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Symbolism 101: An Introduction

Discoursing the influence and legacy of symbolist works can be a challenge, especially considering the dozens of great symbolists throughout history. The movement has expanded into all areas of art, literature, and drama. Understanding symbolism requires knowledge in aesthetics, human emotions, subjectivity, and meanings beyond the concrete. This series deals with symbolism in literature and art, while discussing some of the greatest symbolists of all time and why they’re considered pillars of the movement.

Symbolists rebelled against typical art and transformed it into something unique and extraordinary. They have proven the artist’s power when it comes to reflecting his own emotions in his own work, concealing deeper and darker meanings. Symbolists stressed the concept of art for art's sake.

Symbolism 101 Is Divided Into Five Chapters:

  1. Symbolism 101: An Introduction

  2. Symbolism 101: Charles Baudelaire’s Influence

  3. Symbolism 101: Death And Eroticism In Gustav Klimt’s Works

  4. Symbolism 101: Paul Verlaine, The Prince Of Melancholy

  5. Symbolism 101: Paul Gauguin’s Bold Experimentation In Aesthetics

 “The Scream” 1893 – Edward Munch
 “The Scream” 1893 – Edward Munch

Historical Background

Symbolism is a literary and artistic movement that emerged with a group of French poets in the late nineteenth century and expanded to art and theater, while influencing European and American literature of the twentieth century to varying degrees. The term “Symbolism” first appeared in 1986. Symbolist artists used highly symbolic language in a subtle and provocative way to describe individual emotional experiences. The Symbolist trend in poetry peaked around 1890 and then began to fade precipitously after 1900. The airy, unfocused imagery of Symbolist poetry was soon perceived as over-refined, and the term ‘decadent’, which the Symbolists had proudly flaunted, became a term of scorn among others, suggesting banal fin-de-siècle preciosity.

The Symbolists developed at a period of turmoil in moral, social, theological, and intellectual views. The world was growing beyond European conventions, and socialism no longer comprised of the good intentions that it began with. Religion, as well as the link between love and marriage, were questioned. Artists, in particular, felt alone and apart from the bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, the concept of the spiritual was crucial in the development of Symbolism and expressed anti-materialist views preoccupied with mysticism. This notion was associated with a fascination with the occult, as well as a desire for the macabre and twisted.

As indicated by the exact description of Parnassian poetry, symbolism sprang from a revolt by certain French writers against the rigorous constraints governing both style and content in conventional French poetry. The Symbolists wanted poetry to be free of explanatory roles and conventional oratory, and instead convey the ephemeral, immediate sensations of man's inner life and experience. They aimed to describe the underlying mystery of existence by using a free and highly personal use of metaphors and pictures that, while lacking in precise meaning, conveyed the poet's state of mind and hinted at the "black and confusing unity" of an inexpressible reality.

Paul Valery - Famous French Symbolist
Paul Valery - Famous French Symbolist

Symbolism in Literature

The poetry and thinking of Charles Baudelaire, particularly the poems in his Les Fleurs du Mal, impacted Symbolist forerunners such as Verlaine and Rimbaud. They blended Baudelaire's concept of “correspondances” between the senses with Wagner's vision of a synthesis of the arts to create an original conception of poetry's musical qualities. The Symbolists believed that by carefully manipulating the harmonies, tones, and colors contained in carefully chosen words, the theme inside a poem could be developed and "orchestrated". The Symbolists' desire to stress the poetic medium's intrinsic and inherent traits was founded on their belief in the supremacy of art over all other forms of expression or knowledge. Symbolists believe that a parallel reality exists beneath everything material and physical. This could only be perceived through the subjective emotional experiences contributing to and creating all works of art.

Symbolist works, on the other hand, had a major and enduring impact on British and American writing in the twentieth century. Their experimental approaches substantially expanded the technical repertory of contemporary poetry, and Symbolist theories found fruit in both the poetry of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as in the modern novel as represented by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Symbolism also extended to reach Russian literature and art.

The Crying Spider - Odilon Redon
The Crying Spider - Odilon Redon

Symbolism in Art

George Frederick Watts, who declared, "I paint ideas, not things," rose to prominence as a renowned Symbolist: "To suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart" (Ingram, 2018). Symbolism in art was inspired by the movement's poets and literary thinkers, but it was also a backlash against the pragmatist principles of Realism and the increasingly dominant movement of Impressionism. Symbolist artists embraced works focused on wonder and ingenuity, as opposed to the comparatively concrete portrayal advocated by previous schools. In efforts to develop subjective states of consciousness through visual forms, symbolist gravitated to the spiritual realm and even the occult. They were known for pushing all boundaries when it comes to their artistic style and standards.

The focus on emotions, sentiments, ideas, and subjectivity rather than realism is what links the numerous artists and styles affiliated with Symbolism. Their paintings are personal and convey their own ideals, notably the artist's ability to disclose reality. Symbolism served as a bridge between Romanticism in the early nineteenth century and Modernism in the early twentieth century. Furthermore, the internationalism of Symbolism calls into question the popularly assumed historical trajectory of contemporary art in France from Impressionism to Cubism. Symbolist paintings feature symbols related to death, eroticism, the mystical, the metaphysical, and tornadoes of feelings and emotions. Painters like Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau became the pillars of artistic expression when it comes to symbolism. Their works evoked a sense of mystery, fusing the macabre with mythological, artistic, and dreamy elements. Symbolists were not afraid of incorporating controversial and avant-garde themes into their masterpieces.


Frye, N. (1952). Three meanings of Symbolism. Yale French Studies, (9), 11-19.

Ingram, S. (2018, Nov 23)."George Frederic Watts Artist Overview and Analysis".

Neginsky, R. (2010). Symbolism, its origins and its consequences. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Weitz, M. (1954). Symbolism and art. The Review of Metaphysics, 466-481.

Wellek, R. (1970). The term and concept of symbolism in literary history. New Literary History, 1(2), 249-270.

Image References

Freund, G. (1938). Paul Valery [Photograph]

Munch, E. (1893). The Scream [oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard] National Gallery of Norway, Oslo, Norway.

Redon, O. (1881). The Crying Spider [charcoal] Private collection, The Netherlands.

Author Photo

Gaelle Abou Nasr

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