The Symbolists used mysticism, allusion, suggestion and ‘dream’ to convey moods of heightened awareness in the viewer – eg nostalgia, melancholy. They strove to represent something other than physical reality, erring towards the fantastic, the enigmatic, and delving into the unconscious. Symbolism enshrines within itself a resort to decadence – the quintessential Symbolist painter or poet is a dandy. Albert Aurier (the only critic to praise van Gogh in his lifetime) defined it as the painting of ideas.
The term was first used in regard to poetry by Jean Moréas in 1886 when he published his Symbolist manifesto in the literary supplement of Le Figaro. (This was, of course, the same year that the Neo-Impressionists were exhibited in their own room at the last Impressionist Exhibition). Moréas was referring to the ‘decadent’ poets, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine and others. The poetry of Edgar Alan Poe as well as his tales of horror were also influential. Mallarmé wrote ‘to name an object is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment of the poem that comes from the delight of divining, little by little – to suggest it, there is the dream’. The ‘symbol’ in Symbolism therefore refers to an unknown quality – a value that hovers out of reach.
In the visual arts an ill defined mood, a sensibility, during the previous twenty years or so, led to the production of paintings which were retrospectively identified as Symbolist. In particular, the work of Gustave Moreau, Edward Burne-Jones, Arnold Böcklin and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The work of these artists fed the next generation of Symbolist painters who were opposed to nineteenth century industrial and commercial reality – searching for something transcendent – visionary, poetical, sometimes religious, sometimes satanic. As a reaction against the Industrial Revolution, Symbolism gave voice to the yearning for an idealised past and pitted itself against Naturalism and Impressionism, embracing myth, mysticism and allegory, often rejecting perceived reality in order to grasp at a meaning beyond the possibilities of depiction.