Art History: A Quick Brief of Symbolism and Art Nouveau

1880 -1910

Symbolism and Art Nouveau were simultaneous art movements that existed each on its own but that often came together on one piece.

Symbolism focused on the abstract use of symbols to express the spiritual reality behind the physical world. Art Nouveau sought to bring modernity and elegance to composition and design. Symbolists wanted to form images from dreams and it Art Nouveau’s swirling lines and often ethereal nature often provided a perfect backdrop.

Symbolism and Art Nouveau Origins and Historical Importance:


Symbolism - Death and Masks

Symbolism – Death and Masks

In 1886, Jean Moreas published the Symbolist Manifesto that promoted the idea of expressing ideals in “perceptible form” rather than “matter of fact description”.

He said, “in this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real-world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial ideals.”

What is possibly meant is that truth does not have to be obviously and directly depicted; the human mind can understand it through metaphor, and, through symbolism.

“If the weather is good I go into the nearby wood – there I am painting a small beech forest (in the sun) with a few conifers mixed in. This takes until 8 ‘o clock”. – Gustav Klimt

Symbolism started as a literary movement. Its transition to the visual arts lies in the ideology of the painter, rather than finding meaning in the outside world and depicting it on canvas, found an inner source and brought it out onto the canvas, whether the idea or thought was his own or the thought of a literary contemporary.

They turned to the legends and myths of both history and the bible as well as the literary art of the time to craft a story on canvas, imbuing their subjects with heroic qualities and esoteric meaning.

Symbolism - Jupiter and Semele

Symbolism – Jupiter and Semele

The Symbolists rejected the grittiness and over the accuracy of Realism, but also shied away from the fantasy and disingenuousness of Romanticism. They united in an effort to express emotions, feelings, and ideas through the human mind’s ability to understand the apparent truth through association, metaphors, and symbols.

Being on the edge of literary Romanticism, Gothic Horror and Romance, and Transcendentalism, the visual arts in the Symbolism movement geared toward subject matter that was almost taboo, such as erotic, perverse, maudlin, melancholy, macabre, or that dealt with religious mysticism, the occult, or secret knowledge.

“No language is rude that can boast polite writers”. – Aubrey Beardsley

Art Nouveau:

The Art Nouveau movement came into being as designers bored of Neoclassic and Historicism and wanted to move the modern era in the direction of modern design.

They looked at design as more than a mere application of aesthetics and strove to meld functionality, aesthetics, and design into a harmonious whole. This idea was dubbed New Art, or Art Nouveau.

This new title was given to art across all mediums that applied the principle from painting to architecture to what was previously known only as crafts. Art Nouveau discouraged the idea that crafts were not art and embraced them as part of the movement.

Art Nouveau – Hope II

Aesthetic design during the movement was heavily influenced by Asian art, particularly Japonism, Ukiyo-e prints (elegant and colorful woodblock prints), but was also inspired by La Tene Celtic design.

These two far-flung cultures that were influential shared a common theme, that of natural elements and lines and forms that flowed in the way of the natural world.

Art Nouveau took on the swirls and spirals of Celtic and Asian art and combined them with geometric forms and distinctly modern colors to create a new style.

“I find it difficult to imagine an afterlife, such as Christians, or at any rate many religious people, conceive it, believing that the conversations with relatives and friends interrupted here on earth will be continued in the hereafter”. – Edvard Munchy

Another concern of the proponents of Art Nouveau was the fast disappearance of quality craftsmanship.

The Industrial Revolution and mass production had led to poorly made reproductions of earlier antiques. The Art Nouveau movement attempted to revive pride in craftsmanship. They wanted to revive this under a new era of design that rejected frivolity and based the aesthetics of an object on how they contributed to the function of the object or at least harmonized with it.

Symbolism and Art Nouveau Key Highlights:

  • Art Nouveau disliked the art community’s rejection of craft as non-art and sought to remedy it. This ultimately led to art nouveau becoming more of a craft-based form, being ousted by Art Deco not long after.
  • Art Nouveau was heavily influenced Japanese woodblock prints and as such, mimicked their flat planes, contrasting voids, and simple color schemes.
  • Mass-produced graphics coincided with Art Nouveau in a convenient way. Art Nouveau’s simple colors and two-dimensional depth worked well with modern printing equipment.
  • The symbols of symbolism are secretive and ambiguous rather than being obvious familiar icons.
  • Many symbolist artists used drugs to put them into the states they thought necessary to create their art. The famous literary artists, Edgar A. Poe, was a fan of the hallucinogenic drink, absinthe.

Symbolism and Art Nouveau Top Works:

  • Death and Masks – James Ensor
  • Jupiter and Semele – Gustave Moreau
  • The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity – Odilon Redon
  • The Three Brides – Jan Toorop
  • The Dance of Life – Edvard Munsch
  • Death and Life – Gustav Klimt
  • The Peacock Skirt – Aubrey Beardsley
  • Hope II – Gustav Klimt

Art Movements (Order by period of origin)

Dawn of Man – BC 10

1st Century to 10th Century

10thCentury to 15th Century

15th century onwards

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