Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare 1781
'The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts toward Infinity' Odilon Redon 1882
Ophelia amongst the Flowers - Odilon Redon 1905/6


Outline Meaning

The form of symbolism I am discussing here relates essentially to paintings produced in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Symbolist painters believed that colour and line in themselves could evoke meaning. They also believed there were strong parallels between the arts, particularly, between painting and poetry.

Unlike the forms of symbolism of earlier centuries, which is usually regarded as allegorical (objects and combinations of objects usually had a precise meaning), 19th century symbolism has no precise meaning. This was crucial to the artists attempts to give visual expression to the mystical and occult. The following artists are typical of the Symbolist genre.

Henry Fuseli 1741 – 1825

Fuseli was born in Switzerland but was mainly active in England. He was one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement. Originally trained as a priest, he came to England on the suggestion of the British ambassador in Berlin who was impressed with his drawings.

Joshua Reynolds encouraged him to take up painting. So, Fuseli spent the years between 1770 and 1778 in Italy. Engrossing himself in the study of Michelangelo and other Renaissance painters. On his return, he exhibited some highly imaginative works such as painting, ‘The Nightmare’. This painting secured his reputation as an artist. The murky areas of the psyche, where sex and fear meet, fascinated Fuseli. Many of his paintings explore this subject and the Victorian obsession with the supernatural and the gothic.

In 1799 he held an exhibition in Pall Mall, London in which he showed 47 of his symbolist paintings. That year he was also appointed professor of painting at the Royal Academy, London. During in his lifetime he was much respected, but after his death his work was generally neglected. In the 20th century he inspired the Expressionists and particularly the Surrealists, who saw him as a kindred spirit.

Some consider his work as clumsy and somewhat overblown, but it does exhibit a strong imaginative intensity.

Odilon Redon 1840-1916

Odilon Redon was born in Bordeaux, in France and was one of the outstanding figures of Symbolism.

He lived in his native Bordeaux until 1870 when he was drafted into the army. On leaving the army in 1871 and moved to Paris. He worked almost exclusively in black and white producing charcoal drawings and lithographs until his early 50’s. These works are highly distinctive because of the repertoire of weird subjects (strange amoeboid creatures, insects, and plants with human heads and so on). The writings of the Gothic horror novelist, Edgar Allen Poe were a great influence.

He was virtually unknown until his name was mentioned in the 1884 novel ‘A Rebours’, by J.K. Huysmans. A disenchanted aristocrat was the books hero. He lived in a private decadent world of perverse delights and collected Redon’s drawings. The mention of Redon’s name led to him being associated with the symbolist movement.

When Redon turned to painting in the 1890’s. This coincided with a personal religious crisis and serious illness in 1894-95. These events seemed to transform him into a much more buoyant and cheerful personality. Radiant colours transformed his mythological scenes and flower paintings into vibrant symbolist paintings.

He was equally at home working in oils or pastel. Matisse admired his flower paintings and the Surrealists regarded him as one of their founding fathers.