Symbolist art-movements


Symbolist art-movements



On this page we will look at art-movements that emerged shortly after the last ‘impressionist’ exposition in 1886. It started in the summer of 1886 when Gauguin met in Pont-Aven with Émile Bernard, Charles Laval and others. Sometimes they are referred to as the Pont-Aven school ↓ (iR3), sometimes to Cloisonnism ↓, sometimes to Synthetism ↓and sometimes to Symbolism ↓. Inspired by them in 1888 a group of artists called themselves Les Nabis ↓. We will see that there are many similarities, but we will also try to discern them.
You will also find some info on predecessors (like Puvis-de-Chavannes and Moreau), exhibitions and publications.

School of Pont-Aven:
Pont-Aven is a small village in Brittany. Many painters dwelled there since 1873. Gauguin visited it frequently from 1886-89 and became the leader of the Pont-Aven school. But it was Bernard, who was inspired by Anquetin, who influenced Gauguin. December 1903 Émile Bernard wrote about the ‘École dite de Pont-Aven’. (R181II,p628). For them only colour and form were the actual bearers of meaning (R172,p81). They used pure colours (R74,p293).
In the summer of 1886 the following artists met in Pont-Aven at the Pension Gloanec: Gauguin, Laval (who becomes Gauguin’s pupil), Bernard (but he doesn’t speak with Gauguin), Schuffenecker (just shortly). Several of them were (former) pupils of the studios of Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon (Anquetin, Bernard, Laval, Toulouse-Lautrec and also Vincent van Gogh). (R181,p353). During these meetings there were no great developments in their painting style. This would happen in the late summer of 1888 in the interaction between Bernard and Gauguin. Others present in Pont-Aven at the Pension Gloanec were: Laval, Henri de Chamaillard (1865-1930), Moret, Maxime Maufra, Jourdan, Grouchi-Taylor, Sérusier. In 1889 and 1890 the following artists met in Pouldu: Gauguin, Laval, Meyer de Haan, Charles Filliger, Sérusier and Seguin.
Sources: Maillard (1968,p292-294); Crussard (2002=R181,p600-602+608-615); R3,p689; see links for more info on the Pont-Aven painters (iR3), the school of Pont-Aven (iR3) and more in French (iR4).


Édouard Dujardin in March 1888 wrote a review in the Revue Indépendante and introduced “cloisonnisme” as a new genre (iR40;=R268). He attributed it only to Louis Anquetin, who had exhibited at Les XX in Brussels and at the Salon des Independants in Paris (iR4;R181,p609). As caracteristics Dujardin mentioned: rendering a minimum of lines; using closed lines, therein a juxtapostion of colours render the sensation and this way rendering compartments (cloisonné); complementairy colours would destroy the unity of the painting; painting with plain colours; a violent and interrupted colouring; a symbolic conception of art; rendering not the image of nature, but the character / the sense of the objects / the essential; decorative painting; an intellectual and systhematic construction.
Note: several of his discriptions will later be used to describe Synthetism↓ or Symbolism↓.
Cloissonism is a decorative form of painting, a symbolic concept of art. Characteristic for it’s style is the use of compartmented areas of flat, violent colour with a clear outline. Blue (or black) outlined areas of pure colours are placed next to each other decoratively and without transitional tones (R170,p104). The artists tried to depict, not the external appearance of nature, but it’s character / sentiment / essence. In other words the object was symbolised. Perspective and the faithful representation of nuances, details and natural conditions are neglected (R170,p104). This art-movement was inspired by Japonism,  primitive art, enamel art and stained-glass windows. Sérusier called Cézanne, who thickened and distorted his lines, the first practitioner of the ‘Cloison’ (the partition) (R181II,p459+457). Cloisonnism can be translated as ‘Partitionism’. Cloisons are compartments. To discern Cloisonnism from Synthetism↓ and Symbolism↓ I like to describe Cloisonnism as a symbolist art-mouvement, initiated in France by Anquetin and Bernard, which, like stained-glass windows, uses obvious lines,  which create evenly coloured compartments.
Note: this use of clear lines, is in contradiction with the impressionist painting style, where lines are faded, because, as Dujardin put it ‘in nature lines don’t exist’ (R268,p490). Also the use of compartments with relative uniform colours, contradicts the impressionist use of juxtaposed small brush strokes with nuances of colours, also depending on the influence of (trees filtered) light.
Already around November-December 1887 there had been an exhibition held at the Grand-Bouillon restaurant, where Anquetin and Bernard included Cloisonnist works. (R181,p353+607). Gauguin visited this exhibition and would give the next year a deeper significance to the principles of Cloisonnism  (R181II,p465+CR308). Gauguin didn’t consequently use this Cloissonnist technique, compare CR313↓. Also Vincent van Gogh admired Cloisonnism as he wrote (1888/08/18) ‘I want to put colours like those of stained glass windows and drawings with strong lines into my paintings’ (R181II,p457).
Sources: Dujardin (1888=R268); Crussard (2002=R181); see links for more info on WikiPedia (iR3),

Art-historian agree that Synthetism developed in the mutual inspiration between Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard in the late summer of 1888 in Pont-Aven. The problem is that afterwards the terms Synthetism and Symbolism↓ are intertwined by Aurier, Bernard and Denis (see old books and articles here below). That makes it hard to discern these two art-mouvements. Crussard amply uses these sources while describing Synthetism (R181II,p465-469). Also the Web Gallery of Impressionism (=WGI) uses the same source of Aurier↓ (1891/03) to describe Synthetism as well as Symbolism↓. Other sources see Synthetism and Cloisonnism↑ as synonyms (R170,p104).
Around 1888/08/13 Émile Bernard arrived in Pont-Aven↑ and he and Gauguin spent all there time together. Meanwhile they had an intense correspondence with Vincent van Gogh. (R181II,p429-431;R36,p14). In this exchange of ideas Emile Bernard and Gauguin developed the ‘synthetic symbolism’, in short Synthetism (R36,p14;R49). They absorbed the principles of Cloisonnism↑ and gave it a much deeper significance (R181II,p465). The most important paintings of Gauguin, in which he first used this technique is the Vision of the Sermon↑ (R181,CR308) and Three little dogs↑ (R181,CR311). He was clearly inspired by works of Émile Bernard like Breton woman in the meadow↑ (R181II,p458) Maybe Bernard’s Buckwheat harvesters↑ again was inspired by Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (R181II,p487), but Gauguin had completed it only in the second week of November (R181,p616). Gauguin and Bernard were also inspired by Cézanne and his abondoning of the classical perspective (R181II,p459+438).
The characteristics I now will render, mostly also can apply on Symbolism↓. Aurier↓ (1891) stated that a work of art should be: 1. idealistic, 2. symbolic, 3. synthetic, 4. subjectiv and 5. decorative (iR22).
Aurier↓ (1893) wrote that the work of art was born of ’the synthesis of two souls, the soul of the artist and the soul of nature’ (R181II,p465). A painting was meant to synthesize the artist’s impressions and memories (iR22), to synthesize the perceived and artistically presented world (R172,p81). Rotonchamp defined synthesis as ‘an intentional simplification of line, forms and colours in order to give maximum expressive intensity’ (iR22). Gauguin wrote (1889/11/08) ‘In this order of abstract ideas I am driven to seek synthetic colour and form.’ (R181II,p467)
Synthetism was no longer concerned with external appearances and rejected the traditional rendering of form, light and space. It wanted to render ’the intimate reality, the essence of the object’ (Dujardin↑, 1888), the Platonic Ideas hidden behind the appearances, the Ideas that are the ‘symbolic correspondents’ of the spiritual reality (Aurier↓). This essence, the Idea of an object had to be represented by a ‘sign’  (Aurier, 1891), a ‘schema’ or ‘style’ (Bernard, 1919), ‘abstract’, ‘suggestive’ and ‘symbolic’ (Gauguin and Van Gogh). Aurier (1891) wrote that an art-work is ‘Ideeistisch’, because ‘his only ideal was to express the Idea’ (R49,p45;R181II,p628). They gave up the painting en-plein-air; emphasized the role of memory and reinterpretation, to discover the structures of the object (R49). Bernard wrote ‘Because an idea consists of things collected by the imagination, a painter should not paint the object in front of him, but should seek to recapture it in the mental image he has collected, for the memory does not retain everything, only what is striking.’ (iR22) Bernard also wrote that he intended to render ’the invisible sense hidden beneath the mute external form’ (R181II,p465). Gauguin wrote in a letter to Schuffenecker (1888/08/14) ‘Don’t copy too much from nature – art is an abstraction’ and adviced him to dream and create (R181II,p469).
Synthetism abolished depth and used simplified and decorative forms. Gauguin refrained from modelling shadows and put bright areas of colour next to each other (R172,p81). As Denis put it, a picture is seen as ‘a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’ (R181II,p468). Caracteristics of Synthetism are: the use of outlined areas of colour; deforming line; the use of arabesques and ornamentel plants; simplified forms; abstraction of the motif; decorative rhythm; no transition of tones of colour; large areas of iridescent colours; no rendering of atmosphere; the absence of depth; absence of horizon; a simplification; return to the archaic (R181II,p465-468;iR4)
‘Synthetism is a primitivising mystical vision implying belief in a transcendent world.’ (R181II,p466) Bernard stated that Symbolism was essentially Christian, Denis also emphasized ‘Christian values’. Fénéon, on the other hand reviewed in 1889 that the work of Gauguin ‘invoked the anarchist dream’ and Gauguin was interested in ‘primitive’ art, culture and religion. Synthetism (and the Nabis↓) rendered primitive themes with archaic tendencies and (pseudo-)religious and medieval scenes.
Crussard sees the difference in Synthetism and Symbolism↓ in the fact that the latter emphasizes the use of significant symbolic images (thought), whereas the first emphasizes the ‘sensory correspondence’ that evokes a ‘direct resonance in the soul’ (expressive form) (R181II,p467). She emphasizes an inward, naïef and primitive vision.
Note that the impressionist painting style renders on spot the impression of nature as he sees it. The focus is not an the essence of the object, but on the effect the light has on the colouring of the object.
Sources: Crussard (R181II,p465-469); See links for more info on WGI on Synthetism (iR22) and on Symbolism (iR22);

Les Nabis:
Les Nabis, meaning ‘prophets’, were a group of artists, who had become friends during their study at Académie Julian. The group was formed in 1888 and disintegrated around 1900. The group was inspired by Cloisonism↑, Synthetism↑, Gauguin, the brightness of Impressionism, Cézanne, Puvis de Chavannes↓, Italian primitives, medieval legends, mythological fables and Japanese art. Most of them also were interested in Musik, Literature and Theater. The first Nabis-painting was ‘The Talisman’ of Sérusier, which he made in October 1888 and influenced by Gauguin he systhematically placed pure colours side by side (R74,p293;R55,p128;R181,p615). Some see a simple line of influence: Gauguin inspired Sérusier (to make his Talisman) and Sérusier influenced his fellow students at the Académie Julian and spontaniously they formed Les Nabis (R289,p8-10; note Negri wrongly dates this 1889). But it was Bernard, who influenced Gauguin with Cloisonnist ideas↑, that were already practised by Anquetin and (in some way by) Laval. And the painting ‘The Talisman’ lacks cloisonnist lines↑ and is no clear example for the works Les Nabis made. Many see Sérusier as the main stimulator of Les Nabis (R289,p8-10), but Denis is seen as the the most genuine and the true theoretician of Les Nabis (R289,p13+11).

For Les Nabis colour was the means of expression par excellence. They also used cloisonnist↑ and curved lines and left out perspective (R57,p45-55). They produced symbolic and decorative art. They were not interested in reality, but in a mystical or religious ideal. They, as Bonnard put it, ‘didn’t want to paint life, but to bring to life the painting’ (R172,p81). They can be seen of part of the Symbolist art-movement (R3,p699).
Les Nabis came together in the ’temple’, that is the studio of Paul Ranson, used all kinds of rituals and wore special costumes (R289,p11). They exhibited at the expositions Impressionistes et Symbolistes, at the Salon des Indépendants and in 1899 they had a group exhibition at Durand-Ruel and in 1900 at Bernheim-Jeune. At the 1899 there also was an exhibition of honour for Odillon Redon (R74,p365).
The first members were all pupils from the Académie Julian: Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Ranson and Edouard Vuillard. (For more info on these artists see link to Post-Impressionist artists.) Side figures and/or later members were: Henri-Gabriel Ibels; Georges Lacombe; Aristide Maillol; Meyer de Haan (Dutch; ?-1893), Mögens Ballin (Danish), Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (Hungarian; 1861-1927); Ker-Xavier Roussel, Félix Vallotton, Louis Valtat (?) and Jan Verkade (Dutch; ?-1946). Some of Les Nabis were convinced Catholics (like Denis, Mögens Ballin and Verkade) others were anti-clerical and more interested in eastern philosophies, Theosophy and the Rosicrucians (like Lacombe and Ranson).
Sources: Negri (1974=R289); Gärtner (2001=R11,p486-495); Walther (2013=R3,p684); Kappelmayr (1995=R170,p344); Monnerett (1878-81=R88I,p613); Crussard (2002=R181,p615). Info and pictures on the internet:;


The name Symbolism was emerged by Moréas in 1886/09/18 in his ‘Un manifeste littérataire – Le Symbolisme’ (R298,p21). The name is also used for a movement within the literature, with writers as Bergsons, André Gide, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Fancis Jammes, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Paul Valéry and Verlaine. It is opposed to Positivism, Materialism and Naturalism and it evokes the revival of Romantic ideas (R3,p699;R181II,p463). Some date Symbolism from 1866-1914 others from 1880-1900, which are clearly the peak years. Symbolist artists exhibited namely at the Salon-de-la-Rose+Croix (1892-97) (R57;iR1) and the expositions Impressionnistes et Symbolistes (1891-98). Some of them (Aman-Jean, Gauguin, Munch, Redon, Rops and Whistler) joined at the Tuesday soirées of Mallarmé (R298,p22;R297). Symbolism later inspired Art-Nouveau (or Jugendstil) and Surrealism.
Forerunners were William Blake, J.H. Füssli, Goya (in the 18th century) and later Gustave Moreau↓ (1826-98), Puvis de Chavannes↓ (1824-98) and Odilon Redon. Important French representatives were The Nabis↑. Representatives in England were: The Pre-Raphaelites (like Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98); William Holman Hunt; John Everett Millais (1829-96); Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-98). In Belgium: Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), James Ensor (1860-1949), Jean Delville (1867-1953), William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935), Felicien Rops (1833-98). In Germany: Max Klinger (1857-1920), Franz von Stuck (1863-1928). In Holland: Jan Toorop (1858-1928), Johan Thorn-Prikker (1868-1932). In the Swiss Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926). Some also include Henri Fatin-Latour (1836-1904), Gustave Klimt (1862-1918), Charles Renie McKintosh (1868-1928), Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939), Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Frantisik Kupka (1871-1957), Henri Rousseau and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

Central in Symbolism is not one painting style but the idea to render the transcedent world by Symbols; to render the essence of things which is beyond reality. They rendered a wonderful, allusive atmosphere, and also archaic dreams, subconscious phantasies and obsessions  and also the perverse, macabre and occult. Themes they painted were legends, myths,  allegories and also the ‘femme-fatale’ (especially Salomé). And also man in an enigmatic-magical connection with eroticism and death.
Maurice Denis was important in formulating the Symbolist theories, see also his book ‘Théories (1890-1910); Du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique’; Paris, 1912↓ (R49,p93). Denis wrote ‘To stop reproducing nature and life through approximate sameness and improvised exchanges, but to give shape to our feelings and dreams by representing them through harmonious shapes and colours, that was a new point of view, I do not depart from it.’ (R49,p45) Denis saw Gauguin as the great inspirator ‘Gauguin freed us from our chains, from the idea of copying nature’ (R49,p37). Also Georges-Albert Aurier↓ (1891) saw Gauguin as the ‘head of the new school’ (R181II,p469+438). I think Maillard exaggerates the role of Gauguin when he writes ‘From a combination of Cloisonism↑, Synthetism↑ and Gauguin’s longing for the primitive purity of nature’s peoples then arose the so-called Symbolism.’ (R74,p293). Symbolism is a much broader art-mouvement, which also consisted of development in literature and painting art outside France.
Sources: Monneret (1978-81=R88II,p428-439); Maillard (1968=R74,p363-366); Wubben (1975=R298); Gibson (1996=R57); Kappelmayr (1995=R170,p444); Walther (R3,p699); Schilderkunst van A tot Z (R13,p690). More info on WGI (iR22);


Important French forerunners:

  • Gustave Moreau (1826-98)
    Since 1892 professor at the École des Beaux-Arts (R298,p136). More info and paintings on WikiPedia (iR3) and WikiMedia (iR6).
  • Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98)
    Made many large decorative paintings also for homes and public buildings. Exhibited regularly at the Salon. In 1890 co-founder of the Sociéte National des Beaux-Arts. (R298,p168). More info and paintings on WikiPedia (iR3) and WikiMedia (iR6).
  • Odillon Redon


Old books and articles on these art-mouvements:
Georges-Albert Aurier: ‘Le Symbolisme en peinture’. In Mercure de France, Paris, 1891/03 (R181II,p469+438).
Georges-Albert Aurier: ‘Les peintres symbolistes‘ in Mercure de France in 1893 (R181II,p628).
Emile Bernard: Notes sur l’École dite de Pont-Aven. In Mercure de France, December 1903. (R181II,p628).
Emile Bernard: Mémoire pour l’histoire du Symbolisme pictural en 1890. In Maintenant no.3, 1919/08/26. (R181II,p469+628)
Émile Bernard: ‘Quelques souvenirs inédits sur l’artiste peintre Paul Gauguin et ses compagnons lors de leur séjours à Pont-Aven et au Pouldu
1: ‘Quelques souvenirs de Pont-Aven (1888) (1939/02/23).
2: ‘L’école symboliste ou synthétique‘ (1939/03/05).
3: ‘La première manifestation synthétiste‘ (1939/03/12). (R181II,p628)
Maurice Denis: Théories (1890-1910); Du Symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique’; Paris, 1912. (R49,p93).
Maurice Denis: ‘L’époque du symbolisme‘ in Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1934 (R181II,p629).
Édouard Dujardin: Calendrier: Aux XX et aux Indépendants: Le Cloisonisme. In: La Revue Indépendante, March 1888. (R268;R181II,p469+629;iR4; online: iR40)
Mellério, André: Le Mouvement idéaliste en peinture, 1896 (R74,p366).
Jean Moréas: Un manifeste littérataire – Le Symbolisme.  In: Le Figaro littéraire, 1886/09/18.  (R181II,p469+631;iR22;)
Charles Morice: La littérature de tout à l’heure’ (about Symbolism), 1889. (R181II,p467)


1887 : café Le Grand Bouillon, 43, avenue de Clichy, organisée par Vincent van Gogh, avec la participation de ses amis Bernard, Anquetin et Lautrec (iR4).
1889/06/08 Gauguin organised an exhibition of ‘Peintures du groupe impressionniste et synthétiste’ at Café Volpini;
Gauguin showed 17 works (R5,p169;R36,p81;R49;R3;R181). See seperate page.
From 1891 till early 1898 there were 15 expositions held of ‘peintres Impressionnistes et Symbolistes‘, see link to seperate page.
From 1892-97 there were 6 exhibitions of the Salon de la Rose+Croix, see link to seperate page.


General sources:
Krausse (=R172); Maillard (1968=R74); Kappelmayr (1995=R170); Leinz (1987=R299,p13-25); Wubben (1975=R298); Negri (1974=R289). See links for the general references (=Rx) and the references to internet (=iRx) for the other sources. For info on the subscription of the paintings see.



Recommanded citation: Post-Impressionism: Symbolist art-mouvements. Last modified 2022/11/25.