Those who write about the wide ranging and international array of artists whom are collectively known as The Symbolists, tend to place them into different groupings to try to give structure and to help definition.

This is sometimes done by making international headings, or as in Henri Dorra’s  by differentiating sub-groups under Romantic, Post-Impressionists, and Artists of the Soul. Philipe Julian in his 1969 publication , a book on the Symbolist artists of the 1890s, intriguingly evokes different types of chimera with which to associate particular artists. One factor that links all the Symbolists is their freely given allegiance to the processes of the imagination. Indeed they are, if considered as a movement in art, the first to allow the imagination to become their natural environment and principal source of sustenance. So, as another means of making comparison and structure and thus facilitating understanding and gaining further pleasure from the work of these artists, it should be possible to think in terms of this very dimension of the mind that so inspired them, the imagination, and seek to observe and to differentiate between the various kinds of imagining.

The Symbolists are a notably mixed bag of artists, but it may nevertheless be found that there is an essence amongst them that evolved, an accretion that formed into a central core in the midst of this diversity. I believe that this exists in the last of the groups of ‘imaginings’ that I am about to describe.

I have concentrated on four types of imagination and will delineate their own particular characteristics, though of course there is overlap. They are:

The Dramatic Imagination.

The Symbiotic Imagination.

The Mystical Imagination.

The Existential Imagination.

These ‘imaginations’ do fall into something of a temporal sequence as each reaches its prominence during the Symbolist period. Time is relevant in a way that is more profound than this though, for the Symbolists were very much the repondents to the culture-shaking collision of the new and the old of the 19th century fin de siècle. The paradox of the Symbolists, and it is more a paradox than a contradiction, is that in their often troubled, reactionary and even neurotic responses to the onrushing modern world, they were nevertheless in another sense completely of their own time. For it was to them to express the anxieties and conflicts generated by a new cultural, industrial and psychological era and simultaneously to do this with a new freedom of expression and a new experience of subjectivity that this same advent of modern times made possible. Such new and raw states of being must often stir up that affect which can be such a marker of Symbolist art, anxiety.

The precursors to the Symbolists, and some of those who were notable figures in the early years of the movement, were expressing a new, more pronounced subjectivity through the very fact that they were giving such vent to the forces of their imaginations. This was imagination for imagination’s sake. Their subject matter was frequently drawn from stirring, troubling, emotionally moving and exotic narratives and their’s was the DRAMATIC IMAGINATION. Yet despite their spirit of adventure they still tended to look backwards to find the overall narrative structures into which they could place their own distinct imagery.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) could completely turn himself over to the compulsive elements in his inner world, yet reached to the familiar tales of antiquity for his pictorial settings, a notable example being his repeated renderings of the triumph of Salome in which he clearly shows that though the biblical story is there to be utilised, he has little involvement with the moral or spiritual significance of John the Baptist’s death and a much greater interest in the castratingly seductive power of the young dancer Salome, dressed in little more than her jewels.


Gustave Moreau – ‘Salome Dancing Before Herod’ 1871 (Musée Gustave Moreau). Eroticism in painting was manifesting with a new, much sharper and ambivalent edge, more as it really is in fact.

The Swiss Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901) also drew heavily from antiquity for his dramas and in a style that was influenced by his years amongst the classical and renaissance treasures of Italy. He often painted from classical mythology, but there could be a Wagnerian mood to his vision influenced by gods that were still well incumbent in Valhalla; there is a primitive Germanic grandeur that was to retrospectively bring him into disrepute. (eg. Arnold Böcklin ‘In the Play of the Waves’ 1883, and ‘The Isle of the Dead’ 1880).

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) was a German who also reached back to pagan culture for the imagery with which to dramatise his personal pre-occupations. When he additionally deals with biblical narrative his inspiration, as so often with the Symbolists, is only from the creatures of sin. His 1890 painting of the alone and darkly brooding Lucifer must be one of the most remarkable visions in Symbolist art. (eg. Franz von Stuck ‘Lucifer’, 1890). The ultimate femme fatale as seen in (an etching which you can view here linked to our own stock, click:Die Sinnlichkeit), could easily be thought of as one of Lucifer’s own creatures.

Sometimes overlapping with these artists of the Dramatic Imagination and similarly tending to be found in the earlier stages of the period, are the artists of the SYMBIOTIC IMAGINATION.

Again we are given some truly idiosyncratic visions, so that the artists are recognisable, not only from style but also from their imaginative content and contexts. ‘One face looks out from all his canvases…’ wrote the poet Christina Rossetti about her brother Dante Gabriel’s obsession with Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862), his love, model, muse and, briefly until her early death, wife: ‘…he feeds upon her face by day and night.’

Such obsessiveness must be motivated and kept energised by a prolonged and powerful force. As described above, for the artists of the Dramatic Imagination there was often a sexual pre-occupation, but with the Symbiotic Imagination there shows a more primitive manifestation of the libido, the wish to re-unite in blissful merger with the maternal and with such that is symbolic of ‘her’, the beginning of the world, nature, a golden age and even sometimes to return to the merger through death itself. Here there is a longing for womb-like undifferentiation, for innocence, before jealousy, before sin, before aloneness. (eg. Puvis de Chavannes: ‘The River’ c.1864)

And again, as with the Dramatic Imagination, these artists of the Symbiotic Imagination look to the past, in this case to the classical or to an idealised mediaeval grace. Here for instance there is Rossetti, Burne Jones, sometimes Puvis de Chavannes and German Symbolists such as Ludwig von Hoffman (1861-1945) with his Arcadian visions of young and beautiful creatures, unquestioning and usually unclothed, and undifferentiated from the natural beauty of the landscapes that so harmoniously contain them, (eg. Ludwig von Hoffman ‘Idyll’ 1896). It is an idealistic repudiation of the repetitiveness, stress and pollution of a new mechanised age and the perceived loss of values therein, but in its nostalgia there is a longing for merger which will reduce the burdens of difference. The dream of the chivalric middle ages could move Burne-Jones to ecstasy. Here he saw grace and perfection and in his art he populated it with androgynous knights and palid maidens, their sexuality aesthetically tamed, (eg. ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’ 1892, a photogravure of which can be seen here as a link to our own stock – click: King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid)Sometimes these artists are called Artists of the Soul, but is this really about the soul or rather the artist’s need to find and unite with the feminine element buried deep inside? Is that in fact the true quest? In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blessed Damozel 1875-9 (Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University)


based upon his earlier poem first published in 1850, the maiden looks out and down to earth from “the bar of heaven”. She has died and risen to heaven and below, her mortal lover lies beneath a tree looking upwards. They both long for their re-unification, which can only be their merger in death –
“We two will lie i’ the shadow of
That living mystic tree
Within whose secret growth the Dove
Is sometimes felt to be…”

Artists of the Soul suggests spirituality, but there was another group of Symbolists who could lay claim more directly and sometimes more profoundly to that area. They were of the MYSTICAL IMAGINATION. Their difference was that their spirituality, whether Christian or of the occult, was not driven by an unconscious symbiotic longing to re-join a wondrous maternal presence, once known, now imagined, though perhaps always just imagined. Instead they sought an experience of mysticism, which though it too involved an alteration to the sense of personal boundaries, was one wherein the individual was placed within a numinosity of spiritual truth.

The great English visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) had a unique access to thespirtual experience and a supreme ability to express it in word and images. The work is profoundly symbolic and would be influential to Symbolists though it was prior to Symbolism as a movement. His rough little woodcuts commissioned by the publisher Robert John Thornhill to illustrate the pastoral poems of Virgil (1821), inspired a group of young artists, notably Samuel Palmer (1805-81), Edward Calvert (1799-1883), and George Richmond (1809-96), to follow a vision that was derived from a mystical connection to the English countryside. Based in Shoreham in Kent they called themselves ‘The Ancients’. Their pantheistic landscapes are a vital part of the pastoral and ruralist English tradition and move the mystical element into a gentle and poetic imagery. (eg. Samuel Palmer: ‘Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star’ c1830). They were not to become Symbolists though and to find mystical artists who were participating in the Symbolist movement the attention needs to be focussed opon the continent of Europe.

There were here artists such as Jean Delville and those who gathered around the charisma of Joséphin Péladan (1859-1918), who aimed at a more particular outcome. Péladan went so far as to resurrect the German mediaeval society of the Rosicrucians for his purposes and re-named himself, as its leader the Sâr Péladan. He was driven by a hatred of materialism. Aestheticism and the occult thus became a prescribed salvation for his followers. Unfortunately his personage in this respect, clothed in the robes of the magus and with other dramatic elaborations to his life style, is undermined for some by its theatricality, though for others he remains a figure of importance who unjustly has been largely forgotten.

There were elements of serious mystical intent within this group, and it is of note that after all the Rosicrucian headiness there were still those such as Delville who continued along a spiritual path, and interesting that some moved towards Eastern mystical doctrines and practice. It does seem that, in viewing the ‘mystical’ in art, a distinction needs to be made in terms of the profundity or relative superficiality of the particular vision. It is not a title that can be too easily assumed.

Many influences and imaginative strands gathered and circled around within the container of ‘Symbolism’ and gravitational cores evolved. These artists of the Mystical Imagination comprised one such core in that they were expressing their responses to the existential and spiritual dilemmas of their day. They searched for meaning beyond the manifest and the materialistic, and challenged the religious inertia that had provided a a security for previous generations.

But there was another nucleus that eventually formed and this one can perhaps claim a special centrality and source of definition. There are a number of artists who tend to be found in the latter stage of the Symbolist era who can be called artists of THE EXISTENTIAL IMAGINATION. The convenience and reassurance found in the familiar subject matters and imaginative constructions of previous generations are stripped away. Here are imaginings that make reference only to the here and now pre-occupations, often extremely anxious ones, of being in a world as it tips from one century into the next. A world in which there is much upheaval but also new personal freedom, and in which individual responsibilty has to be taken for that which is felt, thought and indeed, imagined. Here can be found the isolated female figures of the Belgian Leon Spilliaert, silhouetted upon a strip of shoreline or quayside, the symbolic meeting place with the unconscious. There are the the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler’s strangely delineated figures, gesturing and positioned in ways that make reference to the metaphysical, but also to the strangeness of being ‘Der Tag’ 1900 (Kunstmuseum, Bern)


and perhaps above all, the moody and melancholic subjectivity of Edvard Munch. Munch is frequently beset by that most troubled of Symbolist pre-occupations, the man who is emotionally and sexually in thrall to the desired, but over-powering woman. In this he often produced familiar symbolist iconography. However, as pointed out by Luigi Bernardi in his article that accompanied the exhibition of works by Munch and Félicien Rops, ‘Man Woman’, Munch (unlike Rops), ventured into new territory to express the insecurity and uncertainty besetting the sexual and gender relations of the time as they impacted on both men and women. Bernardi writes: “…embraces like the one in the painting of 1897 (by Munch), The Kiss, are often embraces in the dark, full of fear rather than sensuality, a clinging onto each other rather than an amorous embrace”.

There is no reference to extraneous sources in these pictures; no borrowing from previous epochs, no looking to familiar narratives within which to imagine.

This art is anxiously, courageously of the moment; of the existence of the self, precarious as this may be, and its way of letting itself be known, through the imagination.