Toward a New Definition of Symbolist

Trying to make a clear definition of the Symbolist Movement is a frustrating endeavor. In terms of expressive intent, artists like Gustave Klimt, Ferdinand Knnopff, Arnold Broecklin, can seem very far away from the English Pre-Raphaelite painters like John Waterhouse, Lord Leighton, and Arnold Hacker. How does some one like John E. Millais, arguably a Realist, fit into the category? Why aren’t the Neoclassicists, who certainly deal in symbols, included? What I propose here is that there should be a new definition of the term Symbolist, one so broad that it is in danger of being meaningless in the art history sense. But my view is from the studio. It is based on creative impulse and expressive intention, the connection to which, is the origin of any work of art:

All visual art is either Naturalist or Symbolist.

It is rooted, either in the perceived object or rooted in the perceiving subject. Since the objects of perception and the perceiving subject are always fused, the objective and the subjective always inseparable, the word “rooted” is key. It would be easy, here, to get bogged down in language, instead let’s turn to pictures.

In these two paintings by Bastien Lepage, the tipping point between Naturalist and Symbolist impulses is crossed.

Young woman sitting outside in a field with her lunch while her companion sleeps

The first is wholly Naturalist: The young peasant girl is lost in some reverie. It’s her lunch break or resting time, and her companion sleeps. The intention of the piece is journalistic. We see and feel her world, and artist has made himself invisible to her world. He says to the viewer: “This is what you would see if you if you stood, unseen, in this place.”

The second piece, despite the exact same set of naturalist tools, is Symbolist. The semi-transparent, company of angels, roots the picture in the unseen. The artist says: “I’ll show you what you would not see if you stood, unseen, at this place.”

Woman standing outside in a garden with semi-transparent company of angels in the background

The Ancient World

Bust of Ank-Auf sitting on a table

The famous bust of Ank-Auf is a most unusual Naturalist piece of Egyptian art. Almost all Egyptian work is Symbolist:

Great Sphinx of Giza statue
Bust of Egyptian Pharoah statue

Even in the example on the right, the impulse is Symbolist: the stylization is subtle, but strong enough to invest the head with divine authority.

Assyrian sculpture of cow statue with wings and head of a man

Assyrian sculpture is obviously Symbolist:

Two Egyptian statues side by side with an early Greek statue of a man

Early Greek work (on the right) has a strong Egyptian leaning, and is therefore Symbolist,

White Greek statue of a nude man with partial arms and leg missing

…then it becomes less stylized, and more naturalistic.

Greek statue of nude man sitting on a rock, looking off in the distance

Until the Naturalist impulse is complete. Nonetheless, the Greeks keep themselves in the land of the gods.

Statue of Greek god wearing a tapestry behind his back

Is this Symbolist or Naturalist? Do you find this creature in the world around us? (Did the ancient Greeks find Apollo in every day life walking the streets?) This makes the piece, by intention, Symbolist. Despite its strong naturalist traits.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance

Middle Ages European painting of a man wearing a bright red robe with angels and other winged animals surrounding him

All through the Middle Ages painting in Europe turned away from Greek and Roman naturalism toward an art centered on the unseen: the symbols of the Christian Church.

European Middle Ages painting of a skeleton talking to a woman in gold robes

Not just the iconography, but the style as well was Symbolist.

Renaissance painting with scene of Jesus being surrounded by towns people and angels in the sky
Bust of elderly man wearing dark robes

As we approach the Renaissance the Naturalist impulse takes hold again.

By the early 16th Century, the development oil paint and optical insights, brings us again to a balance of the two impulses.

Naturalist artwork depicting man wearing robes outside on a rocky landscape, in front of a town in the distance

In the famous Bellini, one could argue that we have a completely Naturalist piece.

Symbolist painting depicting God in heaven looking down on Jesus

In this second piece by the great artist, the impulse tips again to the Symbolist,

Greco-Roman painting of Venus standing in a sea shell, surounded by angels

…and as the Renaissance progresses the greco-roman images return and the majority of pieces stay on the Symbolist side of the scale.

Painting of Greco-Roman Gods in heaven
Two women playing with a young baby in an outdoor landscape

With Leonardo optical naturalism takes a big leap forward, but Symbolist intentions hold.

Man in dark room wearing orange robes being visited by a flying angel coming from above

Even when the tools of naturalism reach full flower in the work of Carravagio, the iconography, remains Symbolist.

The Post Renaissance: 17th and 18th Centuries

Darkly lit room with several women and children sitting around paintings and a dog
Woman in heaven surrounded by angels, with two angels putting a crown on her head

In the great Naturalist masterpiece “Las Meninas”, Velazquez takes the last giant step of optical insight, but the Symbolist tradition still dictates the image in many of his pieces.

Woman wearing yellow top and blue apron, pouring milk into a bowl

Vermeer is the visual definition of transcendent Naturalism. I think it would be good here to say that all works of art are symbols, they all have the intention to stand for or embody a state of mind. As I said at the outset, Symbolist here means rooted in the perceiver more than the perceived, rooted in the imagination, the symbols of religion and abstract ideas, dream, or strong subconscious feeling which alters the way the world is seen.

In the 18th century painting took a very decorative turn. Symbolist inclinations were dominant, with some exceptions like Chardin:

Greek gods in a bright blue ocean fighting angels coming down from the sky
Cast iron pot sitting on a table next to a light blue ceramic cup

19th Century Pluralism

Woman holding a baby, surrounded by angels with a king holding his crown up to her
Woman wearing blue robes holding a baby, with three young women wearing all white and wings playing violin for the baby
Scene of multiple people in a town square, celebrating with angels and instruments

At the transition from the 18th Century through the 19th Century, the Neoclassical School holds with Greek and Catholic symbols.

In the mid 19th century the invention of photography sparks a sweeping new interest in Naturalism. Invented by a painter (Daguerre) for the collection of information, it set off a wave of what could be fairly called documentary painting.

Man and women sitting on a couch in an eccentrically decorated room with paintings and a lion skin rug

This piece by Dagnan-Bouveret is a perfect example. Poses and gestures have been informed, especially after the faster shutter speeds are developed, with a new knowledge of movement and expression. Yet in the height of this enthusiasm, what is called the Symbolist Movement arose with all its huge range of forms.

Two women wearing gowns sitting next to a pond, looking at a women submerged in the water
Nude woman wearing gold jewelry
Nude woman with her back facing forward, standing against a wall that has a man painted on it
Three women relaxing on a beach, wearing white colored fabric around their wastes
Nude man holding a large gold instrument standing alongside a rocky landscape
Nude woman laying in a garden, with a large cyclops creature in the background

Impressionism is a Naturalist variant which emphasizes color over drawing, and Post-Impressionism is a Symbolist variant.

A small town on the water, with the sunset showing in the reflection of the ocean
Man with red hair and beard looking inquisitively in the distance with a blue wavy background

These movements, in turn, gave rise to Modernism…

The 20th Century: Modernism

Colorful painting of elderly woman sitting in her house
Modern painting of concerned woman holding her hands up to her face
modern painting of a woman standing
Modern painting of a person with wavy lines and a mix of color use

Modernism is a novel form of Symbolism in which the internal life gains more dominance over the outer world until it completely eliminates it.

Since the 1950’s the outer world flickers in and out of focus in an almost psychotic way.

Headshot of Marilyn Monroe with pink skin and background and yellow hair
Nude man wearing boots, holding a tool in one hand and a paint pallet in the other
Nude man laying on concrete next to a pool, talkign to his young son who is wearing a swimsuit and USA flag
View of a city in the reflection of a large glass window
Abstract image of man and outlined figures in the background

Gallery installations are clearly Symbolist:

Numerous wooden stools in a wave formation in a white room
Woman and man standing in a white gallery with wholes in the walls

Digital and Video art is Symbolist in an almost old-fashioned way

Digital image of a man standing in front of a large fiery cobra snake
Digital artwork of two angels after a fight standing in a graveyard

In this absurdly contracted history of western art, it becomes clear that the Symbolist impulse has been the dominant inclination. Naturalism, in its pure form, is actually rare. But in photography, and its offspring, cinema, the inverse holds true. This is, I think, is because of the nature of the medium it self.

The work on this site fits neatly into the Symbolist Movement proper, and with the current revival of European painting craft, finds itself with kindred work both Naturalist and Symbolist.

Man wearing dark clothes standing in a birch tree forest
Man laying on a coffin outside surrounded by roses, with a figure in a blue robe holding onto him

The Psyche Story

Apuleius’s fairy tale of the victory of innocence over jealousy and desire.