Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin, born on June 7, 1948, had many loves in his relatively short 54 years of life. We’re not just talking women lovers (and perhaps men, although by all popular accounts he was partial to the opposite sex) whom he arguably spread syphilis to, which was his accepted cause of death. We are talking about the various artistic movements that Gauguin paintings either inspired, were a part of, or helped to propagate. Gauguin was a leading post Impressionist painter who is primarily claimed by the Symbolist movement; however, scholars also note that his artwork led to and was part of the Synthetist style, as well as the cloisonnist style and finally, the art movement known as Primitivism. We’ll now examine just what it meant that Gauguin was a Symbolist.

Symbolism was first used by the critic Jean Moréas to describe a growing body of Russian, French and Belgian poetry and visual art in the late 19th century. As with most artistic movements, such as Surrealism, the literal and the visual often spurred each other on. In this case the literal symbolists set the tone for the movement: historians agree the movement began with publication of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) in 1857, a volume of poetry by French writer Charles Baudelaire, who was inspired by the works of American writer Edgar Allan Poe of whom Baudelaire translated for the French audience. Other significant early proponents were Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and ’70s. These authors argued that it was important to rebel against realism and naturalism, and that artists had to favour the spiritual, imaginary and ideal.

The feelings and tenets behind Symbolism were expressed in September 18, 1886, when Jean Moréas published Le Symbolisme, or the Symbolist Manifesto, in Le Figaro. In it, he famously said that “In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals”. Gauguin paintings are of course a reflection of this belief, that there were absolute truths in the world but that the truths could only be described indirectly; concurrent with this was that truths were culturally influenced, hence Gauguin’s belief that the colonies were purer than European society. Gauguin paintings thus contain plenty of metaphors and symbols that suggest meaning and manner, rather than prescribe ideals. These beliefs reflected the core of symbolism, which Moréas pronounced was against “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description”.

So who were the other famous symbolist painters? There were several contending schools within the movement, with most fractures and disagreements along geographical borders. However, some of the undisputed early leaders included Fernand Khnopff, John Henry Fuseli and Caspar David Friedric. The second wave of symbolists are perhaps the most famous, taking advantage of the ground broached by their forefathers. This includes Gustav Klimt, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon, Henri Fantin-Latour, Gaston Bussière, Jan Toorop and Edvard Munch. Even artists such as Frida Kahlo are considered symbolists by some, while Auguste Rodin also receives similar academic treatment.

The important points to remember are that symbolist painters used dream imagery and mythological elements in their art, drawing from many cultures to do so. Gauguin paintings often include motifs and symbols from Polynesian culture, more so than French. The symbols used were not found in the mainstream art of the time, but were rather private and sometimes vague. This loose sense of definition has led the movement to be subsumed by other more accepted movements, while other critics have simply labelled the movement more a philosophy than a specific style, especially when compared to something like the Impressionists.