Late nineteenth-century movement that advocated the expression of an idea over the realistic description of the natural world

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  • Odilon Redon, 'Profile of a Woman with a Vase of Flowers' circa 1895-1905
    Odilon Redon
    Profile of a Woman with a Vase of Flowers circa 1895-1905
    Oil on canvas
    support: 655 x 505 mm
    Presented anonymously 1989
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Beata Beatrix' circa 1864-70
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti
    Beata Beatrix circa 1864-70
    Oil on canvas
    support: 864 x 660 mm
    frame: 1212 x 1015 x 104 mm
    Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889
  • Paul Gauguin, 'Faa Iheihe' 1898
    Paul Gauguin
    Faa Iheihe 1898
    Oil on canvas
    support: 540 x 1695 mm
    frame: 700 x 1855 x 95 mm
    Presented by Lord Duveen 1919

The term was coined in 1886 by French critic Jean Moréas to describe the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. It was soon applied to visual art where the realistic depiction of the natural world, seen in impressionism, realism, naturalism, was rejected in favour of imaginary dream worlds populated with mysterious figures from literature, the bible, and and Greek mythology. The work of symbolist artists and writers was also fuelled by new psychological content, particularly erotic and mystical. Common themes included: love, fear, anguish, death, sexual awakening, and unrequited desire.

Symbolism was a complex international phenomenon but was especially prominent in France (Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Paul Gauguin), Belgium (Fernand Khnopff, Jean Delville), and Britain (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, George Frederic Watts, Aubrey Beardsley).