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The Symbolist Movement in Art & Literature

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  • 0:02 What is Symbolism?
  • 1:04 Symbolist Painting
  • 3:59 Symbolist Literature
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore a unique movement of 19th-century art and literature that rejected the trends of other arts in order to explore the unseen world of the mind. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

What Is Symbolism?

What is this?

image of two painted birds

A bird? No, obviously it's a spirit messenger in a dream heralding the coming of a new age that promises individual expression against the commercialized nature of art. Obviously. You see, the world is much more than just what we see, touch, and hear. But in the 19th century, artists had become obsessed with only presenting that which they could see and feel.

Well, one group wasn't having any of that. The Symbolists rejected the focus on daily life found in Impressionism and Realism and looked to reveal absolute truth through the complex inner world of the mind. Symbolist art was deeply personal and very intricate, being filled with symbols that often only had meaning to the artist or people who knew the artist.

So, ready to experience some Symbolist art? Close your eyes, and let's enter the world of dreams.

Symbolist Painting

Welcome to the world of Symbolism, and what a world! This is Jupiter and Semele, painted by Gustave Moreau around 1875:

jupiter and semele

Overwhelmed? You should be! That's the point of this painting, to capture a world that is as unrealistic as otherworldly as possible. The actual subject is from Roman mythology, which was a common theme amongst Symbolists since myths are worlds of fantasy. In this story, a girl named Semele falls in love with the god Jupiter and begs him to reveal himself in his true, godly form. Jupiter does, but the sight is so overwhelming that Semele dies, seen here swooning in the lap of the majestic deity. Dreams, the subconscious, and fantasies are not always positive or safe places. Jupiter's throne is surrounded by dozens of intricate objects that all held deep, personal meaning to the artists, but we, as viewers, aren't told how to interpret those symbols.

Here is another take on Classical mythology by a Symbolist painter: The Cyclops by Odilon Redon:

the cyclops

Now, first thing you may notice about this is that it looks pretty different from the detailed painting by Moreau. By the late 19th century, artistic styles were not always defined purely by aesthetic or technique, but by the meaning behind the art. So, movements like Symbolism included pieces that looked different but had the same purpose.

The Cyclops presents a woman sleeping, dreaming of a friendly Cyclops, who is visible as if he is real. In the dream, fantasies become real, but Redon still wanted this painting to clearly reflect a sense of a mystical dream, hence the blurred, rich colors. So, this is more than just a fantastical story inspired by Classical mythology. It is also a study of the private world of dreams, in which the real and imagined are fused into one.

As we move on from Redon's dream, we find yet another completely different treatment of this idea. Here is Sleeping Gypsy, painted by Henri Rousseau in 1897:

sleeping gypsey

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