Back to article index


I have always attached a great deal of importance to the idea of symbolism. It was truly a light for minds overwhelmed by naturalism but at the same time too much taken by painting to surrender to the daydreams of idealism. Once again, albeit a little late in the day, I insist, in this journal that is so well-suited for the purpose, on the misunderstood nature of a celebrated movement.

It was certainly not an idealist theory. An immediate consequence of the positivist philosophies then in vogue, and of the inductive methods which we held in such great esteem, it was in truth the most strictly scientific of artistic endeavors. Those who launched it were landscape painters, still-life painters, not "painters of the soul" (7) at all (influence of Cézanne upon Gauguin, Bernard, etc.). They were minds passionate about truth, living in communion with nature, and, I am quite sure, without metaphysical ideas. If they were led to "deform," to compose, and finally to invent surprising formulas, it is because they wished to submit to the laws of harmony which determine the correspondence of colours, the organisation of lines (the researches of Seurat, Bernard, Camille Pissarro): but also to bring a greater sincerity to the rendering of their sensations. Given the structure of the eye and its physiology, the mechanism of association and the laws of sensibility (insofar as we can yet know them), they drew from them the laws of the work of art and immediately, by conforming to them, they obtained a more intense expression. From then on, instead of searching, ever in vain, to recreate their sensations just as they are, they applied themselves to finding their equivalents.

(7) A footnote to Dominique Jarrassé: 'Art Between Luminous Fluidity and Expressionist Shading; Defining Symbolist Sculpture Using Modeling' in Rosina Naginsky and Deborah Cibelli (ed): Light and Obscurity in Symbolism, Cambridge Scholars publishing, 2016 (fn 4,p.325) tells us that L'Art et la Vie, the journal Denis is writing for, was founded in 1892 'to defend idealistic art; it contained a series of monographic articles establishing the notion of "artists of the soul" at the same time as the use of "painters of the soul" to describe an exhibition at La Bodinière in February-March 1896 (Denis' article was published in October 1896). Fn 7 tells us that the first "Peintres de l'âme" exhibition at La Bodinière was held in December 1894. Denis is being provocative.

Thus there was a close correspondence between forms and emotions. The phenomena signified states of the soul, and that is symbolism. Matter becomes expressive, and the flesh has become the word. By continuing along the path indicated by Taine and Spencer, we find ourselves fully immersed in the philosophy of the Alexandrians.

And I return to the Byzantines.

Symbolism thus relies entirely on one of those very simple truths confirmed since the most remote times, by both tradition and experience.


The ancient artistic races of India and Egypt were well acquainted with those mysterious correspondences between beautiful forms and beautiful feelings. In adopting that ancient mode of expression in order to revive it and raise it to a greater height, Christianity did nothing other than renew the oriental tradition, endowing it with a new and extraordinary vitality which can be seen, since that moment of highest achievement, in the particular development of the art of painting. From then on the history of painting was for long centuries inseparably tied to the history of the Church.

A curious example of oriental influence found at the very beginning of Christian painting is the frequent use of the halo. The halo, a circumference in which the human head is inscribed, whose centre is human thought, and which expresses so perfectly its precious splendour. The halo, visible radiance of the abstract, of the immortal, the absolute - what an aesthetic favourable to Christian dogma! what a means for enabling us to give a figure to the supernatural! How well we can understand that, in that age of refined naturalism (imagine the Antinoüs of the period of decadence, the busts of the emperors), and later in the presence of the elementary imaginations of the barbarians, the Church should have adopted that admirable oriental symbolism, a symbolism as profound as it is simple ...

Gandharan sculpture c.first century AD, West Pakistan/Afghanistan

And so, ever since the Byzantine era, the genius of the Christian peoples has preferred painting to the other plastic arts. The masterpieces of Christian art, all symbolist, are in large part works of painting; its great artists are painters; and from that time onwards such was the predominance of this art that, even outside of Christian inspiration, one may attribute all the marvels of painting in modern times to the same symbolist, that is to say Christian, origin.

It is not too much to affirm that if we subject a Watteau, a Delacroix, a Renoir, to a similar process of analysis, for the same reasons, they will be found to be as good as a Virgin by Cimabue. If, as Hello (8) affirms, eighteen centuries of Christianity were needed to enable the discovery of the laws of universal gravity, we can equally believe that the singular correspondence established between Christian thought and symbolist art from the beginning was necessary for the emergence of great works of painting.

(8) Ernest Hello (1828 - 1885), Roman Catholic writer, author of Physionomie de saints (1875) and Contes Extraordinaires (1879) as well as works of literary criticism on eg Renan, Shakespeare, Hugo.

I note from my random reading this remark by Delacroix (Journal, 1834) : "...This confirmed me in Chenavard’s (9) idea, namely, that Christianity loves the pictorial. (10) Painting is better suited than sculpture to its pageantry, and more intimately allied with Christian feeling."

(9) Paul-Marc-Joseph Chenavard (1808 - 1895), French painter of very ambitious large scale allegories, including a project originally commissioned for the Pantheon which aimed to show the history of humanity through the rise and fall of civilisations. The commission was in the event cancelled with the change of government under Napoleon III.  

(10) I think this is unproblematical as a translation of 'pittoresque'. The word -which derives from an eighteenth century school of English painting, poetry and landscape gardening that celebrated what it called the 'picturesque' - didn't origjnally have the derogatory implications it has today.