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Romanticism and Symbolism: The Internal and Beyond

Sarah Szabo

New York Academy of Art


By the 1880’s, Paris had undergone quite an intense period of change. The industrial revolution completely altered the character of life. Tremendous population growth occurred as people moved from rural villages. Personal history and tradition were destroyed along with the streets and architecture of the old city by Napoleon III. Great political, social, and spiritual instability reigned. Paris had experienced monarchy, war, commune, revolution, and republic, with a continued fear of collapse and war. Industrialization led to an increasingly materialistic society, focused on the financial worth of a person. Feelings of nostalgia, social alienation, and mechanization led to a greater desire for independent thought and freedom among intellectuals. In 1886, poet Jean Moreau published his Symbolist Manifesto. The manifesto rejected the tradition of Naturalism in art, as he saw this as a detached and objective observation of the senses. Naturalism had been a response to the content restrictions of Academic institutions, sponsored by monarchs and therefor associated with repression. Instead of recording the modern life, objects, and appearances, Symbolism embodied the ability of the artist to represent ideas. The artists were seen as unique and gifted individuals, whose imagination and insight were that of genius. Opposition to superficiality and materialism, a sense of nostalgia, and the value of subjective truth, conveyed through art, all have their origins in Romanticism, an earlier period with a similar sentiment. The symbolists, however, were preoccupied in conveying “invisible realities,” which, in their mission, called for further departure from traditional imagery and technique. By comparing and contrasting concepts with examples of painting from both periods, I shall investigate the choices and the context behind them, particularly focusing on why Symbolism relates to yet departs from Romanticism how.

The movement of Symbolism remains curious and obscure, as it was never intended to be otherwise. Due to its unique qualities, some historians refer to Symbolism as the first true modern movement. However, whether this is true or not, as every artistic movement before and after it, Symbolism arose as a specific reaction to cultural shifts, rejecting the present, sourcing from the past, and reinventing for the new. Symbolism officially began in Paris, with Jean Moreau’s declaration of the “Symbolist Manifesto,” 1886. I will first describe the cultural situation leading to this Manifesto, and how Moreau’s declarations of Symbolism were a reaction against it. I will then illuminate Symbolism through the concepts of its precursor, of a similarly widespread, multifaceted, and arguably, misunderstood movement, of Romanticism. Through comparison, one can more deeply understand the roots upon which the strange flowers of Symbolism manifested, providing a context for its innovations.

Throughout the 19th century, Paris had certainly experienced an intense period of social, economic, and intellectual change. Politically, Paris had undergone a century of repeated upheaval. From the original monarchy, to the French revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, a new monarchy, reign of self-titled Emperor Napoleon III (1852), defeat in the Franco Prussian War (1870-71), replacement by first president Adolphe Thiers of the “Third Republic,” and revolt by citizens, yet again (Chu, 2006). An elected commune took control of the city, following the principles of freedom and quality. In 1871, Thiers regained control, executing more than twenty thousand citizens as traitors, known as “Bloody Week.” The Democratic Republic was then retained, however, the appointed minister of war desired retribution against Germany, a restoration of the monarchy, and revision the constitution, greatly threatening the republic. (Facos, 2009) Understandably, as a result, insecurity of impending collapse pervaded French society.

Due to movement of people from rural villages, forced by land reform, and an increase in family size, Paris experienced a tremendous population boom in a short time. Peasants brought unfamiliar dialects and customs, broadening the scope of normality. The medieval city streets, filled with architectural and social history, had been destroyed by Napoleon III. Industrialization, capitalism, and materialism, obliterated traditional values and symbolic structure, stemming largely from the community of a village and the Catholic Church (Gibson, 1995). There began an increased focus on the production potential and material worth of a person. As transportation and the telephone linked the great masses of people, they simultaneously became more disconnected. There was also an increased separation between bourgeois and working classes, inherently lowering the sense of equality among individuals. (Facos, 2009) Through the Enlightenment, people attempted to capture objective meaning and truth through reason, based on description and generalizing rules. But how could the Enlightenment concept of inherent reason continue in such a tumultuous time, which, perhaps did not make sense? Feelings of social alienation, mechanization of being, and nostalgia brewed in the minds of intellectuals.

Finally, the teapot steamed. There was an urgent need for reclaiming identity through freedom of independent thought. This required a drastic cultural change, driven by a reinvented intent throughout literature and others arts, as a means to psychological development. In 1886, Jean Moreau, a Greek poet living in Paris, published the “Symbolist Manifesto.” Jean Moreau rejected the tradition of Naturalism, as he saw this as a detached and objective observation of the senses. This included the realist and impressionist styles. Naturalism had been a response to the content and form restrictions of the Academic institutions, sponsored by monarchs and therefor associated with repression. Instead of choosing to record the fleeting qualities modern life, Symbolism further rejected academic constructs, instead choosing to entirely focus on the artist’s ability to represent individual ideas.

For symbolists, artists were to be regarded as unique and gifted individuals, whose imagination and insight were that of genius. To quote Verhaeren in response to Moreau, “Symbolism will do the opposite [of Naturalism]…in Symbolism fact and world become mere pretexts for ideas, they are handled as appearances, ceaselessly variable, and ultimately manifest themselves only as the dream of our brains.” Symbolists aimed to convey “invisible realities.” Venues for this included the realm of dreams, myth, and nostalgia for earlier time periods— a reality beyond the five senses, steeped in subjective thought, experience, and emotion. (Facos, 2009).  Distinctly in its rejection of the prior movement of French naturalism, this “hidden realm” required a certain denial of perception of the natural world. Through manipulation of color, emphasis on the tactile or ornamental aspects of material, experiments in composition, strange, irrational juxtaposition, and intentionally heavy handed or naïve rendering, symbolist art intended to express the artist’s relative indifference to appearances. In their eyes, the ensured the idea would be conveyed as priority. Gustave Moreau, considered one of the first symbolist painters, formally emphasized an unearthly realm within biblical and mythological imagery. He utilized various techniques, including an ornamental, detailed quality of his surface, distortion of figures and space, static compositions, contradictory illusionist and unrealistic rendering and colors within the same painting. The influence of medieval art and its attempt to represent an other-worldy quality is quite clear. Examples include “Jacob and the Angel” (Figure 1, 1898) and “Goddess on the Rocks” (Figure 2, 1890). By contrast, another influential symbolist artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, painter of semi-nude, classically clothed people, in open spaces, often by small bodies of water. He used simplified compositions and lack of detail, and a muted palette of thin paint and flat broad strokes. “The Shepherd’s Song,” (Figure 3, 1891) displays these characteristics.  Odilon Redon, famous for his dream like drawings, particularly of floating uniballs and heads, he also created paintings and pastels. His paintings flatten and dissolve space, emphasizing patchy spots of color, often depicting of floral and cloud forms, such as in his painting “Still Life: The Dream” (Figure 4, 1905).

The Romantics also sought significance and soul through the internal, however, by contrast, there was a simultaneous striving for the eternal in the external. For the Romantics, the “internal” was inherently natural. Even in the depiction of fiction, they embraced the expressive possibilities of the natural world, with a more universal intent towards spiritual and psychological exploration. Something larger than ourselves, namely the powers of nature and the universe beyond, is naturally connected and intertwined with the internal self.

The effects of modernity, not dissimilar from what the Symbolists experienced, stimulated the philosophical, literary, and artistic movement of Germany designated as Romanticism, around 1800. Related aesthetic ideas were on the rise in Northern Europe throughout the latter half of the 18th century, particularly in English culture through the concept of the sublime. The term “sublime” indicated emotional impact through new venues, divergent from the goal of beauty alone, including the thrill of pain and fear, darkness, power, vastness, difficulty, magnificence, and suddenness (Chu, 2006). A departure from the entertainment of the Rococo, and the edifying goals of Neoclassicism, the sublime turned to the pre-industrial, medieval past, unique to history Northern Europe, and the untamed natural world for symbolic imagery. Landscape became an increasingly significant subject as thinkers such as Henri Rousseau and Friedrich Schiller lamented the alienation of man from nature in the modern world (Wolf, 1999). Well stated by Wolf, the term romanticism covered a range of ideas, including the concept that “the individual human imagination could immerse itself in the universal fabric; but also that the creative mind, being profoundly solitary, would yearn for harmony between man and nature.” (Wolf, 1999) Romantic philosophy and literature in Germany developed a vision of reconciliation for the human soul. German Romantic Art, such as the works of Casper David Friedrich, represent man, or no man, contemplating the grandeur of nature, using nature as a symbol for spiritual awakening. Such paintings include “Woman Before the Rising Sun” (Figure 5, 1898) and “Seashore with Shipwreck by Moonlight” (Figure 6, 1830). Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg, 1772-1801), a founding German Romantic philosopher and poet (as most practiced both as a matter of fulfilling their philosophical ideas) writes “We dream of travels throughout the universe: is not the universe within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. The mysterious path leads within. In us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future…”  (Fragment 16, Blüthenstaub, 1798).  He also describes self-alienation as the source of all degradation, as well as the basis of true elevation. He prescribes first looking inward, in order to contemplate oneself in elevation. Then, the second step, which the Symbolists significantly disregard, “an active look outward, an autonomous, determined observation of the outer world.” Unlike prior movements in literature and art, this may sound like a prescription, however, was certainly not a doctrine. In its very essence, Romanticism encouraged subjective interpretation, generating to a wide array of artistic interpretations, innovations, and styles. Each country, as well as individual artist, adopted and adjusted its ideas to their own.

France was no exception. Following the disaster of Napoleon in the early 19th century, the neoclassical style, associated with the domination of the French Academy and Monarchic rule, a new outlet for identity was desperately needed. Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), a prolific novelist, introduced Germany’s culture and ideas, specifically those of the Romantic Movement. She emphasized the idea that France was geographically set between the Christian North, rooted in the medieval period, and the Mediterranean, descendants of Greek and Roman classicism. She saw classicism in France as having reached its limit. It was time to recognize the medieval history native to France—a perfect opportunity for the possibilities of Romanticism, which often looked to the medieval past, for this very reason. She advocated a Romanticism for France, which would incorporate the expression of “soul” and “human emotions or spiritual impulse,” in a vivid, compelling way, using people and events of the present (Chu, 2006). Although different from the Romanticism of Germany and England, French Romantics, too, intended to challenge the meaning and function of traditional imagery, in order to create a new sense of connection to the external through revival of the internal. The strict, linear, balanced, and shallow spaced compositions of Neoclassicism, such as the paintings by Jacques Louis David, “Oath of the Horatii” (Figure 7, 1784) were replaced by more dynamic, imaginative compositions, filled with color and curvier forms. Through innovations in style, Romantics reinvented traditional imagery from biblical and mythological sources. These artists also turned to literature and current events, intending to capture emotion, depth, and exploration of the human soul in the world. Classic examples of this include Delacroix, “The Death of Sardanapalus” (Figure 8, 1827/88) and “Dante and Virgil in Hell” (Figure 9, 1822).

 Symbolism was born of this openness for expression. The freedom to create new meaning and function for images, as the romantics had done, further progressed, as the domination of academies weaned, in their set guidelines to artmaking, from hierarchy of subject matter to formal technique, They incorporated the most of Romantic influence, including that of of medieval history, the expressive possibilities of color, and internal search of the soul for meaning, However, to a great extent, Symbolism abandoned the ideal of harmony within the natural world. This was replaced by an obsession with a further away and remote, “hidden realm,” a disconnection distinct from Romanticism, as this hidden realm retained alienation.

Although Romanticism significantly differed from Symbolism this way, Symbolism was, in its core, a strikingly similar reaction to the superficiality of materialism, as some kind of relief from modernity and separation of self, specifically achieved through the creative process. Symbolism existed in a context that extended beyond what people of the mid 1800’s had experienced. Weariness and pessimism about prospects had grown. Disenchantment and disillusionment about reality progressed. Although symbolists can be classified as pessimist or optimistic in their outlook on artmaking and the future, there is a general, greater apathy for what exists. Besides the obvious difference in the desire to reject and regenerate, or retain and revive, a fundamental contrast in purpose can be observed in the difference in compositional effect between Romanticism and Symbolism. Both Romanticism and Symbolism have meditative and emotional qualities of internal reflection, however, the compositions of symbolism are intentionally almost always static, in order to convey this mood, while those of Romanticism, are generally dynamic, even if quietly so, subtle brushwork and color relationships activate the painting. A prime example of this static quality can be found in symbolist Arthur Böcklin’s famous, “Isle of the Dead,” (Figure 10, 1880). Both Romanticism and Symbolism can both be described, in many cases, as melancholy, solitude, or longing, however, a fundamental attitude shift, from active to more passive attitude towards the relationship of being in the world, a result of context and interpretation, subtlety reveals itself.

            Although Symbolism directly grew out of Romanticism, both as reactions to the present, Symbolism greatly diverged, because it chose to remain inward, as a way of coping with the increasingly confusing and tumultuous times. They both valued the ideas and imagination of the individual. Symbolism, however, chose to construct a divine boundary between their inner self and the outside world, expressed through technical deviations. Romanticism, by contrast, provided solace in reality, by “romanticizing” it. To quote Novalis, “By giving the commonplace a high meaning, the ordinary a mysterious aspect, the known the dignity of the unknown, the finite an aura of infinity, I romanticize it.” The Romantics recognized the organic relationship between man’s spirit and imagination, with nature itself. Therefore, their art sought to embody and embrace the wholeness of nature, through various moods and methods, to bridge the gap between the finite, the physical, and the infinite, in the soul. 





Chu, Petra ten-Doesschat Chu (2006). Nineteenth-century european art. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Facos, Michelle (2009). Symbolist art in context. CA: University of California Press.

Gibson, Michael (1999). The Symbolists. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Gibson, Michael (1995). Symbolism. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

Novalis, Aphorisims. Translated by Frederich H Hedge.

Wolf, Norbert (1999). Painting of the romantic era. Cologne, Germany: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH.

Vaughan, William (1994). German romantic painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.






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