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A Symbolist Glossary


Allegory—A work in which the characters and events are to be understood as representing other things and symbolically expressing a deeper, often spiritual, moral, or political meaning. Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen (1590) inspired Khnopff’s Britomart, and Acrasia in his 1890s triptych.

Androgyne—One who gives the impression of having both a male and a female sexual identity. Via French and Latin from Greek androgunos, from andro- “man” + gun “woman.”

Art Nouveau—Literally, “new art.” The new decorative arts movement named in French speaking countries after the store, Maison de l’Art Nouveau, which was opened in Paris in 1896 by Siegfried Bing. This movement was called Jugendstil (youth style) in Germany. Hallmarks of the art nouveau style are flat, decorative patterns; intertwined organic forms, such as stems or flowers; an emphasis on handcrafting as opposed to machine manufacturing; the use of new materials; and the rejection of earlier styles. In general, sinuous, curving lines characterize the aesthetic, although right-angled forms are also typical, especially in Scotland and in Austria.

Bruges—In the Middle Ages, Bruges was one of the leading trade and woolen-goods manufacturing centers of the world, and flourished until the end of the fifteenth century. About that time, the city began to decline, primarily due to the Zwyn River closing which was caused by accumulated silt. As a consequence, the weaving industry disintegrated, and the guilds collapsed. Bruges never regained its former preeminence as a trading and manufacturing center, and before the end of the sixteenth century it was known as Bruges-la-Morte (French for “dead Bruges”). Bruges was a very special place to Fernand Khnopff; he lived there for a number of years as a child, and, even then, the city was a famous attraction for tourists and lovers of Flemish art. In 1892, Georges Rodenbach published an haunting Symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, which imbued the city with the mysterious charm similar to an Edgar Allan Poe story. Khnopff provided a frontispiece for this novel and continued to paint scenes of Bruges.

Correspondences—Hidden links between natural objects, thoughts, and spiritual realities intrigued Symbolists. Based on medieval ideas of symbolic identity, Charles Baudelaire, in his poem “Correspondences,” Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), defined these mysterious connections:

Nature is a temple where the living pillars
Sometimes emit confused speech;
Man passes through the forests of symbols
Which watch him with familiar gazes.

As far off echoes from a distance meld
In a shadowy and profound unity,
Vast as the night and vast as the light,
Perfumes, colors and sounds correspond.

Dandy (Dandyism)—A man who is much concerned with his elegant appearance; Symbolists and Decadents, however, found the dandy heroic. Charles Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life (1859):

Contrary to what a lot of thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are not more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind.... It is, above all the burning desire to create a personal form of originality, within the external limits of social conventions.... dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism, but a dandy can never be a vulgar man.... Dandyism is the last flicker of heroism in decadent ages...

Decadence—Mid-sixteenth century. Via French décadence from, ultimately, Latin decadere “to fall down or away,” from cadere “to fall.”

Dream—Dreaming was a primary example for Symbolists of the elusiveness of reality; they agreed with Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote in 1827: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream.” They came to believe that dreaming was, in fact, a higher reality. Charles Baudelaire stated: “Common sense tells us that terrestrial things have but a faint existence and that reality itself is only found in dreams.” Khnopff used dreams as a source of inspiration; he kept a pad by his bed to jot down ideas from dreams, and created an altar to Hypnos, god of sleep, in his studio.

Femmes Fatales—“Fatal Women.” Very attractive, dangerous woman; a woman who is considered highly attractive and to have a destructive effect on those who succumb to her charms. In the changing social climate and shifting gender roles of the modern world, the traditional image of the fatal woman re-emerged with astonishing force.

Flowers—Among the favorite images of Symbolists. Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 1857) inverted the traditional symbolism of goodness, however. Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Symbolist novel Against Nature featured exotic flowers artificially bred into grotesque forms as a protest against the blind acceptance of nature.

Fosset—A tiny hamlet in the Ardennes region of southeastern Belgium, near Bastogne, where the Khnopff family owned property and Fernand spent summer vacations.

Gnosticism—A pre-Christian and early-Christian religious movement teaching that salvation comes by learning esoteric spiritual truths that, in turn, free humanity from the material world, which was believed to be fundamentally evil.

Grembergen-lez-Termond—The town near Brussels where Khnopff was born in the castle belonging to his grandparents.

Hieroglyph—A symbol or picture used in a writing system to denote an object, concept, sound, or sequence of sounds. Used originally and especially as the writing system of ancient Egypt.

Hospital—In Symbolist poetry, a metaphor for the pessimistic view of life. Charles Baudelaire’s “Anywhere out of the world” begins: “Life is a hospital, in which every patient is possessed by the desire to change his bed.”

Hypnos—Greek mythology, the god of sleep, and the twin of Thanatos, god of death.

Idealism—The artists of this movement rejected Naturalism and Impressionism, deeming them too tied to natural likenesses. Jean Delville (1867-1953), disciple of Joséphin Péladan, was the principle representative of Idealism in Belgium. In 1896, he founded the Salon d'Art idéaliste, a parallel to Péladan’s Salons de la Rose+Croix (1892).

La Jeune Belgique—“The Young Belgium”; an avant-garde literary society formed by a group of young Belgians, including Max Waller and Émile Verhaeren, in 1881. They published their own journal, La Jeune Belgique.

La Libre EsthètiqueLes XX was disbanded in 1893 and reconstituted as La Libre Esthètique, which continued exhibitions until 1914. The activities of these independent organizations further undermined the authority of the centralized art academies and promoted the internationalization of art in the late nineteenth century.

Les XX—or Les Vingt. An independent artistic association formed in 1884 by twenty Belgian artists. Founding members included Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor, and Theo van Rysselberghe; their secretary was Octave Maus. Les XX was a self-consciously avant-garde group, distinct from the official academic organizations, and their exhibitions included some of the finest artists from France, England, Germany, and Vienna. Foreign artists who exhibited included James Whistler, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon, Vincent van Gogh, and Gustav Klimt. Through the exhibitions of Les XX, Brussels became known as one of the most adventurous and international art centers of the late nineteenth century.

Magus—Wise man. Based on the story of the three magi; also, initiate in modern occultism.

Mirror—Traditionally, a symbol of both vanity and knowledge. Doubles and mirrors appear in many guises in Khnopff's art and are exemplars of his mysticism. The mirror in Mon coeur pleure d’autrefois (“My Heart Weeps for Days of Yore”), which was created as a frontispiece to a book of poetry by Grégoire LeRoy in 1889, is like a magic portal to the past, symbolized by the city of Bruges. Human consciousness was frequently compared to, or symbolized by, a mirror in Symbolist art and literature. This is an ancient analogy, one that was given new prominence by the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who made self-reflectivity the distinguishing trait of the philosopher and the genius. Mirror imagery was taken up by Georges Rodenbach, Stéphane Mallarmé, as well as Khnopff, who created several images of women confronting the mystery of their identity through the symbolic image of a mirror reflection.

Music—In 1863, Walter Pater, the British aesthete, wrote: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” Music was regarded as the model for art, leading to a more abstract aesthetic.

Myth—Traditional story about heroes or supernatural beings, often explaining the origins of natural phenomena or aspects of human behavior

Narcissus—Greek mythology, a youth who was punished for repulsing Echo’s love by being made to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. He died gazing at his own image and was turned into a flower.

Neoplatonism—Developed by Plotinus and his followers in the 3rd century AD. A philosophical system that combined Platonism with mysticism and Judaic and Christian ideas and posited one source for all existence.

Occult—Secret or known only to the initiated; from the Latin occultus, “to conceal.”

Orpheus—Greek mythology, a poet and musician. He descended to the underworld to seek his wife, Eurydice, after her death but failed to bring her back.

Pessimism—Doctrine stating that reality, life, and the world are evil rather than good. In the nineteenth century, pessimism was elaborated into a system of philosophy by the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and his successor Eduard von Hartmann. Each saw life in this world as rooted in misery, pain, and endless struggle. An unqualified pessimism encompasses the idea that all the ends and aims of life are illusory.

Rosicrucian—Member of an international organization concerned with esoteric wisdom derived from ancient mystical and philosophical doctrines. Formed from modern Latin rosa crucis “rose of the cross,” translation of German Rosenkreuz, named for the organization’s reputed founder, Christian Rosenkreuz. Rosicrucianism was revived in the nineteenth-century by Joséphin Péladan.


1. Greek composite creature: a winged creature with a lion’s body and a woman’s head. It strangled all who could not answer its riddle, but killed itself when Oedipus answered correctly.

2. Egyptian composite creature: in Egyptian mythology, a creature with a lion’s body and the head of a man, ram, or bird.

Spiritualism—Modern mediums flourished in the occult revival of the late nineteenth century; it appealed greatly to the upper classes in England, France, and Belgium. Noted supporters of spiritualism included Napoleon III and members of the British Royal family, and artists such as D.G. Rossetti and Jean Delville.

Synaesthesia—The evocation of one kind of sense impression when another sense is stimulated; for example, the sensation of color when a sound is heard, which led to experiments in color music.

Syncretism—The combination of different systems of philosophical or religious belief or practice.

Theosophy—Religious-philosophical system purporting to furnish knowledge of God and of the universe in relation to God, by means of direct mystical intuition and philosophical inquiry. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky organized the Theosophical Society in New York City, in 1875. Blavatsky claimed that she had received her doctrines from Asian religious teachers who had reached a higher plane of existence than that of other mortals. According to her teaching, God is the source of both spirit and matter. Through the operation of an immutable law, spirit is said to descend into matter, and matter to ascend into spirit, by cyclical action. Blavatsky explains that all souls are, in essence, the same, although differ in degrees of development. More advanced souls are said to be the natural guardians of the less developed. Human beings are presented as compound, with both a higher and lower nature. The higher (comprising mind, soul, and spirit) has been polluted by the lower (physical and other) and must be purified before it can completely return to the divine. Purification takes place through a series of incarnations. According to her doctrine, sphinxes and other mythical monsters actually once existed, representing primitive degrees of evolution.


Baudelaire, Charles Pierre (French, 1821-1867)—Poet, critic, and a leader of the Symbolist school.

Burne-Jones, Sir Edward (English, 1833-1898)—Painter, second-generation Pre-Raphaelite strongly inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Degouve de Nuncques, William (Belgian, 1867-1935)—Born in the Ardennes region, son of an aristocratic family. He was a friend of Henri De Groux, and posed for Christ in one of his pictures. In 1883, he shared a studio with the Dutch Symbolist Jan Toorop. Degouve de Nuncques had particularly strong literary connections. He married a sister-in-law of Émile Verhaeren and designed the decor for at least one of Maeterlinck's plays. His painting, The House of Mystery, or The Pink House (1892), was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic tale "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Delville, Jean (Belgian, 1867-1953)—Highly mystical Symbolist painter. Delville headed the Brussels branch of the Rosicrucian revival and organized Salons de l'Art Idéaliste in imitation of Joséphin Péladan's Parisian Salons de la Rose+Croix. These Salons commenced in 1896. According to Delville, the goal of these salons was to lead Belgium to an esthetic renaissance.

Ensor, James (Belgian, 1860-1949)—Realism intersected with Symbolism in Ensor’s allegorical pictures. Despite early success, he felt a strong rivalry with Fernand Khnopff. Ensor’s most famous picture, The Entry of Christ into Brussels of 1888 shows a satirical view of the second coming of Christ. A controversial painting, it was listed at the 1889 catalog for Les XX, but was not shown. In fact, it was not shown publicly until 1929.

Frédéric, Léon (Belgian, 1856-1940)—Painter who combined Realism with Symbolism. Frédéric was born in Brussels, in a working class family. At age six, he was first sent to live with relatives in Uccle, and later to a Jesuit boarding school in Ghent. He was apprenticed to a decorator at age fifteen, and also enrolled in evening classes at the Brussels Royal Academy. Frédéric was attracted to peasant life and spent most summers in the rural village of Nafraiture, in the Ardennes. His pictures of rural laborers often have an indirect connection to Biblical themes. Most of Frédéric's paintings are distinctly Realist in style, such as The Chalk Sellers of 1882, but occasionally he created allegorical images. Some of these have socialist messages, such as The People Will One Day See the Sun Rise (1890).

Huysmans, Joris Karl, pseudonym of Charles Marie Georges Huysmans (French, 1848-1907)—Novelist, born in Paris. A minor government official, he spent most of his energy writing a series of searching semi-autobiographical novels. Huysmans's early novels, like Marthe (1876) and Les soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters, 1879), inspired by the naturalism of Émile Zola, faithfully depict the seamy side of life. His later novels constitute his search for spiritual values. The frail, Decadent hero of Against the Grain (1884; trans. 1959) vainly seeks salvation in over-refined experiences of art and literature.

Le Roy, Grégoire (Belgian, 1862-1941)—Symbolist poet, known especially for his collection of poems titled “Mon coeur pleure d’autrefois” (1889), which was accompanied by a frontispiece by Fernand Khnopff.

Maeterlinck, Maurice Polydore Marie Bernard, Count (Belgian, 1862-1949)—Author, the outstanding exponent of Symbolist drama and the author of The Blue Bird and Pelléas and Mélisande. Maeterlinck was born in Ghent and educated in law at the university there. He abandoned the legal profession when he moved to Paris in 1886 and came under the influence of the Symbolist poets. Reacting against the prevailing naturalism of French literature, Maeterlinck wrote Symbolist poetry, notably Les serres chaudes (Hothouses, 1889). He is known principally for his plays, for which he received the 1911 Nobel Prize.

Maquet sisters—Lily, Elsie, and Nancy Maquet were friends of Khnopff and frequent models for him in the 1890s.

Mallarmé, Stéphane (French, 1842-1898)—Poet and one of the originators of the Symbolist movement. He taught English in Paris and translated literary works in English, notably the poems (1888) of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe. He used symbols to express truth through suggestion, rather than by narration. His poetry and prose are characterized by musical quality, experimental grammar, and thought that is refined and allusive to the point of obscurity. His best-known poems are “L'aprés-midi d'un faune” (“The Afternoon of a Faun,” 1876), which inspired the prelude of the same title by the French composer Claude Debussy and Hérodiade (1869).

Mellery, Xavier (Belgian, 1845-1921)—Artist who made the transition from academic art to Symbolism. He created many quiet and meditative drawings and paintings of scenes of Bruges, and shadowy, silent interiors, which the artist himself grouped under the heading of L'Âme des Choses (“The Soul of Things”). Mellery was the teacher of Fernand Khnopff at the Brussels Academy, in 1879-80.

Péladan, Joséphin (French, 1859-1918)—Born Joseph Péladan, he changed his first name to Joséphin to stress his androgynous nature. An eccentric neo-Catholic mystic, he revived the Rosicrucian movement and organized art exhibitions, the Salons de la Rose+Croix, to promote his ideas. He wrote a nineteen-volume series of books decrying the decadence of the modern French people. The most famous of the series was called Le Vice Suprême (“The Supreme Vice”; 1884), which inspired both Félicien Rops and Fernand Khnopff.

Rimbaud, (Jean Nicolas) Arthur (French, 1854-1891)—Poet of the Symbolist school. When he was 17, he composed the strikingly original poem, “The Drunken Boat” (1871; trans. 1941), which he submitted to the older poet Paul Verlaine. This work set the tone of the entire Symbolist, or Decadent, movement, and so impressed Verlaine that he entreated the author to move to Paris. Later, accompanied by Verlaine, he went to England and then to Belgium. In Belgium, Verlaine, with whom Rimbaud had a stormy relationship, tried twice to take the life of the younger poet, wounding him seriously in the second attempt. Rimbaud wrote an allegorical account of the matter in A Season in Hell (1873).

Rodenbach, Georges (Belgian, 1855-1898)—Symbolist poet and novelist, known especially for his novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892). He spent much of his adult life in Paris.

Rops, Félicien (Belgian, 1833-1898)—Born in Namur, Rops received a strict Jesuit education there. He studied at the Brussels Academy of Fine Arts and, in 1862, went to Paris to study etching. He remained in France for much of his life, though he maintained his relations with Belgian writers and journals. Gifted with an extraordinary visual imagination, he is known primarily for his etchings and book illustrations. Buried beneath the sexual explicitness and the rich irony of his images that chronicle the decadence of his age, there is often a moralizing message in his works.

Rossetti, Christina Georgina (English, 1830-1894)—Poet, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After a serious illness in 1874, she rarely received visitors or went outside her home. Her favorite themes were unhappy love, death, and premature resignation. Especially her later works deal with somber religious feelings. Her poem “Who Shall Deliver Me?” inspired several of Khnopff’s works.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (English, 1828-1882)—Painter, poet, and one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Schopenhauer, Arthur (German, 1788-1860)—Philosopher known for his philosophy of pessimism. Schopenhauer led a solitary life and became deeply involved in the study of Buddhist and Hindu philosophies and mysticism. He was also influenced by the ideas of the German Dominican theologian, mystic, and eclectic philosopher Meister Eckhart, the German theosophist and mystic Jakob Boehme, and the scholars of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In his principal work, The World as Will and Idea (1819), he proposed the dominant ethical and metaphysical elements of his atheistic and pessimistic philosophy. Khnopff’s biographer Louis Dumont-Wilden wrote in 1907: “...he is perhaps the only one among his contemporaries whose works correspond exactly to the pessimistic aesthetic as formulated by Schopenhauer.”

Swedenborg, Emanuel (Swedish, 1688-1772)—Scientist, philosopher, and theologian, founder of the Swedenborgian sect. Swedenborg was born Emanuel Swedberg in Stockholm, and educated at the University of Uppsala. Swedenborg made important contributions to mathematics, chemistry, physics, and biology. In 1745, after experiencing supernatural visions, Swedenborg began to study theology. His Heavenly Arcana (8 volumes, 1749-1756) propounded a religious system based on an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures according to instructions professedly received from God. Swedenborg maintained that, in 1757, the last judgment occurred in his presence, that the Christian church as a spiritual entity came to an end, and that a new church, foretold as the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, was created by divine dispensation. According to Swedenborg, the natural world derives its reality from the existence of God, whose divinity became human in Jesus Christ. The highest purpose is to achieve conjunction with God through love and wisdom. Swedenborg died in London on March 29, 1772.

Verhaeren, Émile (Belgian, 1855-1916)—Poet and dramatist, known for his lyrical Symbolist verse. Verhaeren was born in the town of Saint-Amand near Antwerp and was of Flemish and French ancestry. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1881 but soon after devoted himself to literature. Considered the leading Belgian poet to write in French, he celebrated the intensity of Flemish rustic scenes in Les Flamandes (1883) and the religious fervor of medieval souls in Les Moines (1886). In 1900, Le Cloître, a drama, modernized the ideal of medieval monasteries. Les Soirs (1887), Les Débâcles (1888), and Les Flambeaux noirs (1890) are a violent trilogy of the tragedy of existence.

Verlaine, Paul (French, 1844-1896)—Poet and a leader of the Symbolist movement. In 1870 Verlaine married, but he left his wife two years later to travel and live with the 17-year-old poet Arthur Rimbaud. Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud during a quarrel in 1873 and was imprisoned for the next two years. The collection, Romances sans paroles (Songs Without Words, 1874), is based on his life with Rimbaud and was written in prison. Also in prison, Verlaine returned to the Roman Catholicism of his childhood; his reconversion is the source of a volume of confessional religious poetry entitled Sagesse (Wisdom, 1881).

Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste, Comte de (French, 1838-1889)—Writer, one of the forerunners of the Symbolist movement. He was born into a noble family in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, lived a precarious Bohemian life in Paris, and died in poverty. He is best known for his collection of short stories, Sardonic Tales (1883), and for the drama Axel (final form 1890). His works, rejecting the prevailing naturalism and materialism of the day, reflect the Romantic and Symbolist interest in fantasy, the supernatural, and even the horrifying and shocking. They serve chiefly to express his idiosyncratic philosophical ideas.

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