Symbolism was a profoundly felt and widespread cultural phenomenon which started in the mid nineteenth century and came to dominate the arts in Europe c.1885-1910. Symbolism was geographically widespread across Europe, though it was dominant in France and centred on Paris, and it was also inter-disciplinary –Symbolist culture embraced literature, poetry and music as well as the visual arts.
Symbolist painting positioned itself against the realism and naturalism of Impressionism. Many of the avant-garde Post Impressionist artist groups - particularly the Nabis and the Pont-Aven School and even the Neo-Impressionists - were caught up with ideas and beliefs that can be broadly described as Symbolist. Symbolism even included artists who remained within the official art establishment. Scandinavian art of the same period too shared many Symbolist ideas.
There had been strong Symbolist currents in English art from the mid nineteenth century, especially in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. In France, Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Eugene Carriere and the young Odilon Redon were also working in this vein in the mid-1850s and 60s – but it was not until the late 1880s that such artists gained considerable recognition, and even ‘cult’ status where they were celebrated for their originality by the younger Post Impressionist generation. For example, Moreau became an inspirational teacher and mentor for many future seminal artists including Henri Matisse.
Symbolism was first identified as a literary movement by the critic Jean Moréas in 1886 and as a visual arts movement by the young Symbolist poet Albert Aurier in his 1891 article on Paul Gauguin. In this important article, Aurier proclaimed the defining criteria for true art and explained that it must be "Symbolist, because it expresses the Idea through forms". Symbolist painting was concerned to convey spiritual truths (the "Idea") through painted forms (which thereby acted as symbols). Aurier also proclaimed that Symbolist painting must be created in such a way that it could be "generally understood".
This definition works for many of the different cultural manifestations of Symbolism which shared much common ground in an interest in the metaphysical and the spiritual. Many Symbolist painters concentrated on investing a significance in the objects they depicted which went beyond what they literally represented. Similarly they also concentrated on suggesting and evoking mood and atmosphere rather than providing a factual description of a particular object. Coinciding with the development of Freudian psychotherapy, there was also an interest in exploring the realm of dreams and the workings of the human subconscious.
Gauguin himself was a leader in defining Symbolist ideas from the mid 1880s. He inspired his followers to use intuition and to listen to their emotional responses to the natural forms they studied, as sources of inspiration in their painting. His first paintings to show these ideas came in 1888 when he was working with Emile Bernard at Pont-Aven. These ideas and achievements subsequently became the foundation of Synthetism.
These discoveries inspired many young artists of the Post Impressionist era: Paul Serusier, who was working in Pont-Aven with Gauguin at this time, excitedly carried the message to the Nabis. The artists Henri Le Sidaner and Henri Martin – whose exhibitions together with Ernst Laurent as the Societe Nouvelle – were important in fusing an interest in effects of luminosity and Neo-Impressionist techniques with their Symbolist concerns. The concerns of avant-garde Symbolism can also be seen to provide the foundation for Expressionist art and in focussing on the expressive potential of pure form, colour and line too, Symbolism can even be seen to have provided roots for the abstraction of Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian or Frantisek Kupka for example.
There was also much Symbolist painting that was also characterised as such through taking its subjects from religious and mythological sources. Art exhibited at the Salon de la Rose + Croix was Symbolist more in this sense as it was selected for its choice of subjects from Catholic themes and legend. Nevertheless, avant-garde artists associated with the Salon included Edmond Aman-Jean , Ferdinand Knophf and Emile Bernard.