Symbolism (visual arts)

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Gustave Moreau: The Apparition , 1875
Eugen Bracht: Shores of Oblivion , 1889
Franz von Stuck: Sin , 1893
Wilhelm Bernatzik : Entrance to Paradise , around 1903, Museum Wiesbaden

The symbolism refers to an art movement of the painting and sculpture of the 19th century are represented in very different styles. Its high phase falls between approx. 1880 and 1910.

Features and stylistic devices

Décadence is often seen as a way of playing symbolism, trying to artistically accompany the decline and fall of an era and to find its salvation in exaggerated sensuality. Other symbolists, on the other hand, emphasize what is fresh and natural (such as the early primitivist works of Paul Gauguin ). In general, however, the idea or thought in the picture dominates over sensual perception. Richard Hamann and Jost Hermand see a feature of symbolism in the fact that it rises above the mere “material conditions” and relates to an idealistic “supra-individual ought”, whereby the symbols often remain blurred in their ambiguity. Symbolism refers to the “front position against Impressionism” and “sliding into an uncompromising connoisseurship”, against the “individualistic and historical-eclectic”; he is often characterized by a greater will to style.

Symbolism partly makes use of academic realistic painting, on the other hand it shows numerous parallels to Art Nouveau . Both are considered together as a link between the previous Impressionism and the subsequent Expressionism . In addition, symbolists are also called the forerunners of the surrealists .


Long before Sigmund Freud and CG Jung , English symbolism (approx. 1860–1910), which rediscovered the work of William Blake , dealt with access to unconscious processes and questioned the tangible reality. Edward Coley Burne-Jones followed up on the allegorical-decorative work of the late Pre-Raphaelites , but also undertook excursions into the realm of the fantastic and influenced the French symbolists. In Germany and France the current began around 1885; an early German representative was Max Klinger with his cycle Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove (1881).

The “Symbolist Manifesto” by the French poet Jean Moréas provided a decisive impetus in 1886. A key phrase of this manifesto was: “The essential characteristic of symbolist art is never to conceptually fix an idea or to express it directly”. Starting in France, symbolism spread across Europe after it was first made known to a wide public at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris.

James Ensor: exhibition poster. Paris 1898.

Belgian artists such as Théo van Rysselberghe and James Ensor as well as the Société des Vingt ( Les XX ), a salon founded in 1883 for contemporary Belgian and international art, also became important for the development of symbolism; currents from France, Belgium and England met here. Ralph Gleis even calls Brussels the capital of symbolism. The rapid proliferation of what was then Europe's financial center and the rich capital of a colonial empire inspired the artists to dream dark.

In the previous era of realism (main exponent: Gustave Courbet ), many artists missed the depth of soul that a work of art had to express. Symbolism turned against both the low level of detail of naturalism and the transfigured enthusiasm of romanticism, as well as against aesthetic subjectivism and thematic arbitrariness of the impressionism that began at the same time . Symbolism sees the world and its aspects as symbols of a deeper reality and art as a mediator between these levels (see also the novel “ Tief unten ” by Joris-Karl Huysmans ).

Themes of symbolist works

In the works of symbolism there are especially motifs from ancient mythology and biblical allegories . Further topics are image contents saturated with dreams and ecstasy , troubled feelings, the inexplicable, illness , death , sin and passion , the demonstration of spiritual reality, fantasy, vision, hallucination , meditation and sensation.

The symbolists glorified the “pure, noble and sublime” in the sense of the Pre-Raphaelites as well as the “dark side” around the themes of sin , eros , betrayal, death and the devil. Motifs in the first direction are angels, shepherd idylls , religious motifs, and “pure and chaste ” female figures, mostly wrapped in long, white robes. Typical representatives e.g. B. are Pierre Puvis de Chavannes , Maurice Denis , or Michail Wassiljewitsch Nesterow and Michail Alexandrowitsch Wrubel .

Artist of symbolism

Works (selection)

  • Arnold Böcklin, " Die Toteninsel " (1886), oil on wood, 80 × 150 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Leipzig
  • Eugen Bracht, " Shores of Forgotten " (1889), oil on canvas, 139 × 259 cm, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt
  • Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, " The Golden Staircase " (1880), oil on canvas, 276 × 117 cm, Tate Gallery, London
  • Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, “ The Prince Enters the Thorn Forest”, from> The Broar Rose <Series 1, (1870–1890), oil on canvas, 122 × 248 cm, The Faringdon Collection Trust, Buscot Park, Faringdon, Berkshire
  • Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, " Sleeping Beauty ", from> The Broar Rose <Series 4, (1870–1890), oil on canvas, 122 × 227 cm, The Faringdon Collection Trust, Buscot Park, Faringdon, Berkshire
  • Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “ The poor fisherman ” (1881), oil on canvas, 155 × 192 cm, Louvre, Paris
  • Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, “ Saint Genoveva watches over Paris ” (1886), oil on canvas (design for a mural), Panthéon, Paris
  • Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, " The lonely cedar " (1907), oil on canvas, 248 × 194 cm, Csontváry Museum, Pécs
  • Jean Delville, “ Satan's Treasures ” (1895), oil on canvas, 358 × 368 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
  • Maurice Denis, “ Breton Dance ” (1891), oil on canvas, 41 × 33 cm, M. and Mme Samuel Josefowotz Collection, Lausanne
  • Maurice Denis, “ April ” (1892), oil on canvas, 37.5 × 61 cm, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo
  • James Ensor, “ Self-Portrait with Masks ” (1899), oil on canvas, 118 × 83 cm, Mme C. Jussiant Collection, Antwerp
  • Léon Frédéric, “ The lake - the sleeping water ” (1897–1898), oil on canvas, 205 × 127 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
  • Paul Gauguin, “ The vision after the sermon (Jacob's fight with the angel) ” (1888), oil on canvas, 73 × 92 cm, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
  • Paul Gauguin, " Self-Portrait: Les Misérables " (1888), oil on canvas, 45 × 55 cm, Vincent van Gogh Foundation, Amsterdam
  • Paul Gauguin, “ Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? “(1897), oil on canvas, 139 × 375 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Ferdinand Hodler: The Night , 1889/90
  • Ferdinand Hodler, "Die Nacht" (1888/89), oil on canvas, 116.5 × 299 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern (loan from the Canton of Bern)
  • Ferdinand Hodler, “The Monk” (1911), oil on canvas, 64.5 × 91.5 cm, private collection
  • Fernand Khnopff, " Caresses " (1896), oil on canvas, 51.5 × 151 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
  • Georges Lacombe, " Marine bleue, Effet de vagues " (1893), tempera on canvas, 49 × 65 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes
  • Gustave Moreau, “ Hercules and the Lernaean Serpent ” (around 1870), watercolors on paper, 25 × 20 cm, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris
  • Gustave Moreau, " Salome dances in front of Herod ( The tattooed Salome )", (1876), oil on canvas, 92 × 60 cm, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris
  • Edvard Munch, “ The Scream ” (1893), oil on cardboard, 91 × 73.5 cm, Nasjonalgaleriet, Oslo
  • Edvard Munch, “ Madonna ” (1895–1902), lithograph, 60.7 × 44.3 cm, Nasjonalgaleriet, Oslo
Odilon Redon: The Cyclops , around 1900
  • Odilon Redon, “ Portrait of Gauguin ” (1904), oil on canvas, 66 × 55 cm, Louvre (Jeu de Paume), Paris
  • Odilon Redon, “ Pandora ” (around 1910), oil on canvas, 144 × 62 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • Auguste Rodin, “ Fugit Amor ” (1885–1887), marble, 57 × 110 × 40 cm, Musées Rodin, Paris
  • Giovanni Segantini, “ The Goddess of Love ” (1894–1897), oil on canvas, 210 × 144 cm, Galleria Civica d'Arte, Milan
  • Per Adolf Svedlund, “Gripsholm” (1913), oil on canvas, 96 × 83 cm private collection
  • MA Wrubel, “ The Fortune Teller ” (1895), oil on canvas, 136 × 87 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • MA Wrubel, “ The Demon ” (1890), oil on canvas, 114 × 211 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • MA Wrubel, “ Pan ” (1899), oil on canvas, 124 × 106 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
  • MA Wrubel, " Tsarevna-Lebed " (1900), oil on canvas, 142.5 × 93.5 cm, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow


In the first quarter of 2013, the Kunsthalle Bielefeld devoted its exhibition “Beauty and Mystery” to the whole spectrum of symbolism in Germany around 1900.

In the third quarter of 2017, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City exhibited pictures that had been presented between 1892 and 1897 at the Salon de la Rose + Croix , a center of esoteric art in Paris .


  • Natalia Brodskaïa: Symbolism , Sirrocco, London 2007, ISBN 978-1-84484-416-6 .
  • Ingried Brugger (ed.): The kiss of the Sphinx. Symbolism in Belgium , Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit 2007, ISBN 978-3-7757-2067-0 .
  • Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt: Family trees of art. On the genealogy of the avant-garde , Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-05-004066-1 .
  • Michael Gibson: Symbolism , Taschen Verlag, Cologne 2006, ISBN 3-8228-5029-2 .
  • Andrew Wilton (ed.): The Symbolism in England 1860-1910 , Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern-Ruit 1998, ISBN 3-7757-0742-5 .
  • Hans H. Hofstätter: Symbolism and the art of the turn of the century , DuMont Verlag, Cologne 1975, ISBN 3-7701-0212-6 .

Web links

Commons : Symbolism  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Single receipts

  1. Richard Hamann, Jost Hermand: Stilkunst um 1900. (= Epochs of German culture from 1870 to the present, volume 4.) Munich 1873, pp. 20 and 214.
  2. Boris Hohmeyer: Painting out of darkness. in: art. The art magazine. May 2020.
  3. Sandro Bocola: The Art of Modernism. On the structure and dynamics of their development from Goya to Beuys . Prestel, Munich 1994, page 101, ISBN 3-7913-1387-8 .
  4. Jutta Hülsewig-Johnen and Henrike Mund (eds.): Beauty and mystery. German symbolism: the other modernity. Catalog for the exhibition in the Kunsthalle Bielefeld from March 24th to July 7th, 2013 . Kerber, Bielefeld 2013, ISBN 978-3-86678-810-7 .
  5. Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, 1892–1897 , Guggenheim Museum, 2017.