A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.

Symbolism, Modernism

Some artistic movements evolve naturally out of decades of cultural change, others emerge with new technology or invention. But near the end of the 19th century, movements sprouted from the feverish pens of writers.

In 1886 Jean Moréas, a poet and art critic, published The Symbolist Manifesto in Le Figaro, one of France’s most respected newspapers. At the time, Romanticism had been the dominant voice in art and literature throughout Europe for more than 75 years, and Moréas’s screed called Romantic expression ‘dried out and shriveled’ and worse, ‘full of common sense.’ In its place Moréas called for a new manifestation of art, an expression of subjective ideas instead of purely realistic depictions of the world.

It was a tremendously appealing idea to the painters of the time, a call to focus on subjective visions and a return to a mysterious world of myths and legends. Artists flocked to the new method, developing a formal, simplified style reminiscent of early Grecian sculpture. Paul Gauguin became a poster boy for imbuing simple images with mythic weight, and Puvis de Chavannes turned everyday scenes into column rituals. Odilon Redon pushed the bounds of Symbolism even further, bringing to life the monsters and creatures of his dark and whimsical imagination. Gustave Moreau is considered to be the pinnacle of Symbolism by many, because his opulently textured works brought re-envisioned classical themes like Venus and the Muses within a vivid fantastical dramascape.

History hasn’t popularized Symbolism to the same level as art’s more unified movements, like Impressionism or Cubism, for a few reasons. Symbolist artists worked in many styles, united in pursuit of personal expression rather than aesthetic or technique. And as Symbolism evolved, it evolved into many other movements, influencing Gustav Klimt’sArt Nouveau, and Edvard Munch’s expressionist portraits of modern anxiety. Symbolism was a dark, emotional slice of art history, but it was pivotal in the germination of Modernism, and the establishment of the kinds of visionary artists we see today.


Got questions, comments or corrections about Symbolism? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.

Reed Enger, "Symbolism, A mystic search for meaning and psychological truth.," in Obelisk Art History, Published March 11, 2015; last modified November 06, 2022,

Read More
Boy Leading a Horse, Pablo Picasso

Boy Leading a Horse Pablo Picasso,

Libations, Five Figures in a Mythical Forest, Paul Sérusier

Libations, Five Figures in a Mythical Forest Paul Sérusier,

Pity, William Blake

Pity William Blake, 1795

I travelled through a land of men, A land of men and women too, And heard and saw such dreadful things, As cold earth wanderers never knew.

The Mental Traveler William Blake, 1803

Angel of the Revelation, William Blake

Angel of the Revelation William Blake, 1803 – 1805

Elohim Creating Adam, William Blake

Elohim Creating Adam William Blake, 1805

The Sun at his Eastern Gate, William Blake

The Sun at his Eastern Gate William Blake, 1816 – 1820

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car, William Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car William Blake, 1824 – 1827

Dante Running from the Three Beasts, William Blake

Dante Running from the Three Beasts William Blake, 1824 – 1827

Minos, William Blake

Minos William Blake, 1824 – 1827

Cider, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Cider Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1864

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau

Oedipus and the Sphinx Gustave Moreau, 1864

The River, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The River Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1864

The Wine Press, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Wine Press Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1865

Fantasy, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Fantasy Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1866

Venus Rising from the Sea, Gustave Moreau

Venus Rising from the Sea Gustave Moreau, 1866

The Voices, Gustave Moreau

The Voices Gustave Moreau, 1867

The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo, Gustave Moreau

The Muses Leaving Their Father Apollo Gustave Moreau, 1868

Massilia, Greek Colony, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Massilia, Greek Colony Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1868 – 1869

Hesiod and the Muses, Gustave Moreau

Hesiod and the Muses Gustave Moreau, 1870

Figure, Odilon Redon

Figure Odilon Redon, 1876

Pietà, Gustave Moreau

Pietà Gustave Moreau, 1876

Jacob and the Angel, Gustave Moreau

Jacob and the Angel Gustave Moreau, 1878

Phaethon, Gustave Moreau

Phaethon Gustave Moreau, 1878

Pornocrates, The Lady with the Pig, Félicien Rops

Pornocrates, The Lady with the Pig Félicien Rops, 1878

Tears, Odilon Redon

Tears Odilon Redon, 1878

Gnome, Odilon Redon

Gnome Odilon Redon, 1879

Spring Evening, Arnold Böcklin

Spring Evening Arnold Böcklin, 1879

Young Girls by the Seaside, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Young Girls by the Seaside Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1879

Figures in the Woods, Matthijs Maris

Figures in the Woods Matthijs Maris, 1880

Galatée, Gustave Moreau

Galatée Gustave Moreau, 1880

The Crying Spider, Odilon Redon

The Crying Spider Odilon Redon, 1881

The Smiling Spider, Odilon Redon

The Smiling Spider Odilon Redon, 1881

Leda and the Swan, Gustave Moreau

Leda and the Swan Gustave Moreau, 1882

The Sacred Elephant (Péri), Gustave Moreau

The Sacred Elephant (Péri) Gustave Moreau, 1882

Ulysses and Calypso, Arnold Böcklin

Ulysses and Calypso Arnold Böcklin, 1882

In the Sea, Arnold Böcklin

In the Sea Arnold Böcklin, 1883

La Toilette, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

La Toilette Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883

The Chimaeras, Gustave Moreau

The Chimaeras Gustave Moreau, 1884

Voices Of Evening, Gustave Moreau

Voices Of Evening Gustave Moreau, 1885

The essential character of symbolic art consists in never approaching the concentrated kernel of the Idea in itself.

Symbolist Manifesto Jean Moréas, first published in Le Figaro, 1886

Tamaris, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Tamaris Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1886 – 1887

Ahasuerus at the End of the World, Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl

Ahasuerus at the End of the World Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, 1888

Death: “My Irony Surpasses All Others”, Odilon Redon

Death: “My Irony Surpasses All Others” Odilon Redon, 1888

Closed Eyes, Odilon Redon

Closed Eyes Odilon Redon, 1889

Patriotic Games, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Patriotic Games Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1883 – 1889

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin

The Yellow Christ Paul Gauguin, 1889

Closed Eyes, Odilon Redon

Closed Eyes Odilon Redon, 1890

Night, Ferdinand Hodler

Night Ferdinand Hodler, 1890

Saint George and the Dragon, Gustave Moreau

Saint George and the Dragon Gustave Moreau, 1889 – 1890

Next Movement
Post-Impressionism, Industrial Revolution


Beyond nature, toward emotional simplicity.

1886 – 1905

By continuing to browse Obelisk you agree to our Cookie Policy