Symbolism is an artistic movement that emerged in the late 19th century in France, and quickly spread across Europe and America.

The movement was a reaction to the realism and naturalism of the previous era, which emphasized the observable world and the physical senses.

Symbolism, on the other hand, sought to express the inner world of the artist, the unconscious, the spiritual, and the mystical through symbols, metaphors, and allegories.

This article aims to explore the origins, characteristics, and legacy of Symbolism, and to shed light on some of the most prominent artists and artworks of the movement.

Symbolism – Origins

Symbolism emerged in the context of a larger cultural and intellectual shift that was taking place in Europe at the time.

The Industrial Revolution, the scientific discoveries, and the political upheavals of the 19th century had shaken the traditional values and beliefs of society, and had created a sense of crisis and fragmentation.

The Romantic movement, which preceded Symbolism, had already expressed a longing for the sublime, the exotic, and the irrational, but Symbolism took this further by seeking to create a new language of symbols that could express the ineffable and the mysterious.

The term “Symbolism” was coined by the critic Jean Moréas in 1886, in a manifesto that proclaimed the independence of art from reality and the authority of the imagination.

Moréas defined Symbolism as “the art of suggestion”, which meant that the artist should suggest rather than depict, should evoke rather than describe, and should use symbols to convey the deeper meanings and emotions of life.

Symbolism was also influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who rejected the rationalism and morality of Western civilization and advocated a new vision of the world based on the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and the transvaluation of values.

Characteristics Of Symbolism

Symbolism was characterized by a number of features that distinguished it from other art movements of the time.

First, Symbolism rejected the academic conventions of perspective, proportion, and modeling, and instead favored a flat, decorative, and stylized approach that emphasized the graphic qualities of the image.


Second, Symbolism used a rich and varied color palette that conveyed the emotional and symbolic content of the work.

Third, Symbolism employed a range of techniques such as fragmentation, distortion, and metamorphosis to create a dreamlike and surreal atmosphere.

Fourth, Symbolism drew on a wide range of sources such as mythology, religion, literature, and occultism to create a complex and layered meaning.

Prominent Artists Of Symbolism

Symbolism produced a number of highly original and influential artists who contributed to the development of the movement.

One of the most prominent was Gustave Moreau, who created a highly personal and idiosyncratic style that combined elements of the classical, the biblical, and the exotic.

Moreau’s paintings were characterized by a meticulous attention to detail, a vivid use of color, and a mystical atmosphere that reflected his interest in alchemy and esotericism.

Another important artist of Symbolism was Odilon Redon, who used a range of media such as lithography, pastel, and charcoal to create a fantastic and visionary world that was both whimsical and terrifying.

Redon’s work was characterized by a delicate and ethereal quality, a fascination with the organic and the inorganic, and a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Other notable Symbolist artists include Edvard Munch, who created a series of haunting and powerful paintings that explored the themes of love, death, and anxiety;

Ferdinand Hodler, who developed a style that combined the principles of Symbolism with the motifs of Swiss folklore and mythology;

and Aubrey Beardsley, who created a highly stylized and provocative art that challenged the Victorian morality and aesthetics.

Legacy Of Symbolism

Symbolism had a profound influence on the development of modern art, and paved the way for other movements such as Expressionism, Surrealism, and Abstract Art.


Symbolism also influenced the literary and philosophical currents of the time, and inspired writers such as Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and W.B. Yeats.

Symbolism’s legacy can be seen in the works of later artists such as Salvador Dali, who used the techniques of Symbolism to create a hallucinatory and surreal world;

Marc Chagall, who combined the elements of folk art and religion to create a poetic and mystical vision;

and Wassily Kandinsky, who used the principles of Symbolism to create the first abstract paintings.

Symbolism Art Movement – Wrap Up

Symbolism was a fascinating and complex art movement that sought to express the inner world of the artist through symbols and metaphors.

Symbolism rejected the conventions of realism and naturalism, and instead favored a stylized, decorative, and suggestive approach that emphasized the symbolic content of the work. Symbolism had a profound influence