Following in the footsteps of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, the Symbolists departed somewhat from representational painting and contemporaneous painting, or the capture of fleeting moments on campus. For example, Claude Monet’s study of the changes in natural light in the painting Impression – Sunrise were abandoned for the chance to look inward and paint on the basis of feelings and ideas. The new Symbolists marked a change from Georges Seurat’s Pointillism and Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism to emotional painting by Gaugin and van Gogh.
Born in Paris, Eugene Henri Paul Gaugin (1848-1903) had parents of French and Peruvian backgrounds. He spent four years with his mother and sister in Peru after his father died on the voyage to Lima. Gaugin offers the first example of Symbolist painting. In Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892), Gaugin uses oil on burlap transferred to canvas to show a dark, androgynous, woman lying on her stomach. Historians note that Gaugin had a deep knowledge of the Polynesian culture. Also, Honour and Fleming note that his Spirit of the Dead Watching demonstrates Gaugin’s “Synthetist-Symbolist creative process.”
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was a Dutch painter who madly painted over 800 works during a nine year stretch from 1881 to 1890. He was the second major artist of Symbolism. In The Night Café (1888), van Gogh uses dark colors and dull tones to portray the closeness of the eatery at night, a timeless quality that visitors to Paris still experience. The mood created by his use of colors and tones is reminiscent of Gaugin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching.
With dull red, ochre, brown, green, and black, van Gogh’s The Night Café portrays emotion, but shows the traces of Impressionist treatment of light through the light displays underneath the ceiling light fixtures and the multiple textures of the carpet. Van Gogh creates a balance in this composition by using the same colors in many parts of the painting. Whether the observer interprets the painting as happy or sad, emotion emanates from the canvas.
Gaugin and van Gogh both created self-portraits. They also shared the trouble of mental instability as they struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. These two geniuses painted together for two months at Arles in 1888 (only two years before van Gogh’s suicide at age 37). Thirteen years later, Gaugin died from syphilis.
While Symbolism was a short movement, the works of Gaugin and van Gogh had a huge impact on the arts. In his Symbolist Manifesto, Jean Moreas, a Greek poet, summed this movement up best—the “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the ideal.”