Symbolism started as a literary movement in France, but it soon began to influence the visual arts. It emerged around 1900 in reaction to the prevailing tendency among artists to represent the visible world as realistically as possible. Writers, painters and sculptors turned increasingly to depicting their feelings and thoughts.

This reflected a wider trend occurring in society at the time. Around the turn of the twentieth century, a firm belief in science made way for the idea that an invisible world lay hidden behind the reality we can perceive. The Symbolists drew inspiration from the latest developments in psychology, producing dreamlike images of repressed fears, ideas and desires. The femme fatale, a seductive but highly dangerous woman, is an important theme in Symbolism.

Symbolism soon spread throughout France and into the rest of Europe. Artists like Moreau, Redon, Klimt, Holder and Munch used mythological and religious subjects to depict their ideas. Jan Toorop, Johan Thorn Prikker and Carel de Néree tot Babberich were the leading representatives of Symbolism in the Netherlands.

Although Symbolism emphasised the underlying meaning of the image, the art is also highly decorative. Painters like Toorop and Klimt regularly used stylised lines and patterns. These experiments with colour, line and form later provided an important basis for the development of abstract art. The desire to depict ‘the invisible’ also contributed to the emergence of abstraction.

The Gemeentemuseum’s collection includes work by internationally renowned Symbolist artists including Klimt, Holder and Redon. The museum also administers a collection of more than 350 works by Jan Toorop, ranging from paintings and drawings to graphic and decorative works. During Toorop’s lifetime, the museum acquired a number of top pieces for its collection. After the Second World War, director Victorine Hefting expanded the museum’s Toorop collection. In 1972 the Kuijlman collection donated 110 works on paper to the museum.

View all under Symbolism