Artworks and Artists of Symbolism

Progression of Art
Gustave Moreau: Jupiter and Semele (1895)

Jupiter and Semele

Artist: Gustave Moreau

This painting illustrates the myth that tells of the love between Jupiter, the divine king of the gods, and Semele (the embodiment of that which is earthly), who upon the suggestion of Jupiter's wife Juno, asks Jupiter to make love to her in his divine radiance. Jupiter cannot resist the temptation of her beauty, with the acknowledgment that she will be consumed by his light and the fire of his divinity (he is crowned with thunderbolts). Thus the painting is symbolic of humanity's union with the divine that ends in death. However, as the artist wrote, "all is transformed, purified, idealized. Immortality begins, the Divine pervades everything." Themes of death, corruption, and resurrection all make their appearance. As in this painting, Moreau followed the example of Wagner's music, composing pictures in the style of symphonic poems in their richness of detail and color, although that same characteristic prevented him from emphasizing the more modern aspects of Symbolism. The artist expressed himself in a more traditional style, but true to Symbolism, meaning evolves from the forms themselves; humanity is small-scaled and vulnerable in its fleshy voluptuousness. The androgynous figure of Jupiter suggests the isolation of the dreaming artist and the life of ideas. Moreau, central to any discussion of Symbolism, contributed to the more literary aspects of Symbolism, choosing his subjects from the Bible or, as here, mythology - at the same time that he was able to point out some of the neuroses of the modern age.

Oil on canvas - Gustave Moeau Museum, Paris

Odilon Redon: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1882)

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity

Artist: Odilon Redon

Although Edgar Allan Poe had been dead for 33 years at the time of Redon's lithograph and both Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé had translated his writings between 1852 and 1872, this is not an illustrated narrative of Poe's work; instead, it is parallel to it in its evocation of the macabre world of the writer. The single eye - the all-seeing eye of God - is an old symbol, but is here transformed. The large scale of the eye is the symbol of the spirit rising up out of the dead matter of the swamp. It is a physical organ that looks upward toward the divine, taking with it the dead skull. The aura of light surrounding the main image helps express the idea of the supernatural, as does the nebulous space. The work evokes a sense of mystery within a dream world. However, Redon's works should not be confused with Surrealism, for they are meant to create a coherent, specific idea - the head as the origin of the imagination and the spirit lodged in matter.

Also, Redon's works distinguish themselves from Surrealism in that the vision is possible to construct. Redon creates ethereal, macabre visions, but they are essentially realistic visions. As the artist himself wrote, "I approached the unlikely by means of the unlikely and could give visual logic to the imaginary elements which I perceived." Redon was, more than some Symbolists, more of a modernist. Although a Symbolist, he was also interested in the scientific materialism of the time - in Charles Darwin's work on evolution, in the study of zoological forms, and, as evidenced in this work, in the technology of the hot air balloons that were popular at the time. His work was a manifestation of his own private world expressed in personal symbols - thus more open to interpretation - and allowed the viewer to understand what hidden realities lay within the forms.

Lithograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

James Ensor: Death and the Masks (1897)

Death and the Masks

Artist: James Ensor

Ensor imparts lifelike qualities to the skull of Death in the center, with its chilling grin, and to the masks of the people; the mask becomes the face, and yet it is still a mask that tries to cover up the spiritual hollowness of the bourgeoisie and the decadence of the times. The crowded composition suggests that this is a pervasive problem and that the painting is the artist's critique of contemporary society. Ensor had an interest in masks because his mother owned a souvenir shop selling such articles as these papier mache masks worn at carnival time in Belgium. Ensor desired a return to the "pure and natural" local carnivals and festivals of his native Belgium with a view toward creating cultural unity, but realized that tourism, commercialization, and industrialization would prevent that from happening.

Moreover, Ensor was heir to the whole Northern tradition of caricature, the grotesque, and fantasy, as seen in the work of Hieronymus Bosch and even Pieter Bruegel. But as opposed to the naturalistic underpinnings of the work of Bosch and Bruegel, Ensor works with a light, bright palette that suggests whimsy and absurdity at the same time that he employs a rough and textural application of paint, which signals the depth and horror of the malaise of the times. Thus, Ensor's contribution to Symbolism was that before the Expressionists of the early-20th century, he called upon raw color and savage texture to strip down to the layers of the human psyche, plumbing its depths -- in addition to supplementing his Symbolic vocabulary with subtle political overtones.

Oil on canvas - Musée royal des beaux-arts de Liège

Jan Toorop: The Three Brides (1893)

The Three Brides

Artist: Jan Toorop

These emaciated figures with spindly arms and emphatic gestures derive from Javanese puppet theatres (Toorop was a Dutch artist who was born in Java). The artist sets up an allegory of the three states of the soul, consisting of the bride dedicated to Christ, the bride dedicated to earthly love, and the satanic bride who appears to be Egyptian - adorned with a necklace of small skulls and grasping a small snake. The group is surrounded by handmaidens and some additional obvious symbols: lilies, roses, and a bowl of blood symbolizing the purity of the Passion. The bed of thorns denotes the pains of existence. The bells hang from a nailed figure, and the flowing rhythms are symbolic of the sound of bells, with the artist attempting to depict another one of the senses. These linear rhythms proliferating in the background derive from the field of English book illustration. The whole effect is pale and monochrome.

The artist's goal was to relate humans to the spiritual world, specifically identifying women as the source of evil - an idea found in the work of many writers and artists of the time. Sin was associated with sex, and sex was related to procreation and death, with woman as the ultimate source of death. Thus Toorop provides decipherable iconography, but with Symbolism's characteristic inner vision. His is the mystical equivalent of Munch's more sensuous and expressive version of much the same subject. However, Toorop's Symbolism was unique in combining meaning-laden shapes and colors with specifically non-Western sources.

Drawing (Black chalk, tinted) - Kröller Müller Museum, Otterlo

Edvard Munch: The Dance of Life (1899-1900)

The Dance of Life

Artist: Edvard Munch

Munch presents the three stages of woman (all portraits of his lover Tulla Larsen): the virgin symbolized by white, the carnal woman of experience in red, and the aged, satanic woman in black. The sea is the beyond, eternity, the edge of life into the vast unknown, and finally, death. The dance is therefore the playing out of earthly life and the life of the senses before death, and for the time being, at least, keeps death at bay. In the background a lone, female figure stands in front of the Freudian male phallic symbol of the setting sun's reflection. Multiple male figures hover about another female figure in white (or perhaps the same one at a different moment). In the right middle ground, a male figure grabs lustily at his partner who leans away from him. This male figure has been identified as a caricature of the playwright Gunnar Heiberg, who had introduced Munch to Larsen and of whom he was jealous. In the foreground a couple - Larsen and Munch, himself - is physically proximate, in fact symbolically entwined through the shapes of the lower parts of their bodies. Their faces, however, indicate their separation from each other. The figures seem locked in the composition despite the fact that they are supposed to be participating in the movement of a dance. Munch was influenced by the pessimistic and fatalistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Indeed, the couple's fate is sealed: they never married, nor did they procreate. The Dance of Life is thus also a dance of death. In this, as well as his other works, Munch was amongst the first to iterate, and through such direct means, the modern theme of alienation and isolation that fascinated so many writers and artists of the ensuing century.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery, Oslo

Gustav Klimt: Death and Life (1908-16)

Death and Life

Artist: Gustav Klimt

In this updating of the 17th-century theme of vanitas (the vanity of earthly life), Death stares across the negative space as Life reveals itself in the figures who come into being, exist, and pass out of existence; they are born, live, and die as part of the great stream of life. This painting takes part in the fashionable pessimism of the age, which identified a cosmos driven by sexual (as opposed to sinful) urges, part of a blind drive to procreate. But there is in this painting also an emphasis on the voluptuous in both the modeling of the figures and richness of the patterns. In regard to these patterns, Klimt had been influenced by Japanese art, Minoan art, and the Byzantine mosaics he had seen at Ravenna. There is tension between the flat, elegant, glittering pattern and the more academic treatment of the bodies - between abstraction and representation. The decorative schema locks the figures in place and counteracts their existence as physical beings. Rather, they serve as symbols for states of being. It has been pointed out that Klimt offers a note of hope; instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, his human beings seem to disregard it. Klimt himself was approaching death, and perhaps the passive quality of this work is emblematic of his being resigned to that fact. The painting also reflects the time and ideas of Sigmund Freud who was also from Vienna, and who identified the main motivating actors of the human psyche to be eros (the sexual instinct for the purpose of the continuation of life) and thanatos (the death instinct for the purpose of ending the anxieties of life). Thus, not only did Klimt help advance Symbolism from its more traditional style, as evidenced in the work of Moreau, but he also pushed the boundaries of subject matter by incorporating such controversial and avant-garde themes as were circulating in the work of Freud.

Oil on canvas - Leopold Museum, Vienna

Similar Art

Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Symbolism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]