During the decades before 1900, the Symbolists were the avant-garde, and one of quite a new kind, influencing not only the arts but also the thought and spirit of the epoch. Maurice Denis, their theoretician, enunciated in 1890 the most famous of their artistic principles: Remember that a picture—before being a war-horse, a nude or an anecdote of some sort—is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.
Such ideas inspired a group of young painters, among whom was Denis himself, to callthemselves Nabis (from the Hebrew word for “prophet”). They were in revolt against the faithfulness to nature of Impressionism; in addition, largely because they were in close touch with Symbolist writers, they regarded choice of subject as important. Theyincluded Paul Ranson, who gave the style a decorative and linear inflection; Pierre Bonnard; and Édouard Vuillard.
Other than the Nabis, one of the chief Symbolists was Odilon Redon, who moved from the same starting point as the Impressionists—the landscape style of the Barbizon school—but in precisely the opposite direction. Redon's visionary charcoal drawings (which he called his black pictures) led to successive series of lithographs that explored the evocative, irrational, and fantastic orders of creation that Impressionismexcluded. Redon later wrote:
Nothing in art can be done by will alone. Everything is done by docile submissionto the coming of the unconscious . . . for every act of creation, the unconscious sets us a different problem.
Redon established one of the characteristic standpoints of modern art, and his influence on the younger Symbolists was profound. In 1888 Gauguin, already affectedby a trip to Martinique, settled at Pont-Aven in Brittany. The influential style he developed there was based on the juxtaposition of flat areas of colours enclosed by black contours, the total effect suggesting cloisonné enamel (a technique in which metal strips differentiate the colour areas of the design, thereby creating an outline effect), hence the name Cloisonnisme used to describe this style. The spirit in which Gauguin rendered Breton scenes was mystical. He wrote:
Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than of the actual result.
At Pont-Aven, Gauguin was joined by Émile Bernard and Louis Anquetin, who had lately begun to work in a similar way. Paul Sérusier painted under Gauguin's direction a little sketch entitled “Bois d'amour” that appeared more independent of appearances and bolder in its synthesis of pattern than anything that had been seen before; it became known in Paris as “The Talisman.” The liberation of Synthetism, as the new style was called, indeed worked like a charm, and after the Café Volpini exhibition of 1889 it spread rapidly. The movement was linked with literature and, in particular, with drama; it inspired its own periodical, La Revue Blanche, and Le Théâtre de l'Oeuvre (both founded in Paris in 1891); there were exhibitions twice a year at a Paris gallery, Le Barc de Boutteville, from 1891 to 1897.
The decorative style known as Art Nouveau, or Jugendstil, spread across Europe and the Americas in the 1890s. The pursuit of natural and organic sources for form still further alienated art from the descriptive purpose that had been the basis of figurative style, and an artistic movement without taint of historicism that molded thefine arts, architecture, and craftsmanship in a single, consistent taste recovered the creative unity that had been lost since the early 18th century. In The Netherlands the fin de siècle (“end of the century”; specifically the end of the 19th century, and a phrase that has overtones of a rather precious sophistication and world-weariness) style and sense of purpose appeared in the paintings of Johan Thorn Prikker and Jan Toorop. The Viennese Gustav Klimt made bolder and more arbitrary use of pattern. In Russia the demonic genius of Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel had points of contact with the Art Nouveau style. It even affected Seurat and his circle, who were known as the Neo-Impressionists; the popular imagery of Seurat's later works, such as “The Circus” (1890–91; Louvre), was expressed in sinuous rhythms not far from Art Nouveau, and the Belgian Henry van de Velde passed from Neo-Impressionism by way of fin de siècle decorations that were near abstraction to a place among the founders of 20th-century architecture. A strange and beautiful blend of Symbolism with an alpine clarity of colour close to Neo-Impressionism appeared in compositions such as “The Unnatural Mothers” by the Italian Giovanni Segantini.