Artists have always made use of symbols, but symbolism took on a new meaning at the end of the 19th century.
Painters and sculptors, as well as writers, became interested in describing a new subject matter. While the impressionists and neo-impressionists had been primarily concerned with painting what they saw and recording the experience of vision itself, a younger generation of artists began to explore subjects drawn not from reality but from a world of imagination, metaphor, and symbols. Their new subjects included dream states, poetry, popular religion, and the macabre.
Symbolism was never an organized movement, and the artists associated with it were stylistically eclectic. For some, an interest in primitive mythologies led to the adoption of the look of folk or tribal art. For others, a heightened realism leant a special power to their fantastical visions. These diverse approaches were unified by the symbolist artists’ common interest in the subjectivity of human experience, the internal experience of emotions, and the power of the imagination to transcend the bonds of material reality.
At around the same time, a group of Parisian art students began to forge their own response to the impressionist tradition. Calling themselves the Nabis, from the Hebrew word for “prophet,” these young artists were led by Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Ker Xavier Roussel. The Nabis continued the impressionists’ interest in subjects drawn from modern Parisian life, but they depicted it with flat forms and decorative patterns, creating shallow painted spaces full of pattern and color.
DMA label text, 2010.