Jean Moréas declared, in the "Manifesto" which he published in the Figaro ( September 18, 1886), that Symbolism was the only mode of expression "capable of logically conveying the contemporary tendencies of the creative spirit in art." Here the word "creative" (as indeed the term "Symbolism") was for the first time frankly used in its full modern application. Amongst the literary reviews, La Plume, Le Mercure de France and La Pléiade championed the new theory. But it was Albert Aurier who for the first time, in 1891, with his article "Symbolism in Painting" (in the Mercure de France) pointed out its possible application to pictorial art and he acclaimed Gauguin leader of the Symbolist art movement. The aim of this school was" to clothe the idea with a form perceptible to the senses." Nature was to be observed "by way of the dream," and all primitive, archaic and exotic forms of art into which symbolic allusions could be read, were to be turned to account. The work of art was to be "ideational, symbolical, synthetic, subjective, decorative." Paul Sérusier now became the painter-theoretician of the new school. In 1891 was opened his first exhibition of Impressionist and Symbolist Painters, at the Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery. In it figured amongst others the names of Anquetin, Bernard, Bonnard, Denis, Lepère, Filiger, Ranson, Roussel, Schuffenecker, Sérusier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard, Cross, Luce, Gauguin, Willette, Signac, Zuloaga, and even that of Manet -- artists, in fact, of greatly differing tendencies.
There are two fundamental modes of artistic experience: image and symbol, direct perception and ideal interpretation. Following the progress of science, the effort of the nineteenth century was directed toward realism. The result was Naturalism in literature and Impressionism in painting. From 1885 on, Symbolism, an idealistic reaction, developed in letters and the plastic arts simultaneously. Painters and poets no longer aimed at a faithful representation of the outside world, but at an imaginative suggestion of their dreams through symbolic allusion and the luxuriant apparel of decorative form. The year 1886, with the appearance of Rimbaud's Illuminations, the arrival of Van Gogh in Paris and Gauguin's first stay in Brittany, was a turning point that confirmed the break with Impressionism and marked the official birth on the one hand of NeoImpressionism, a scientific development of Impressionism, and on the other, and at the opposite pole, of Symbolism, which was first expressed in literature. In the Manifesto he published in the Figaro of September 18th that year, the poet Jean Moréas put forth the name Symbolism 'as the only word capable of adequately describing the current tendency of the creative spirit in art'. His principal formula was one that would be valid in all the arts: 'To clothe the idea in a sensitive form'. Soon after, there appeared a number of magazines, which propagated the new aesthetic doctrine and showed, by the space they allotted to painting and illustration, the increasing interaction between the plastic arts and literature that was characteristic of the period: as early as 1886 La Pléiade, Le Décadent, La Vogue, Le Symboliste; in 1889 La Plume, in 1890 Le Mercure de France, and in 1891 La Revue Blanche. The Poésies of Mallarmé appeared in 1887; in 1889, Parallèlement of Verlaine, the Essai sur les Données Immédiates de la Conscience of Bergson and the famous work of Edouard Schuré, Les Grands Initiés, which advanced the mystical and theosophical current of Symbolism. The same year witnessed the appearance of pictorial Symbolism on the occasion of the exhibition at the Café Volpini of the 'Impressionist and Synthesist Group', that is to say, Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven ( Bernard, Laval, Anquetin, and others). The designation 'Impressionist' had been maintained for publicity's sake, but the aesthetic doctrine of the movement, based on Cloisonnism and Synthesism, was opposed to that of the Impressionists (and NeoImpressionists), 'who searched', as Gauguin said, 'round the eye and not in the mysterious centre of thought, and so lapsed into scientific reasoning'. Bernard and Gauguin -- here in complete contradiction to Cézanne, who was fanatically faithful to nature, and even to Van Gogh, who never separated symbol from reality -maintained the necessity of painting no longer from life but from memory, not 'before the thing' but 'entertaining it in the imagination' that had taken it in, and, after simplification, had retained its 'synthesis', that is to say, 'idea'.
The young critic Albert Aurier, an enthusiastic admirer of Gauguin, whom he introduced into the famous literary circle of the Café Voltaire, dominated by Moréas and Verlaine, defined Symbolism in painting in an article in the "Mercure de France" for March 1891 that caused wide comment: 'The work of art', he proclaimed .must be: 1. Ideist, since its only goal will be expression of the idea; 2. Symbolist, since it will express the idea in forms; 3. Synthetic, since it will transcribe the forms in a mode of general comprehension; 4. Subjective, since the object will never be considered in it as an object, but as the sign of the idea perceived by the subject; 5. (As a consequence) Decorative, for decorative painting properly so called, as the Egyptians and very likely the Greeks and the Primitives conceived it, is nothing but a manifestation of an art at once subjective, synthetic, symbolist and ideist'. These characteristies, which put emphasis upon Ideist Symbolism and the tendency toward decorative abstraction, applied in particular to Gauguin and the School of Pont-Aven, as well as to the Nabi group -- Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel, Maurice Denis, Ranson, Vallotton -connected with Pont-Aven through Sérusier (vide Pont-Aven and Nabis); but they were already evident, in an intuitive and rather literary form, in three isolated artists with whom the Symbolist generation claimed kinship: Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, and Odilon Redon.
Gustave Moreau ( 1826-1898) is in France the exact equivalent of the English Pre-Raphaelites that were discovered at the Universal Exhibition of 1855. Before his fake pictorial jewellery and the immense miscarriage of his mythical imagery, one cannot help thinking of the savage mot of Degas: 'He wants to make us believe that the gods wore watch-chains'. But because of the mysteriousness of his life, the prestige of his personality and his idealist intentions, Moreau's influence was widely felt; not only by decadent writers like Huysmans and Jean Lorrain, who maintained a real cult for him, but also by the Nabi painters. 'He, the master sorcerer,' said Jean Lorrain, 'has cast a spell upon his time, bewitched his contemporaries and contaminated with the ideal this sceptical and practical end of a century.'
While the work of Puvis de Chavannes ( 1824-1898), in spite of its nobility and undeniable harmony, now appears more closely related to an academic allegorism than to authentic Symbolism, its influence also was considerable, and all contemporary artists, from Gauguin to the Nabis, claimed him as a precursor. Albert Aurier and Maurice Denis, in their doctrinal articles, repeatedly cited the fruitful example of his art, whose three characteristic innovations the critic Mellerio summed up as follows: 'amendment of direct sensation, simplification of drawing, an ornamental tendency'. Gauguin, while stressing the differences that separated him from Puvis de Chavannes, always acknowledged a debt to him, and his dream was to do 'coloured Puvis de Chavannes'. The unanimous recognition accorded at the end of the century to Puvis was such that a banquet, presided over by Rodin, was given in his honour in January 1895, gathering together 550 artists and writers of the most opposed schools, from Carolus-Duran to Renoir and Gauguin, and from Brunetière to Verlaine and Mallarmé.
Odilon Redon ( 1840-1916), a contemporary of Impressionism, which he thought 'too lowceilinged', made friends with Mallarmé and the young Symbolist writers, Gide, Valéry and Francis Jammes, and following the example of Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes, whom he greatly admired, sought in his work 'human beauty with the prestige of thought'. But whereas the intentions of those two painters were hamstrung by academic formulae, Redon succeeded in creating the plastic idiom of his dreams. He is the Symbolist painter par excellence. This is why the Nabis, Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel, Sérusier, Maurice Denis, of whom he executed admirable lithographic portraits in black, bistre and sanguine, turned to him with fervour and paid homage to him in a collective exhibition at Durand-Ruel's in 1899. In the same category, and on the same level, though in a different spirit, can be placed the Belgian painter James Ensor ( 1860-1949), who began in the Impressionist manner, but from 1890 on discovered in masks the expression of his fantastic universe and the climate of his irony.
All the painters who were more or less influenced by Symbolism, which constituted less a school than the atmosphere of an era, showed their work at twice-yearly exhibitions at the Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery, from 1891 to 1897.