A collector’s guide to French Symbolism

The revolutionary art movement of fin-de-siècle Paris is enjoying a revival. ‘Mysticism is not the unfashionable subject it once was,’ explains specialist Alastair Plumb, ‘and Symbolism has influenced many artists and movements, from Surrealism to David Bowie’

French Symbolist works by Schwabe and Moreau

French Symbolist works by Carlos Schwabe and Gustave Moreau (centre)

When Friedrich Nietzsche exuberantly proclaimed the death of God in 1872, he gave a new role to artists, declaring that through them cultural and spiritual renewal could be found. 

‘Art is the highest task and real metaphysical activity of this life,’ he wrote in The Birth of Tragedy.

The German philosopher’s faith in art’s alchemical power and the godlike nature of creation found purchase with a loose association of artists, poets and musicians living in fin-de-siècle Paris, who turned their imaginations inwards to reflect their deepest emotions.

They became known as the Symbolists, and among them were the hell-raising poets Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), the decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907), the maverick composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) and a group of visionary painters, including Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and Armand Point (1860-1932), who promoted a sensual, mystical aestheticism using occult symbols, Christian imagery and ancient Greek mythology.

Armand Point (1860-1932), La Sirène, 1897. Oil on canvas. 36¼ x 28¾ in (92 x 73 cm). Sold for £137,500 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

Montmartre and Moreau

These radical thinkers gathered in dissolute Montmartre, gravitating towards the satirical atmosphere of the celebrated cabaret Chat Noir. Absinthe was the drink of choice, and it seeped into their art through dreamlike imagery and dazzling colour.

Moreau was the most celebrated of the Symbolists, particularly for his use of colour. On viewing an exhibition of his paintings in 1881, the critic Charles Blanc wrote: ‘It is as if one were in the presence of an illuminant artist who had been a jeweller before becoming a painter.’

Offered for sale at Christie’s in London on 15 July is Le lion amoureux  (below), a striking example of Moreau’s technique of applying multiple layers of pigment to achieve a glittering effect.

From his airy upstairs atelier near the Gare Saint-Lazare, the French painter conjured up a harem of luminous, pale sirens to threaten man’s transcendence and drag him down into the underworld.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Le lion amoureux, circa 1881. Watercolour and gouache on paper. 15 x 9½ in (38 x 24.3 cm). Sold for £325,000 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

Fernand Khnopff and Carlos Schwabe

According to Christie’s specialist Alastair Plumb, French Symbolism is currently enjoying a revival. ‘It is the beginning of a modern revolution in art,’ he says. ‘Mysticism is not the unfashionable subject it once was, and Symbolism has influenced many artists and movements, from Surrealism to David Bowie.’

Moreau has always been popular, and his prices reflect that, but younger Symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926) are also attracting attention. 

‘They are easy to live with,’ says Plumb. ‘Beautiful and, yes, hallucinatory — but not completely removed from real life.’

Khnopff trained under Moreau, learning how to instil a mood of lonely introspection in his works. Les Caresses  (below) is a drawing based on a much larger painting, an enigmatic depiction of an androgynous youth and a sphinx now held in the collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921), Les Caresses, circa 1905-10. Graphite, crayon and wash on tracing paper. 11⅝ in (27cm) diameter. Sold for £225,000 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

Gender fluidity and the occult

Androgyny was a central theme for the Symbolists. Their figures often blur the boundaries between male and female, the human and the savage. Gender fluidity represented an ideal sexual union and a utopian aesthetic. Khnopff revisited this theme throughout his career, particularly through his muse, his sister Marguerite.

The occult was another influence on the Symbolists. In the late 19th century, new religions with arcane rituals, such as Theosophy and Spiritualism, were proliferating in Paris, and medieval orders such as the Knights Templar were being revived and reinvented.

One cult, the Order of the Catholic Rose + Croix of the Temple of the Grail, led by the lapsed art critic Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918), became a focus for the Symbolist artists.

Péladan was a curious figure: he went by the name ‘Le Sâr’ (an ancient word for ‘king’) and could be seen strolling about Montmartre in priestly robes and a fur hat, proclaiming his gospel of an art dedicated to beauty, reverie, the past and tradition. He wrote in Le Figaro  that a work of art ‘is more an operation of the soul than of the hand’.

In addition to his cult, Péladan established a salon for artists who shared his desire for an enchanting modern art.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Study of a male head in profile, for Perseus in The Call of Perseus. Sanguine, black and white chalk on terracotta paper. 15⅝ x 12¼ in (39.7 x 31 cm). Sold for £25,000 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

Parallels with the Pre-Raphaelites

‘Péladan was familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was keen to establish a similar movement in Paris,’ says Plumb. ‘He wrote to Edward Burne-Jones, who was the most mystical of the brotherhood, and asked him to join them.’

Like their English predecessors, the French Symbolists rejected the soot-stained industrial world for an idealised, primitive one dominated by nature.

‘They represented a total break with realism and modernity,’ adds the specialist. ‘They wanted to revive early Renaissance masters such as Botticelli and Fra Angelico and demonstrate the ability of art to transform daily life.’

Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926), La Porte d’or, 1907. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on paper. 16¾ x 7⅜ in (42.5 x 18.7 cm). Sold for £225,000 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

The first exhibition

Burne-Jones declined Péladan’s invitation, but Khnopff accepted, as did Schwabe, Point, and the Dutch painter Jan Toorop (1858-1928).

The group’s first exhibition was held in March 1892 and featured 75 artists. The poster (below) was designed by Schwabe, and the event opened with a flamboyant Mass and a phantasmagorical trumpet composition by Erik Satie.

Over the next six years, the Salon de la Rose + Croix brought together some 200 Symbolist artists from across Europe, making it one of the first international art movements.

As the years wore on, however, Péladan’s demands grew ever more dogmatic. His love of controversy and his desire to impose an increasingly bizarre ideology on members became suffocating.


Promotional poster for Joséphin Péladan’s Salon de la Rose + Croix by Carlos Schwabe. Photo: The History Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Inspired by William Morris

Although many of the artists broke with Péladan’s salon, Symbolism endured. Point established an artistic community in the French countryside that had its roots in William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement, while Schwabe, perhaps the most purist of the Symbolists, continued to strive for the unobtainable.

His painting L’Idéal  (below) best encompasses that yearning. It depicts an angelic muse leading an artist to the heights of artistic expression and ultimately to his death.

Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926), L’Idéal, circa 1912. Oil on canvas. 40⅛ x 22⅞ in (102 x 58.2 cm). Sold for £93,750 on 15 July 2021 at Christie’s in London

Influence: from Picasso to Kandinsky

Such seductive, romantic notions had an impact on the trajectory of modern art and inspired some of its radical pioneers.

‘Symbolism anticipated many later avant-garde trends,’ says Plumb. ‘We can thank the Symbolists for Picasso’s obsession with Greek mythology and Wassily Kandinsky’s explorations in synaesthesia.

‘Then there’s Surrealism, of course, which has its roots in Symbolism’s looking-glass world and its obsession with dreams and the psyche.’

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