(Late 19th century)
In an article on Paul Gauguin published in 1891, Albert Aurier gave the first
definition of symbolism as an aesthetic, describing it as “The subjective
vision of an artist expressed through a simplified and nonnaturalistic style” and hailing Gauguin as its leader.
Symbolism originated in France, and was part of a 19th-century
movement in which art became infused with mysticism (religion).
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, “the Symbolists
sought escape from reality, expressing their personal dreams and visions
through color, form, and composition.”
Symbolism is continuation of romanticism
by Philipp Otto Runge
The Morning is elevating in
color, stunning in technique, and
This painting is one of the most
mysterious works of the German
early Romantic era,.
Runge loved his children. You see
this in his family portraits, where
neighbor boys are playing with his
Life is hard, but they are hopeful.
This is the message in the portrait of
his old parents, in which he painted
the little ones next to a lily and
thistles growing in the garden.
Runge was so touched by the purity
of the children’s hearts that it is no
wonder that he made children the
main protagonists of his “Morning”
painting. The break of day becomes
a symbol for the divine spark in
every being, emerging, heralding
The composition is strictly
symmetrical, which gives the whole
scene a very sacred and dignified
character. One feels as if looking at
an old altarpiece, yet there is a very
The woman in the middle represents the
goddess Aurora. She stands on a bench of
clouds, holding up a huge lily bloom. The
little baby in the middle foreground is like
the new day. The others welcome it.
The ones on top of the flower are like the
spirits of each petal. They are six so they
stand for the six petals. Not only the
flower has its spirit, each petal has its
spirit. This represents life on different
levels: connection, interaction, harmony,
That Runge depicts an inward and an
outward, a hidden and a visible state of
progression, makes this picture so
special. The middle part is on canvas.
The frame is of wood but still
indispensable to the whole composition
and meaning because the frame shows us
what happens under the earth: A life that
starts under the earth in the root of the
plant breaks through the stalk and the
The sun is still under the earth, invisible
behind the horizon in the lower part of the
frame. The little cherubs seem to creep
up through the plants’ stalks. They
become an image of the life and spirit of
Everything has life and soul. This was a very prevalent idea of the Romantic era,
prominently featured in Goethe’s works. The divine is in everything and omnipresent.
The white lily is very pure and innocent. It appears in the middle but also on both sides
of the frame.
The little angels evolve through a red amaryllis first and then through a white lily, as if
experiencing the same journey on a higher level. These represent two stages of
evolution, one on earth, one in heaven.
The angels on the roots are holding hands and seem to help each other to get through.
The ones on top are protecting themselves softly with crossed arms the moment they
Above all, there shines the morning star, and even higher, in the frame, we see a
firmament formed out of little angel heads, also strictly arranged, an architectural
dome of shining smiles. The beaming white rays of light virtually become the
continuance of the tiny morning stars shining on a higher level.
A circle of little children forms around the woman in the middle (the goddess Aurora,
or dawn). Notice how this circle draws your view into the boundless space and sky.
The children forming it are located in the foreground as well as the background.
Nobody is dominating the scene; everyone is important in his or her place. You cannot
take anyone out of the composition. Each one is strictly required to stay in his place.
On the other hand, the whole landscape is so soft and open that the picture almost
The coloring of the picture is vivid. There is so much light to perceive, yet so much
darkness is needed make it visible. The black framing around the inner part is
necessary to make it solid. It is not a sharp black line , but rather it is gentle like the
branch of a tree that appears black in front of the dawning sky. Warm and cold are
The colors are precious and pure. Radiant and luminous, they are applied in delicate,
transparent layers. Runge managed to paint a flawless transition between the yellow
and the blue in the upper part of the heaven, in the background.
It served as a catalyst in the outgrowth of the darker sides of romanticism and
According to the metropolitan museum of art website, “The symbolists sought
escape from reality, expressing their personal dreams and visions through color,
form, and composition.”
In this “hand-painted dream photograph” as
Dali generally called his paintings we find a
seascape of distant horizons and calm waters,
perhaps Port Lligat, amidst which Gala is the
subject of the scene.
Next to the naked body of the sleeping
woman, which levitates above a flat rock that
floats above the sea, Dali depicts two
suspended droplets of water and a
pomegranate, a Christian symbol of fertility
and resurrection. Above the pomegranate flies
a bee, an insect that traditionally symbolizes
In the upper left of the painting a fish bursts
out of the pomegranate, and in turn spews out
a tiger who then spews out another tiger and a
rifle with fixed bayonet. A second later the
bayonet will sting Gala in the arm. Above them
an elephant with long flamingo legs, found in
other compositions of the period such as
Dali's The Temptations of St. Anthony, carries
on its back an obelisk like Bernini’s Elephant
and Obelisk in the Piazza Santa Maria sopra
Minerva in Rome.
Sting Caused by the Flight of a Bee
by Salvador Dali
What is Symbolism in Art?
Symbolism is an important element of most religious arts and
reading symbols plays a main role in psychoanalysis.
The Symbolist painters used to mythology and dream imagery for a
visual language of the soul.
Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an emotion or
idea rather than represent the natural world.
Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths
which could only be accessed indirectly, They painted scenes from
nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena.
The death of gravedigger
This painting is known as
“The death of gravedigger”
by Carlos schwabe.
The scene is within a
graveyard covered with a
thin layer of snow. The
main visual is of an old
within a grave and looking
up to an angel dressed in
black. She holds a green
light in her hand and it
reflects on her neck. He
holds his heart as he
watches her, therefore the
light symbolizes his soul
the angel is taking.
The gravedigger and angel
clearly show death, but
there is life surrounding
them. In the forefront there
are small buds growing out
of the snowy ground and a
tree branch cascades over
Death is the major symbol
and captures attention at
The angel in this painting
is representing death
which is a unique
technique at the time to
connect death with angels
In his painting he captures
emotions through his
What are the characteristics of
The most common themes in symbolist art include
“love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited
Symbolist painters used a wide variety of subjects including
heroes, women, animals, and landscapes.
They typically gave these subjects deep meanings such as
love, death, sin, religion, or disease.
They would use metaphors (or symbols) rather than real life to
The symbols used by symbolism are not the familiar emblems
of mainstream iconography but intensely
personal, private, obscure and ambiguous references.
Symbolism represents a synthesis of form and feeling, of
reality and the artist's inner subjectivity.
Symbolist painters believed that art should reflect an
emotion or idea rather than represent the natural world in
the objective, quasi-scientific manner embodied by Realism
Odilon Redon, artists Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de
Chavannes, Ferdinand Hodler, Edward Munch, and Paul
Gauguin were also connected to Symbolism.
Interesting Facts about Symbolism
Symbolism had a great influence on Expressionism and Surrealism,
two future artistic movements.
By Edward Munch
The Persistence of Memory
By Salvador Dali
Interesting Facts about Symbolism
The Symbolist Manifesto was published by essayist
and poet Jean More as in 1886.
Many Symbolist artists would deliberately make the
meaning of their work obscure and not explain it.
This way the viewer could make their own
To help you make sense of such symbolisms, here is a short
guide to help decipher some of the most commonly used
symbols in art:
B l a c k B i r d s : (Crows, Ravens, Etc. )
These birds typically symbolize death and
S c y t h e : A scythe (more commonly known
as a sickle) is a curved, sharp blade at the
end of a long handle. It represents death.
C a r n a t i o n : A symbol of engagement
or intimate relationship.
c l o s e d b o o k : The futility
of knowledge in dealing with human
A c a n d l e : A lighted candle generally
indicates the passing of time or perhaps
faith in God.
An extinguished candle, on the other hand,
symbolizes death or the loss of virginity.
Birth, Creation, enlightenment
N i g h t a n d d a r k : death, Evil, Shadiness of
Darkness can also be calming, restful.
W a t e r : Mystery of creation, purification,
cleansing, the unconscious and rebirth.
L i g h t : Associated with the sun and light,
purification, passionate emotions , Power,
destruction and sexuality.
While this guide provides you with the many
common for of symbolism, there exist many
thousands. These may start you on your path
toward gaining the artist’s intent, but an accurate
understanding can only be found by taking in the
entire work as a whole.
Hugo Simberg painted The
Wounded Angel between
1898 and 1903. It is a large
oil painting, height 127 cm
(50 inches) and width 154
cm (60 inches).
In the painting, two
boys, looking very
solemn, walk along a
deserted road by a body of
water. Between them they
carry a makeshift wooden
stretcher on which sits an
angel-girl, who has injured
The color scheme of the painting is very
subdued. The light fragility of the angelgirl creates a stark contrast to the
earthy, solemn figures of the boys. The
angel sits on the stretcher hunched
forward, head held down, and holding
onto the sides of the stretcher with her
hands. She is wearing a long white
gown, whose hem sweeps the ground.
Her feet are bare. In her right hand the
angel holds a small bunch of
flowers, already wilting. There is a
white kerchief around her head, shading
The painting does not reveal what
has happened to the angel-girl. On
closer inspection, you can see that
her left wing is slightly torn at the
bottom. The bright white wing has
also been stained with some drops of
The composition of The Wounded
Angel is simple: the road in the
foreground, the shore in the middle
ground and the water and the
opposite shore are all horizontal
elements. The vertical figures of the
boys, stretching nearly the whole
height of the painting, and the
slumped figure of the angel create
the dynamics in the painting.
Born April 20, 1840 - July 6, 1916
Bertrand-Jean Redon better known as
He was a Symbolist painter and
printmaker, born in Bordeaux,
Aquitaine, France .
BY ODELON REDON.
Redon explained himself by saying:
My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined.
They place us, as does music, in the
ambiguous(unclear) realm(land) of the
The Golden Cell
Oil and metallic gold paint on
paper prepared with white
British Museum, England
One of many studies of
female profiles in Redon's
work, La Cellule d'Or ('The
Golden Cell') suggests
introspection, its golden
glow embodying the power
The intense color and
strict composition recall
the portraits of the early
Here however, the feeling
dominates over objective
representation; the blue
and gold halo are the
traditional colors of the
Virgin Mary, but no further
Moreau was born in Paris.
He was a French Symbolist painter.
As a painter, Moreau appealed to the
imaginations of some Symbolist
writers and artists.
Oedipus and the Sphinx
To Moreau, the work
represented man facing the
eternal mystery with moral
strength and self-confidence.
"In Oedipus and the Sphinx
(1864), for instance, the
winged creature—half nude
female, half lion, an incubus
clawed into Oedipus' breast—
does not seem to inflict pain
Instead, the grotesque
creature and its placid victim
appear to be dreamily
engrossed in each
other, although Oedipus is
soon to answer the Sphinx's
Analysis of Painting
The Apparition portrays Salome who,
according to the Gospels, bewitched the
ruler Herod Antipas, the husband of her
mother Herodiad, with her dancing. As a
reward she was given the head of John the
Is Moreau illustrating the end of Salome's
dance in this watercolour? The head
would then appear to her as the image of
her terrifying wish. Or is it a scene after
the beheading, an image of remorse? For
Huysmans the "murder had been
committed". Salome remains a femme
fatale, even when filled with horror, in a
long description he wrote about the work
in chapter five of Against Nature (1884).
According to other critics, it was the
painter's consumption of opium which
produced hallucinations like this. Although
unfounded, this accusation has persisted
over many years.
At the 1876 Salon, The Apparition was
bought by the Belgian art dealer Léon
Gauchez (1825-1907). The following year
he loaned it for the first exhibition at the
Grosvenor Gallery in London. Gauchez had
already sent a Sappho painting by Moreau
for exhibition in London in 1871. This
interaction gives an idea of how Moreau's
reputation in literary and artistic circles
spread rapidly across Europe.