Symbolism’s Morbid, Erotic Paintings Profoundly Influenced Modern Art

Alina Cohen
Nov 28, 2018 10:30PM
Odilon Redon
Le Cyclope (The Cyclops), ca. 1914
"Odilon Redon" at Fondation Beyeler, February 2 - May 18, 2014.

Decades before Hollywood mastered the trope, Gustave Moreau painted some of art history’s most memorable femmes fatales. In Salome Dancing before Herod (1876), the French artist rendered the lusty biblical figure of Salome in a sumptuous palace interior, decked out in bangles and an elaborate, jeweled dress. Similarly, his Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864) features the titular beast as a bare-breasted seductress, clawing her way up Oedipus’s nude body.

Sensual drama prevails throughout Moreau’s oeuvre, thanks in part to paintings featuring such sultry female characters. Notably, the artist didn’t view his work as lascivious. “In Moreau’s eyes, everything in his art was ‘high, powerful, moral, beneficial and educational,’ in keeping with the traditional ideals of history painting,” art historian Peter Cooke wrote in a 2009 essay for The Burlington Magazine.

Indeed, French Symbolist art has always proven slippery for scholars, viewers, and artists alike. Loosely tied to a literary movement of the same name, the Symbolist movement in art refers to a diverse group of painters who worked in a variety of styles with a variety of themes. Scholars continue to debate what, exactly, constitutes a Symbolist artwork, and who should be included in the movement—which has come to encompass personalities as diverse as Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Odilon Redon. Some sources even include sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Nevertheless, Moreau’s canvases remain central to most conceptions of Symbolism for their psychological undertones, lush decoration, and conjunction of the morbid and the erotic. The combination of these elements helped usher in major 20th-century art movements, from Surrealism to Art Nouveau. “If Symbolist art does not constitute a truly coherent movement,” Cooke wrote, the designation is useful “for denoting certain important iconographical and aesthetic tendencies…that privilege the transforming power of the imagination and the symbolic expression of the inner world of thought and feeling.”

How did Symbolism start?

Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod, 1876. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Charles Baudelaire’s 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 Romantic 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.

Symbolism’s leading artists

Moréas’s emphasis on “primordial ideas” neatly corresponds to the work of Paul Gauguin, whose “primitivist” style celebrated what he believed to be man’s natural state, away from the mechanization of industrialized Europe. Earlier in his career, after becoming frustrated with Impressionism, Gauguin settled on a colorful new style inspired by Japanese prints. Curator Cindy Kang has called his 1888 painting Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) “the clarion call for Symbolist art.” The canvas depicts a circle of women in conservative black dresses and white caps, some praying. In front of them, the biblical figure of Jacob wrestles with a yellow-winged angel. This fight isn’t taking place in their world, but in their imaginative vision of Jacob’s dream. Attempting to render the women’s inner thoughts, Gauguin merges imagination and reality into an Inception-style composition.

Gauguin maintained a rocky relationship with Symbolism’s most famous personality: Vincent van Gogh. (Some scholars firmly consider Gauguin and Van Gogh Post-Impressionists rather than Symbolists, and because of their vibrant, inventive colors, they’re also deemed forerunners of Fauvism.)As Van Gogh’s moods vacillated, his artwork often reflected his mental state. His happiness beams through his light-filled depictions of sunflowers, while his masterpiece, The Starry Night (1889), is a more mercurial, mystical effort. Van Gogh’s nighttime paintings, which he made towards the end of his life, “went a long way toward capturing the spiritual and symbolic meanings that he saw in the night,” as Paul Trachtman has written in Smithsonian Magazine. For Van Gogh, the cosmos were bound to ideas of mortality: We must die before we can reach the stars.

Despite their interest in the unconscious, Moreau, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and their peers were also fascinated by the surfaces of their paintings, and their work often shows a significant interest in decoration. In this way, the group presaged Art Nouveau, which privileged ornate, nature-inspired objects and architecture. Yet another major Symbolist, Frenchman Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, became famous for murals featuring allegorical iconography. In his works, texture and process are less important than the larger narrative.

Odilon Redon’s oeuvre epitomizes this dual interest in interior life and external decoration. Redon’s “noirs”—shadowy black lithographs he produced between 1870 and 1890—offer a clear connection to later Surrealist experiments. Creepy and nightmarish, they feature floating heads, skeletons, an egg with eyes, a cyclops, and bells. In Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon (2005), Jodi Hauptman wrote that the “unique trail” Redon blazed was the “notion of vision that encompasses both the ability to observe and the capacity to experience the mystical or supernatural: the combination of the real and the fantastic.”

In works like Le Cyclope (The Cyclops) (1914), Redon masterfully juxtaposes the themes of lightness and darkness that characterized his career. The cartoonish, one-eyed monster emerges from behind a rock covered with multicolored flowers and verdant plant life. A naked woman lies, perhaps sleeping, amid the flora. Yet the cyclops looks at the viewer, not the woman. Dramatic irony and a discomfiting sense of voyeurism and danger pervade the painting: The viewer understands the lurking threat, while the woman remains unaware. The top half of the painting looks like a nightmare; the bottom resembles a daydream.

As in the work of Moreau, a strange eroticism prevails. Yet unlike artists associated with the contemporaneous Aesthetic movement, Moreau and his coterie weren’t merely interested in “art for art’s sake.” Ideas about history and human drive lie beneath the Symbolists’ sensual, decorative surfaces. Symbolist artists, as Dr. Therese Dolan of Temple University told Artsy, wanted to “revert to the dream” because they were so disillusioned by the world around them.

Sometimes, they even got political. The smatterings of small dots in Georges Seurat’s Pointillist drawings and paintings cohere to form images that “consistently favored the democratic and the popular,” as Robert L. Herbert wrote in Seurat: Drawings and Paintings. His subjects included “peasants, workers, and suburban factories,” and his late pictures feature urban entertainments. “He wanted to get away from the Impressionist accidental and momentary to an expression more lasting and universal,” wrote Magdalena Dabrowski in the catalogue for “The Symbolist Aesthetic,” a 1980 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. “Unlike other Symbolists, Seurat superimposed his doctrine on feeling and intuition.” Seurat sought to create tonal harmony while expressing strong emotions and ideas.

Symbolism, globally

While Symbolism was centered in Paris, its ideas spread throughout the continent of Europe. Russia developed its own branch of the movement, which, like the French contingent, influenced the country’s intellectual and literary scene. In Belgium, James Ensor depicted a heightened, ecstatic vision of both life and death: Skeletons, masks, and costumes abound throughout his oeuvre. Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler explored the symbolic potential of nature and expressive nudes. In Norway, Edvard Munch captured the angst of the modern era with paintings such as The Scream (1893). The work’s ghostly central figure remains one of our greatest symbols of existential despair today.

Dolan believes that the vagaries of Symbolism offer myriad paths of inquiry for art historians. One underexplored area, she said, is how the artists treated women within their compositions. How do Moreau’s depictions of femme fatales fit into a larger narrative about gender politics in Europe throughout the 19th century? Like its component paintings, Symbolism itself remains mysterious and layered.

Alina Cohen