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Symbolism was an artistic movement created in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Symbolic artists abandoned Realism. They believed paintings had to be inspired by the artist only. The artist was the supreme god in his mind, and the entire world gravitated around him or her. The artist perceived the world, but that was only a very personal image. The artist could as well create another world in his imagination; a fantastic dream world was just as real.

Salons de la Rose+Croix

The "Salons de la Rose+Croix" were exhibitions of paintings organised by the eccentric Joséphin "Sâr" Péladan (1858-1918) from 1892 to 1897. Sâr Péladan also instituted a Catholic-Rosicrucian inspired sect. These salons attracted many people in Paris and focused French and International Symbolist art, even if many well-known painters such as Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon or Edward Burne-Jones refused to exhibit.


The Symbolists were not at all concerned about line, or about clear drawing. They could enhance lines, but this was then only in certain places. Form should suit the creation of feelings of fantasy and imagination for the Symbolists.

Symbolist artists favoured completely free compositions, in which harmony was more a matter of the artist’s intuition than academic structuring.

The Symbolists preferred soft, pastel hues and subdued tones. But their colours were often splendid and contrasting. They abandoned colour primarily used to express emotions for a pursuit of the mysterious in lyrical images. In these images however, colour mostly still indicated the overall mood of the picture, and remained thus very important.

Symbolists thought that artists had to express their deepest personal feelings, more than reality. Symbolists used various methods of representation, but all wanted to convey spirituality and show impressions of the mind. Thereby, they used symbols again. They proposed a very subjective and idealist art. They rarely went back to traditional Christian religion. They were more inspired by ancient Greek and Roman mythology, sometimes by eroticism, others by death and hell, sin and redemption.

The Symbolist painters rarely used architectural structures. Hence they used few linear perspectives. The Symbolist scenes were usually placed without reference to space, as isolated subjects in the cosmic background. The Symbolists emphasised the effects of colour, and thus they used much aerial perspective, though often with unusual hues and contrasts.

We mention the Symbolist painters Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau as major representatives of this movement.

Symbolism was a reaction of content, accompanied by a change in style. Symbolism reacted to Realism and to Impressionism, to art trends that had emphasised nature and neglected man and his imagination. Symbolists returned to the realm of the mind, to the mystique and the fantasies of man’s imagination. The change in content was emphasised by a change in style of painting. Rapid, visible brushstrokes were abandoned as well as the bight hues of Impressionist and Divisionists. Symbolists preferred pastel colours, subdued hues and smoothly, lightly covered areas. Like in many more modern art expressions, Symbolism knew a great variety of manifestations of style.

Apollo’s Chariot

Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Musée d’Orsay – Paris. 1905-1914.

We see colours, a sea of colours. Nice soft hues intermingle, but the blue hues dominate. In the middle we find glistening white and a bursting yellow. Downwards is dark brown and black, but this painter liked colour, so that even there he added bright yellow and green luminous patches. All is organic. The horses in the sky are a fine, joyous view, and even on what we suppose to be the earth, the undulating movements of life are present. Our first impression is one of lyrical tones and of mystical elation.

Odilon Redon painted an idea, a sudden inspiration, an image brought to scene in his mind and then expressed that in colour areas. For Redon, reality did not really exist. Our view is attracted by the prancing horses, which leap in the air, fly and dance there and float in a totally unrealistic way. But the horses are painted quite as horse riders sometimes imagine them in admiration and in fondness. The horses are splendid and white. Redon wanted them so light that at places he simply let the canvas without paint. At other places he just set a little paint, and especially the white pastel tints. Redon loved pastel. Most of his pictures were done in those means, so that the texture of the canvas came through the colours, which gave the picture and mostly the figures a light, organic touch.
Redon’s images emerge barely from out of the canvas. The horses are playing, emerging also and fleeing in all directions, apparently unaware of what is happening behind them. The horses are merely a symbol of elation, of lightness and of light, of playful feelings and of airiness. And the horses are some of the most graceful creatures of our world, so that immediately poetic feelings pervade us.

Behind the horses should be a chariot, as the title indicates. But there is a very bright yellow light of what we suppose to be the sun. We see no form, no round circle of what our intellect knows of a sun. Redon only saw the sun as the source of light, and his pictures were all light. Light was not white for Redon. Light was the source of colour, so the light created many hues. The yellow and white dominate, but soft bluish hues and the green patches are radiated and formed in the air. Nothing is smooth transition however; all is granular and fights for a place, as are the clouds that break in places and in various colours.

Beneath is the earth, as we know it. An undulating movement can be remarked there. There is no living being so closely ramping, slithering with its whole body in contact with the ground as the serpent, the boa. So this must be the snake of life and of time passing on the earth in a curved, smooth, circling band. Only this idea, the symbol, is truly important. The snake does not need to be individualised, to have a head or face. Its head we can sense in a white granular area that remains vague, and also fades away into the colours of the left lower side. The earth is dark as the light emerges, but the yellow fire in the sky sends its hues shining brightly on the snake of earth.
Between earth and sky are brown and blue hues, but Redon first inverted aerial perspective. The dark blue of the sky lies below, the lighter blue is higher up. That blue becomes of darker tone again still higher up so that the sky remains the sky to indicate the direction of elation, as is natural, and as all painters painted it. Redon merely expressed the darkness of night below. Some natural elements must remain normal for viewers to keep a sense of direction.

Odilon Redon was a French painter of Bordeaux. His family was well to do. His father had made a small fortune in Louisiana. Redon first studied at a school of architecture, and then he studied sculpture and painting at the "Ecole des Beaux-Arts" of Paris, under the master painter Léon Gérôme. But Gérôme was the entire academic Classicist, all line and clear forms. That was exactly the opposite of Odilon Redon’s lyrical imagination and the opposite of how Redon saw his images, all in colour and in vague forms.
Redon returned to Bordeaux in 1865, and met there Rodolphe Bresdin, an engraver who was already a Symbolist artist. Bresdin’s eccentric character agreed much with Redon’s own, and Bresdin activated Redon’s fecund imagination.
In 1872, Redon went to Paris to stay and work there, and his career developed there until his death.
Redon was quite associated to the Symbolist movement. He knew well Stéphane Mallarmé and also Gauguin. With Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon was the foremost French representative of Symbolist movement in painting. Redon painted mythical scenes, the idea and meaning of which was often left for the viewer to choose. He exposed with the Impressionists, but he had very personal opinions on colours, and his style stands out among all painters. He worked much in pastel, as in "Apollo’s Chariot", and he found unusual hues that enhanced the poetical, strange, dreamy atmosphere of his pictures. Redon was all colour and not line.

Apollo was the sun God of the Romans. He drew his chariot, the sun, with his horses through the sky. This was a work for a God; humans were too weak to draw the chariot. Apollo’s human son, Phaeton, once tried to draw the sun on, and he scorched the earth. With such a fire as the sun is, neither Apollo nor the chariot can be seen, but the horses are there. In ancient Greek mythology, Apollo fought and won over a monster to conquer the Oracle of Delphi. This monster was maybe the Earth itself, the Earth called Gaia, to whom the oracle was dedicated since old. The monster over which Apollo had his victory was also called Pytho or Python, so that Apollo’s surname also was Apollo Pythoktonos. From that time on, the Oracle of Delphi was dedicated to Apollo, but the name of the priestess seated above a steep cavity in the rocks out of which came enchanting vapours was Pythia and Python was a very old name even for Delphi.
So, Odilon Redon remembered the oldest myths of Apollo and Python, the earth serpent, and used these symbols to represent the victory of the spirit and of light over the earth. Redon’s message of "Apollo’s chariot" was therefore eminently symbolic, and entirely in line with the ideas of the Symbolist movements.

Some of Odilon Redon’s chosen elements were symbols that could be interpreted by the viewer to his or her own liking and imagination. An example of this technique is the image of the snake, which returned in various pictures. Whether Redon had a meaning in mind, had read texts on the myth of Apollo, or simply copied at an instant’s whim the image of a boa constrictor from a child’s book, remains a mystery. The viewer can give the interpretation he or she likes. The element was added by Redon to create a strange, poetical emotional state in the spectators.

Odilon Redon was also a marvellous painter of flower still-lives. In that quality he should be present in any anthology of flower painters. His work was very idealistic, tuned to myths and legends, and he also made a few Christian religious paintings. In that he often remained deliberately hermetic, private as to his ideas, and completely in line with the Symbolist literature as of his friend, Stéphane Mallarmé.

Redon’s "The Chariot of Apollo" is a picture of colours and of poetic mood that will enchant at first sight sensitive viewers. Redon painted little detail, and certainly not detail in fine lines and realistic depiction. He was first and foremost a colourist. Only colour can be discovered in his works. But we have to recognise that Redon had a true artist’s sensibility of dreams and imagination of unfamiliar scenes in which he could create a very poetic mood of mystical content. Redon leads us into dreams, and he induces the sweetest thoughts and emotions, as much as there can be found in colour patterns only, to finally appeal to us as colour music.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: November 2010
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