The Symbolist movement emerged in France in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was based on ideas shared between both artists and literary figures. Those ideas shared were a rejection of Realism and Naturalism. Unlike their preceding generation they saw art as being subjective, ambiguous, and mysterious, and instead of looking outward into the world for their subject matter, it came from their emotions, dreams, and spiritual psyche.

The poet Jean Moreas first gave title to the movement in 1886,with his Symbolist Manifesto. He rejected the doctrines of Naturalism by novelist Emile Zola, and in his manifesto he singled out three poets as leading figures in the movement: Baudelaire, Mallarme, and Valery. Through their writings these poets supported and contributed to the Symbolist painter's success. Of the visual artists three stand out as the forerunners of Symbolism: Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Odilon Redon. Puvis is known to be a precursor to the Symbolist movement, and although he never identified himself as a symbolist, and remained an independent artist, he was a great influence to the next generation of painters involved in the movement. He was quoted as saying, "I wish to be not Nature, but parallel to Nature."

Moreau and Redon were discovered by another crucial literary figure, Huysmans. He was another advocate of imagination and fantasy, and his book Against Nature published in 1884, he brings together the shared ideas between literary and visual artists. Moreau along with another artist Bresdin whose work as a printmaker would have a great influence upon Redon, stood out against the immersion of Naturalism in France during the 1860's and 1870's (the 1870's was the great decade of Impressionism).


Mystic Flower,
Gustave Moreau, c. 1875
In the following years 1889-90, Gaugin came to the forefront as the new hero among the Symbolists. In 1886 Gaugin had made Pont-Aven, a charming village of Brittany his home. It was there that Gaugin established relationships with younger artists, including Bernard and Serusier. In 1891, Serusier would organize a secret society called the Nabis. A Symbolist group influenced by Gaugin.

The Yellow Christ, Paul Gauguin, 1889

Sunlight on the Terrace, Maurice Denis, 1895


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