists to contribute in the movement. According to The Art Story, Symbolism was simply a reaction against moralism, rationalism, and materialism of the 1880s. Information pulled from metmuseum.org explains that, “Painters of this era believed that art should reflect emotion or an idea rather than represent the natural world.” Examples of these thoughts  are emphasized  in Gauguin’s uses of Symbolism and how he sought to escape from civilization through a world that was less industrialized.


Here we have an example of a Polish artists by the name of Jacek Malczewski who pulled from European mythology to composite a young women as the god of death. Rightfully naming this pieces Thanatos, he decoratively symbolizes this woman of supernatural powers by placing a scythe in the hands of a robust female figure. Even in her posture and flowing garments, it all comes together to “evoke association with the entanglement of sensuality and spiritual element” (culture.pl).

Most late nineteenth-century artists experienced the sociopolitical and moral upheaval that was prevalent at the time, resulting in the manifestation of symbols and subjects that would best define/ resembled their decadence. This is what it meant to be a Symbolist. Later Symbolist ideas would appear in the work of Expressionist.

  1. “Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works.” The Art Story. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  2. “Jacek Malczewski.” Culture.pl. Culture.Pl, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  3. “Jean Moreas.” Britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.
  4. Myers, Nicole. “Symbolism.” Metmuseum.org. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.