1857 book of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal
(The Flowers of Evil
), initiated the Symbolist program. In his work, the poet depicts the drama and passions of daily life, privileging individual turmoil over realism, idealism, or cultural critique. In “Autumn,” for example, Baudelaire discusses the fading summer and onset of winter: “I think this is the season’s funeral, / someone is nailing a coffin hurriedly.” On the surface, the poem is simply about seasonal change—beneath lies the speaker’s fear of death and a morbid assessment of how quickly life passes. The idealistic
poets of the early 19th century had similarly asserted the mystical potency of nature, but Baudelaire and the subsequent Symbolist artists made it more personal—fraught with all the complications of individual experience.
This tension between surface and deeper meaning was also a key element of a simultaneously developing field: psychiatry. In 1800, German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling published System of Transcendental Idealism, which introduced the idea of the unconscious. Art, Schelling believed, brought hidden human fears and desires to light. At the end of the 19th century, Sigmund Freud further developed and popularized such ideas about the inner workings of the mind, and Symbolist writers and artists found ample ground for exploration in the mysteries of psychology.
In 1886, critic Jean Moréas published The Symbolist Manifesto
, citing Baudelaire and his followers, poets Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, as leaders of the movement. Though Moréas’s work attempted to define a literary style, it also helped codify a new aesthetic and conceptual framework in the visual arts. “In this art,” he wrote
, “the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas.” In other words, art should transform the unconscious into a series of age-old symbols that can be readily interpreted.
The Symbolists found a common exhibition space at Paris’s annual Salon de la Rose+Croix, held from 1892 to 1897. The salons were initiated by French writer Joséphin Péladan, who belonged to a secret fraternal sect of mystics called the Rosicrucian order. Most exhibiting artists espoused spirituality in their work, departing from scientific and Realist thought.