Developments in the 19th Century



 




Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


 




SYMBOLISM

in

Great Britain & United States





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)

 





 

 


C o n t e n t s:
 
The Great Upheaval
France
Great Britain and the United States
Belgium and the Netherlands
German - speaking Countries and Scandinavia
The Slav Countries
The Mediterranean Countries
Post-Symbolism
 
 
 


 
 

 

collections:
Aubrey Beardsley
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Blaine Mahlon
George Frederick Watts
John White Alexander
Elihu Vedder
Albert Pinkham Ryder
Arthur Bowen Davies
Alphonse Legros
 
 





Great Britain and the United States

 


 

 

 

Other British artists of this period were active in other circles. George Frederick Watts, for instance, favoured a more "continental" manner - his "soft focus" is reminiscent of Levy-Dhurme or of the more Symbolist works of Fantin-Latour. "I paint ideas, not things," he declared. "My intention is less to paint works that are pleasing to the eye than to suggest great thoughts which will speak to the imagination and the heart and will arouse all that is noblest and best in man." To which one may retort, with Odilon Redon : "There is a literary idea wherever plastic invention is lacking." From today's perspective, Redon's dictum is the aptest criterion for evaluating works of the Symbolist period. Not all Symbolist painters attained such power.

 

 

 


George Frederick Watts

(see collection)

 



George Frederick Watts
Choosing

   

 As the spokesman of innovative aesthetic theory, Oscar Wilde (1854— 1900) deserves our further attention. He personified the figure of the dandy à la Robert de Montesquiou though with greater wit and more manifest humanity. His comedies, laced with delightful paradoxes, deride the prejudices and snobbism of the Victorian society he knew so well. His essays present his conception of art in a certain whimsical disorder. As a public figure he was the embodiment of the fin de siecle aesthete. It is thought that Bunthorne, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881), was originally conceived as a caricature of Rossetti, but the British public assumed it was a portrait of Wilde, who had already made himself famous at the age of twenty-seven by his inspired posturing. Bunthorne is a highly affected fellow who readily acknowledges in private that he has no use for the aesthetic oddities he publicly pretends to enjoy. The satire was amusing and reassured a public disconcerted by the aesthetic preferences of Wilde or of artists like Rossetti and Whistler. The aphorism cited above comes early in Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the last of a scries that deserves to be quoted in full:

"All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
(...) All art is quite useless."


 
Some of these aphorisms are rather modern in tone, though the portentous notion of a hidden "peril" has dated badly. Wilde gives concise expression to some essential truths about art: art is indeed both surface and symbol, both delectation and communication, an intimate fusion of what is represented and of the means by which it is represented. It is at once an "aesthetic arrangement", in Whistler's famous phrase, and an evocation of an aspect of experience which cannot be signified by any other means.

 Thomas Cole (1801-1848) may be described as a precursor of Symbolist art in the same sense as Goya, Fuseli or Blake. British by birth, he made his career in the United States, to where his parents emigrated when he was eighteen. His allegorical work, an outgrowth of the Romantic spirit, possesses irresistible charm. The sequence of paintings entitled The Voyage of Life is reminiscent of allegories of human life in the English tradition of edifying literature, of which Pilgrim's Progress is perhaps the most perfect example. By contrast, The Titan's Goblet, which dominates a vast landscape, is born of the same imaginative vein as Goya's Panic. Partly because Cole died relatively young, at 47, the more imaginative part of his œuvre had little influence on the next generation of artists, though he did contribute to the founding of the Hudson River School of landscape painting.

 His The Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire have a clearly didactic purpose, yet
Cole's treatment possesses a colouristic charm enhanced by his vision of wide-open spaces. This poetic reverie delighted his public, which also found comfort in the idea that it was being instructed and elevated.
 

 


Thomas Cole
The Voyage of Life: Youth

 

 

 Though there had always been a taste for imaginative painting in Protestant America, the country was not receptive to the Symbolist aesthetic. Decadence had emerged in Europe in opposition to the scientific world view and the religion of progress; it had little appeal in the New World, where these were founding tenets. Like the Romans confronted with the art of the Greeks, the popular classes in America, with their pragmatic outlook and fundamentalist religion, were suspicious of any notion that artists had access to a "superior reality". The populist and mercantile mentality, so pervasive in the United States, inclined to see in a taste for the arts a foolish affectation.

 The poet W. H. Auden went so far as to suggest that, when Oscar Wilde was sentenced to jail in 1895 for homosexuality, it reinforced the assumption, already well entrenched in the United States, that art and poetry were pastimes attractive only to women and effeminates. Wilde had enjoyed tremendous success with the media during a lecture tour in the United States when he was only twenty-seven. On that occasion he had displayed great virtuosity in provocation, and the public he had successfully shocked felt thoroughly vindicated by his condemnation fourteen years later.

 The dominant trend in America was a form of realism whose romantic overtones were particularly prominent in the representation of nature. Symbolist works were relatively rare, but occasionally appeared in the production of artists practising other genres. Most of those today classified as Symbolists received their artistic training in Europe. This was the case with John White Alexander (1866-1915), and Elihu Vedder (1836-1923). Vedder came to fame through his illustrations for the Ru-baiyat of Omar Khayyam. He was taught the rudiments of his art by a genre painter, Т.Н. Matteson, and went to Europe for the first time in 1856. He never considered studying in England: it was Paris and above all Florence that attracted him. In 1867 he settled in Rome, though he frequently returned to the United States. He also painted landscapes in a romantic vein, but we are concerned here with his fantastical or allegorical works such as The Cup of Death.

 A self-taught painter, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) also came to Europe, traversing the Atlantic four times between 1877 and 1896. In the 1880s he began to treat sombre, expressive subjects drawn from the operas of Wagner (Siegfried and The Flying Dutchman, and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. His Death on a Pale Horse is an expressive conjunction of the imaginary and the real; the apocalyptic figure of Death is shown galloping around an ordinary racecourse.

 Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928) played a historic role in American art: as President of the Society of Independent Artists, he contributed to the organisation of the famous Armory Show, which brought the American public into contact with modern art. Critics of the day considered him a Romantic artist, but the label is somewhat uninformative. A work like The Unicorns (1906) stands at the crossroads between Romanticism, Symbolism, and even Surrealism.

 
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) went to Europe when his father, an engineer, was put in charge of the construction of a railway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, where his classmates included Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros. Together they created the Society of Three (Societe des Trois), an amiable fiction which allowed Whistler, who settled in London, to maintain his contacts with artistic and literary circles in Paris; his friend Stéphane Mallarme translated his famous Ten O'Clock Lecture into French. Whistler was no Symbolist in his subject matter, though he had in common with the Symbolists a resolve to dissociate art from the utilitarian. This, of course, he shared with Wilde. In 1885, six years before Wilde published the views quoted above, Whistler declared: "Art is a goddess of dainty thought - reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others. She is, withal, selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach." (Ten O'Clock Lecture).

 
   

Arthur Bowen Davies

(see collection)
 
 


Arthur Bowen Davies
Ten Nudes by a Waterfall
 

 
 
Alphonse Legros

(b Dijon, 8 May 1837; d Watford, 8 Dec 1911).

British etcher, painter, sculptor and teacher of French birth. He is said to have been apprenticed at the age of 11 to a sign-painter, at which time he may also have attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Dijon. He was employed as assistant on a decorative scheme in Lyon Cathedral before moving in 1851 to Paris, where he worked initially for the theatre decorator C. A. Cambon (1802–75). He soon became a pupil of Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran, whose methodical instruction and liberality in fostering individual talent proved of lasting benefit to Legros. In 1855 he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, attending irregularly until 1857. During this period Legros had a taste for early Netherlandish art and for French Romanticism, which was later superseded by his admiration for Claude, Poussin and Michelangelo. However, his devotion to Holbein proved constant and was apparent as early as his first Salon painting, Portrait of the Artist’s Father (1857; Tours, Mus. B.-A.).
 

 
   


Alphonse Legros
Calvary
 

 
 


Alphonse Legros
Communion
 

 
 


Alphonse Legros
A May Service for Young Women
 

 
 


Alphonse Legros
The Confession
 

 
 
James  McNeill Whistler

(see collection)
James McNeill Whistler
Old Battersea Brige
1865


 
George Frederick Watts

(see collection)
George Frederick Watts
The Minotaur
1886


 
William Blake

(see collection)
William Blake
Happy Day - The Dance of Albion
1796
 





 

John White Alexander

(see collection)
John White Alexander
Isabel and the Pot of Basil


 
Elihu Vedder

(see collection)
Elihu Vedder
The Cup of Death
1885


 
Albert Pinkham Ryder

(see collection)
Albert Pinkham Ryder
Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens
1888
 

 


Albert Pinkham Ryder

(see collection)

 



Albert Pinkham Ryder
Jonah

 

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