One of the earliest of the modern art movements, emerging shortly after Impressionism, symbolism sought to escape the representation of reality entirely, in favour of subjects like spirituality, imagination, and dreams. Many of the symbolist artists used quite a traditional and often realist style, but the subject matter was very much a shift, and the symbolism used diverged dramatically from conventional religious or classical symbols, into symbols which were often highly personal and private to the individual artist. The artists involved in the movement were diverse in style and geography, and often crossed over into other movements and genres, with some of the best known briefly profiled below.
Widely considered both a key founder of the movement, and one of it’s best practitioners, Moreau built a career based heavily in traditional mythological and biblical subjects, inspired by a classical education, art studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and studying Romanticist and Renaissance artworks in France and Paris. His first symbolist works began to appear in the 1860s, striking viewers for bringing fresh perspectives on heavily explored subjects, which critics quickly found a multitude of interesting symbols within. His work continued to impress but was disrupted by depression and grief, until he was convinced to teach at the Ecole des Beaux-arts, where he became popular for encouraging students to experiment and develop their own styles.
Little appreciated until after his death, Gauguin’s distinct use of colour, and his synthesist style, made a clear break from impressionism, and inspired many later modern artists, including Picasso and Matisse. Coming from a background of some privilege he turned to art whilst working as a stockbroker, and never really fitted into impressionism, turning to the flat planes of colour in synthesism. He found further inspiration in travel, and eventually settled in Tahiti absorbing the local religion and culture, working Polynesian and Christian symbolism into his artwork, as well as a sense of sexuality. He passed away at the start of the 1900s, but deeply influenced modern art, and artists like van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Derain.
Probably the best known of the symbolist artists for his iconic and distinctive pieces, Klimt was known for his studies of the female body, eroticism, and gold leaf artworks. He began as a commercial mural artist, and was recognised for his talent, but his personal style began to emerge when his father and brother died. He was controversial, and often accused of creating pornography, but gained widespread critical praise for his gold period, though lived out his life in comparative simplicity, painting and spending time with his family until his passing from pneumonia in 1918.
A German artist perhaps best known for his intaglio art prints; inspired by a fascination with the etchings and prints of artists like Durer and Rembrandt, he studied as an engraver and began building a name for himself through them. He would often integrate a variety of techniques such as aquatint, drypoint, and etching to achieve incredible tonal variations that inspired many artists including de Chirico, Ernst, and Munch. His art prints often came in series, telling a story which could cover the social realism of prostitution, or the fetishistic symbolism of a woman’s glove. His work would go onto inspire Surrealists, Symbolists, and the Metaphysical artists that followed.
An artist who’s work spanned across symbolist, expressionist, and surrealist artworks, Ensor was known for his paintings and art prints which were often extremely colourful, and depicted symbolic religious themes. His earliest work was very realist, but shifted towards a bright palette and subjects such as skeletons, masks, and carnival, seeking psychological impact and creative freedom. Over time, these subjects shifted to religious themes, often the torments of Christ, and sometimes combined with masked carnival mobs sometimes including recognisable politicians; his work was often controversial at the time. A prolific etcher and printmaker, he created over 100 modern art prints often exploring similar themes to his paintings.