A Short Guide to Symbolism

The tenderness of the sphinx by Fernand Khnopff

What is symbolism in art?

Symbolism is a style and direction in the visual arts. An artist uses hidden messages, allegories, and even ciphers with a deep philosophical or mystical meaning when writing a picture. The mysterious signs in embody the connection between the real and other worlds. These signs and symbols force the viewer to think actively, abandon the simplified perception of the plot, and find the true essence of the author’s intention.

History of the development of symbolism art style

The symbolism art style has profound historical roots. Masters used mysterious signs in the visual arts in ancient Egypt and Babylon when designing monumental structures. Symbolism also manifested itself in Christianity. On ancient icons with the faces of saints, the intentions of their creators to convey the deep spiritual meaning of the image are clearly visible with the help of apparent symbols: a halo, a dove, a bowl, a holy book, the keys to paradise, a cross, or a palm branch.

Ancient Byzantine icon

During the Renaissance, many artists showed an interest in the symbolism art movement. Masters of that time often filled paintings on religious and mythological subjects with mysterious signs.

The masters of the Golden Age of Dutch painting also contributed to the development of the symbolism art style. On the canvases of the Little Dutch, there are easily recognizable symbols of the frailty of life: skulls, musical instruments, extinguished candles, and withered flowers. Examples of such works are paintings by David Bailly, Harmen van Steenwyck, and Jan Davidsz de Heem.

David Bailly, Selfportrait

In the XVIII-XIX centuries, the features of symbolism art style can be observed in the works of many painters of the landscape genre. The paintings of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich are imbued with a special spiritual depth. The symbolism of his paintings is simple and understandable, sustained in the best traditions of European romanticism. It was romanticism that became the cradle for the formation of the symbolism art movement.

Caspar David Friedrich, Tetschen Altar

The right to open the term “symbolism” to the general public belongs to the French poet Jean Moréas. In his 1886 manifesto, he first used the word to refer to a new direction in art.

A surge of interest in symbolism art style at the turn of the 19th-20th century was observed in many European countries: England, Belgium, Poland, and Russia. The Symbolists anticipated expressionism, their ideas were reflected in the future and gradually dissolved in surrealism and modernity.

Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Death and the Maidens

Famous symbolist painters

The paintings of the masters of symbolism are easily recognizable by the characteristic features of this art style. Here is a list of the most famous, in our opinion, symbolist artists:

  • Gustave Moreau (1826-1898);
  • Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898);
  • George Frederic Watts (1817-1904);
  • Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921);
  • Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910).

Symbolism art style flared up brightly at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries in world culture and left a noticeable mark in its history. The outstanding work of the Symbolists is always presented in the best museums, private collections and at the most famous auction houses in the world.


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