Meaning of Symbolism in Art

Posted by Robert Lange on

The symbolism movement in art flourished between 1880 and 1900 and started a reaction against the focus on realism that dominated the art world in the late nineteenth century. In this article, we'll do a quick rundown of the basics. After reading, you'll have learned what the most distinctive characteristics of symbolism in art are and what the difference is between simply using symbols in art and the whole artistic movement. It's a beautiful form of rebellion, isn't it?

Table of Contents

Symbolism in Art. The Movement

How did symbolism as an art movement even start? It's worth noting that symbolism began as a literary movement, with writers like Stéphane Mallarmé emphasizing suggestion and subjective experience. Visual artists like Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon soon adopted this approach. Simply put, symbolists opposed the 19th century's focus on science, mechanization, and society's increasing materialism. They wanted to evoke emotions, bring pleasure, and have fun with their art. Unlike impressionism's focus on capturing light and realism's gritty depictions, symbolism aimed to express ideas and emotions through symbols. This movement was less interested in replicating the physical world and more in suggesting a deeper reality.

It emerged in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium, as a reaction against realism and naturalism and aimed to express spiritual, emotional, and mystical ideas through symbolic imagery. The belief in the dual (physical and spiritual) nature of the universe aroused the desire to overcome the material barrier, giving an impulse to search for what is completely incomprehensible and unattainable and yet – available to feel.

Symbolist works often have an almost dreamlike aura. They use distorted figures, muted colors, and fantastical imagery. What about topics, then? Mythology, religious themes, and personal symbolism are common subjects, as they help to achieve the main goal: to evoke emotions and spark the viewer's imagination.

According to the symbolists, the image does not equal reality—it's independent and subjective, depending on its creator. Color and form were understood as visual equivalents of thoughts and sensations, although they were not unified (in contrast to, for example, German expressionism). By understanding the basics of the symbolism movement, you can see how artists used symbols and other techniques to create a new visual language for expressing the unseen and the subjective.


symbolism definition

Symbolists You Should Know

Arnold Böcklin

Böcklin was a Swiss painter known for his symbolist works, often imbued with mythological and fantastical themes. His art is characterized by a vivid imagination, dramatic compositions, and a distinctive use of color.

Major works:

  • "The Isle of the Dead"
  • "Villa by the Sea"
  • "The Plague"

Gustave Moreau

Moreau (1826-1898) was a French painter. His audience appreciated his intricate, dreamlike compositions and mythological themes. Moreau's art had an impact on the symbolist movement and bridged the gap between romanticism and early modernism.

Major works include:

  • "Oedipus and the Sphinx"
  • "Salome Dancing before Herod"
  • "Jupiter and Semele"

Fernand Khnopff

Khnopff (1858-1921), a Belgian painter and printmaker, was known for his enigmatic and dreamlike works, which often explored themes of introspection and the unconscious. His art is meticulous in detail, with a subdued color palette and a sense of mystery. One of the most popular motifs was a sphinx.

Major works:

  • "The Caresses"
  • "The Sphinx, or The Caresses of the Sphinx"
  • "The Abandoned City".

Symbolism vs Symbols

When discussing the meaning of symbolism in art, we need to distinguish between symbolism, an art movement, and symbolism, the usage of symbols to express certain feelings or meanings or hint at whom the pictured characters are. Most art movements actively used some forms of symbols to induce more meaning in their art; however, the symbolism itself was quite different. It consisted of many symbols and had its own art style (although, as we mentioned briefly before, not exactly unified), glorified imagination, and emotional approach to life. The distinction between symbolism as an art movement and simply using symbols in one's art lies in their historical context, philosophical underpinnings, and artistic practices. There are symbols in, for example, renaissance or medieval art or even surrealism. But it doesn't mean that this art is part of a symbolism movement – you need to remember that as you explore the exploring topics of dreams, spirituality, or subconsciousness.

Besides, unlike in symbolism, where symbols are often deeply personal and laden with allegorical meanings, symbols used in other contexts may be more universally understood or interpreted based on cultural, historical, or contextual cues.

Let's give you examples of widely understood symbols:

  1. The cross represents Christianity, faith, sacrifice, redemption, and spirituality. It was used prominently in Christian religious art, such as paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows.
  2. A skull is a symbol that reminds us of mortality, death, and the transience of life. It was commonly used in still-life paintings (e.g., vanitas paintings).
  3. The dove symbolizes peace, harmony, and tranquility.

And we could go on and on. The chalice symbolizes truth, the hourglass reminds us of passing time, the feather means freedom… and so on.

… But then there's Moreau's or Khnopff's art. What do the fantastical creatures, mythological themes, and mysterious landscapes imbued with dreamy aura mean? Who is the half-woman, half-leopard creature? Remember that symbols aren't just about meaning but also emotional impact.

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