Symbolist critics in France saw both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism as Symbolist. By the mid-1880s the original Impressionist aim of truth to visual experience had shifted: the artists had developed their technique to a point where the pictures appeared to be approximations of reality, rather than objective views of reality itself. Most Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from this period emphasize texture and surface. The consequent denial of space and thus the denial of the illusion of reality in this style of painting is a major component of Symbolism in the visual arts; Impressionist as well as Neo-Impressionist pictures appear more suggestive than descriptive. Another basic feature of Symbolist art is an interest in spiritualism and in the Platonic notion that an ideal world lies beyond the world of appearances; important Neo-Impressionist notions of the relationship between style and meaning were based on the spiritualist ideas of Charles Henry.
Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Edward Burne-Jones and Arnold Böcklin were important precursors for the artists who thought of themselves as Symbolists. Sharing an attraction to the Romantic subjects of the early 19th century and a concomitant lack of interest in Realist, Naturalist or Impressionist goals, the earlier generation were equally concerned with spirituality and revelation evoked via myth, religion and literature (e.g. Moreau’s The Apparition, 1876; Paris, Louvre). Dedicated to an ideal level of expression, the ambition of which was to match that of the Old Masters, they were all independent individualists, who focused on their ideal, undistracted by the art that was going on around them. These concerns attracted a younger group with whom they came to co-exist.
France took the lead in the development of Symbolism, and Paul Gauguin played a seminal role. By 1885 his writings (H. Chipp: Theories of Modern Design, Berkeley, 1975, p. 58) reflected Symbolist interests. He believed that the emotional response to nature is more important than the intellectual; that lines, colours and even numbers communicate meaning; that intuition is crucial to artistic creation; and that one should communicate ideas and feelings derived from nature by means of the simplest forms, after dreaming in front of the subject. However, he was not able to translate these ideas into images until summer 1888, when he worked with Emile Bernard at Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he produced such works as Vision after the Sermon: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1888; Edinburgh, N.G.). At Pont-Aven he developed a new style, Synthetism, in which clear outlines define areas of pure colour arranged in flat planes. His work expresses the Symbolist belief in art as a form of language, together with the corollary that the most primitive form of language operates on a symbolic level. These notions, combined with envy of the natural spirituality of the uneducated and ‘native’ peoples and their distance from modern, decadent civilization, led Gauguin to try to re-create elemental forms of communication and the power of primitive artistic achievements. He wrote that artists should paint ‘the mysterious centres of thought’ (1880) and explained his approach to Symbolism in 1901 when he said, ‘Puvis would call a painting Purity, and to explain it he would paint a young virgin holding a lily in her hand …. Gauguin, for the title Purity, would paint a landscape with limpid waters.’
Symbolism rejects traditional iconography and replaces it with subjects that express ideas beyond the literal objects depicted. The notion of the expressive potential of simplified forms and pure colour provided the freedom and directness that young, academically trained students were looking for, and it became one of the two stylistic options in Symbolism. Paul Sérusier relayed this message from Gauguin’s teaching to students at the Académie Julian in Paris, including Paul Ranson, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard; in 1888–9, this group became the Nabis. Their name, Hebrew for prophets, claimed clairvoyant status for the group and for the occult, religious, anarchist, genre and landscape subjects members explored in the new style.
Even the most commonplace scene by Vuillard or Bonnard could be Symbolist when considered in the context of statements by the Belgian writer, Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949); in an article in Le Figaro (2 April 1894), he described the artist as:Seated in an armchair, listening simply to all the eternal laws which reign throughout his house, interpreting without understanding, all that there is in the silence of doors and windows and in the little voice of light, submitting to the presence of his soul and of his destiny … a good painter will show a house lost in the country, an open door at the end of a corridor, a face or hands at rest, and these simple pictures will have a power of adding something to our awareness of life.
Other artists followed the trend established by Gauguin, perhaps none so successfully as Edvard Munch, who charged his oeuvre with such strong personal meaning that his style and content became a source for Expressionism. A much more traditional stylistic approach, with strong occult associations, was housed in the Salons de la Rose + Croix in Paris organized by Joséphin Péladan. From 1892 to 1897 his salon welcomed work that subscribed to the illusionistic style of Renaissance art and was spiritual in subject; he specifically rejected anything that might have associations with Realism, such as portraits, landscapes or genre scenes, preferring ‘Catholic Ideal and Mysticism … Legend, Myth, Allegory, the Dream, the Paraphrase of great poetry’. He was very influential; such artists as Carlos Schwabe, Fernand Khnopff, Ferdinand Hodler and Jean Delville participated in his salons, and his example was followed by the similar Salon d’Art Idéaliste in Brussels. Nonetheless, such critics as Félix Fénéon responded negatively: ‘Three pears spread on a tablecloth by Paul Cézanne are moving and sometimes mystical and all the Wagnerian Valhalla is as lacking in interest as the Chamber of Deputies if painted by them’ (Halperin, 1970). The problem is that for a Symbolist work to be successful it has to be evocative and emotionally resonant; some artists relied on narrative or specific imagery to evoke a mood, while others relied more on style. Since each person is unique, what one person considers a masterpiece of evocation will strike another as silly or kitsch. That is why a definition of Symbolism remains so elusive. Since Symbolism has no comprehensive definition, recent literature is inclusive and defines the movement very broadly.