Symbolism was a movement which originated in France in the 19th Century. Symbolism
was an umbrella term covering different forms of art including writing, poetry and
Symbolism in art was a reaction against Realism which produced paintings depicting
subjects in a, well, realistic or literal manner. Realism favoured humble, ordinary
subjects over idealised and mystical religious themes.
Symbolists wanted a return to romanticism in paintings. They argued that subjects
could and be idealised and idolised, they could be put in mystical settings rather
than a rigid adherence to real life.
Below, “Oedipus and The Sphinx” Gustave Moreau
Symbolism, as the name suggests, featured the use of symbolic imagery from mysticism,
religion, dreams. They believed that the result was pictures which had more depth
and more meaning than the paintings of the realists that symbolists were reacting
So symbols were used in paintings allegorically to convey something more than just
the subject matter in hand. Subjects and symbols were used as metaphors to tell a
Symbolist paintings often featured the artists’ own personal symbols rather than
traditional iconography. Many dealt with a darker side of life and featured the big
themes of life, love, death, sex, birth et al.
Shown Below, “Death and Life”, Gustav Klimt 1916
Gustav Klimt, the Austrian artist, often featured the female form in his paintings.
At the time many were considered controversial and even pornographic. Some were banned.
Ironically they are now amongst the best selling prints and posters bought by people
the world over, to hang in their homes.
Another key Symbolist was Edward Munch whose most famous work, The Scream was part
of a series of paintings where he depicted love, fear, death, melancholia and anxiety.He
painted several versions of ‘The Scream’ also known as ‘The Cry’.
Gustave Moreau was a famous Symbolist painter and was the teacher of Henri Matisse.
Symbolism in art undoubtedly had an influence on subsequent art movements of the
twentieth century. Symbolist work is still incredibly popular in the 21st Century
well over a hundred years after its inception.
Baudelaire was a symbolist poet who believed that sounds and rhythm could express
ideas equally as well as words themselves.
Symbolist paintings are undoubtedly amongst the best selling prints, posters and
canvases gracing living rooms, bedrooms and offices the world over. We hope you’ve
enjoyed our facts about Symbolism and we’ve inspired you to own some Symbolist art