a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

Symbolism


people, terms, and concepts:  Symbolism, primitivism, expressive color


This topic examines a reaction against Impressionism that arose in the 1880s and 90s: Symbolism.

     •  What are the characteristics of Symbolism in terms of subject-matter, form or style, and overall artistic intent?  How is Symbolism opposed to Impressionism across all of these characteristics?

•  Why did the Symbolists reject Impressionism? How does this rejection relate to a broader rejection of modern (industrial, urban, scientific) life? What is ‘primitivism’? How do the Gauguin paintings below show primitivism in both their subject-matter and their style?

          How do Van Gogh’s paintings show the Symbolist embrace of emotional and spiritual content over objective and scientific content? How do they do so differently from Gauguin?

Van Gogh, The Starry Night, Post-Impressionism or Symbolism, 1889

How did Van Gogh attempt to invest a view of the night sky with spiritual and expressive resonance? How did he use form (especially color and rhythm) to do so?


Gauguin, The Day of the God, French Symbolism, 1894

Why did Gauguin leave Paris first for a small town in the French provinces, and later for Tahiti, to paint peasant life and spiritual themes? How is his use of color very different from Impressionist (and Neo-Impressionist) color use? Why do his paintings look so crude and flat? Why did he typically use women for the protagonists in his works?


Gauguin, Vision after the Sermon, French Symbolism, 1888

Why did Gauguin leave Paris first for a small town in the French provinces, and later for Tahiti, to paint peasant life and spiritual themes? How is his use of color very different from Impressionist (and Neo-Impressionist) color use? Why do his paintings look so crude and flat? Why did he typically use women for the protagonists in his works?


Van Gogh, The Night Café, Post-Impressionism or Symbolism, 1888

How did Van Gogh attempt to invest an ordinary café scene with moral and expressive resonance? How does his use of color differ from that of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists? How is his depiction of café life different from Renoir’s in style and purpose?