Aesthetic Movement in Europe

Symbolists and Decadentismo

Prinon Shahed Jenna Song Period 2

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Summary

Dorian Gray poses for a portrait when he meets Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry Wotton follows a hedonistic principle and he corrupts Dorian Gray’s mind. Due to Lord Henry Wotton’s influence, Dorian Gray wishes that he will keep his youthful beauty and instead transfers old age to the painting of him. In his pursuit of hedonism, Dorian engages in immoral actions, such as drugs and murder. He eventually falls in love with an actress named Sybil; however, he leaves her when she quits theatre to fully concentrate her love to Dorian. From the distress of having been left behind, Sybil commits suicide. Dorian continues to engage in immoral acts, which is reflected through the painting, which begins to get uglier. Eventually, Dorian Gray re-evaluates his life and tries to absolve his many sins; however, the painting continues to reflect the corrupt nature of his mind. In the end, Dorian has to do more than a confession in order to restore the innocent and youthful portrait of Dorian Gray.



  • An aesthetic movement from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in Europe

  • Exemplified the beginning of modernism

  • Portrays psychological truth through abstract symbols rather than realistic objects

  • Common subject matters were the dream world, death, religious mysticism, and inner emotions

  • Against naturalism, materialism, and immorality

    ( "Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works." The Art Story. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)

Historical Context

  • The Symbolist movement officially originated from France

  • The Symbolist movement gained international recognition in 1886 with the publication of Le Figaro by Jean Moréas’

  • Le Figaro called for the rejection of realism and materialism and instead promoted spirituality and emotions through abstract means

    ( "Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works." The Art Story. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)


    • Influenced by the Romantic period

    • Color and shape are used to convey the artist’s inner feelings

    • Many artists portrayed a pessimistic outlook on life as artists began to recognize the moral depravity of society

    • Common subjects were women, animals, and the natural landscape, which were used to convey the theoretical concepts of death, love, and spirituality.

    • Early artworks contained a mixture of realism and symbolism, but gradually later artworks began to portray more abstract subjects, which led to the creation of Expressionism and other modern art

    • Prominent examples: Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, etc.

      ("Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Symbolism. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)


  • Developed in France when French poets rejected the strict poetry guidelines

  • Influenced by Charles Baudelaire who emphasized the importance of the senses

  • Symbolist poets valued free verse

  • The “opening-up” of the author’s feelings led the growth of the idea of “decadence” in literature

    • Oscar Wilde exemplified the idea of moral depravity witnessed within society using using an exotic tone

  • Prominent examples: Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine, etc.

("Writers History." Writers History. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)


  • New conventions in rhythm

  • Emphasized the importance of silence in music

  • Symbolist music were influenced by symbolist writings and were placed as background music for many symbolist plays

  • Prominent examples: Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner, etc.

( "Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works." The Art Story. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)


  • New innovations in the arts

  • Brought to attention the problem of moral depravity and materialism witnessed in society

  • Emphasized the importance of depicting the unknown instead of portraying the naturalistic portions that the reader can see

    • New subject matters were illuminated, such as death, love, disease, and psychological truths

( "Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Symbolism. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.)

Connection/Significance to The Picture of Dorian Gray

  • The aging portrait of Dorian Gray symbolizes the immorality and depravity of Dorian Gray as he slowly becomes corrupt

    • The symbolist movement in art created symbols to represent abstract concepts and in this case, it is immorality, beauty, and age

  • The portrait represents the hedonistic perspective that Dorian Gray embodies

  • The color white is used as a motif to represent the growing decline in Dorian Gray’s innocence

    • Many symbolist artists used color to exemplify inner feelings and psychological truths

  • The themes of love and death are portrayed throughout the novel

    • Moral depravity eventually erodes the idealistic nature of love and immorality leads to final death

    • Symbolist literature focused on abstract concepts, such as love and death

(Wilde, Oscar. "The Picture of Dorian Grey." (2011): n. pag. University of Alberta. University of Alberta, 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2015 <>).

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Lasting Contemporary Influence

  • The symbolist art movement became the major stepping stone to the development of expressionist and surrealist art

    • Ex: Persistence of Time by Salvador Dalí

  • Brought to attention the importance of inner feelings, which led to a greater understanding of mental illnesses and personalities

  • Led to the emergence of symbolic films and literature

Decadentismo (Decadence Movement)

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  • By the 1890’s, another word became synonymous with “art for art’s sake”

  • “Decadence” was first used to describe the writings of mid 1800s France, particularly those of Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier

  • By the end of the 19th century, decadence was used as an aesthetic term in Europe

  • The word itself means “falling away” or “decline”

  • British poet Arthur Symons’ essay, ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (1893), described decadence as ‘a new and beautiful and interesting disease’. Symons was one of the key critics of the decadent movement and believed it to be a sign that modern society had become too luxurious and sophisticated.
  • (British Library)

What is Decadentismo?

  • Decadentismo has a number of qualities that all intermingle to create “decadence”:

    • A need for immaculous refinement

    • Valuing artificiality more than nature

    • A feeling of ennui (restlessness or boredom) rather than of moral integrity or valuing dedication

    • An interest in perversity and paradox and in transgressive modes of sexuality

    • (British Library)

Notable Literature/Notable Figures

  • Charles Baudelaire (poet)

    • His writings defined modern art movements such as aestheticism and influenced the works of countless other writers and poets

  • Theophile Gautier (poet, novelist, critic)

    • His works bleed into numerous literary categories such as decadence, modernism, and symbolism

  • Arthur Symons (poet, critic)

    • Expanded his pioneering essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (Harper’s, November 1893) into a book, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899)

  • Paul Verlaine (poet)

    • Key figure of symbolist movement

  • Stéphane Mallarmé (poet)

    • Key figure of symbolist movement

  • Joris-Karl Huysmans (novelist)

    • Huysmans’ most notable work, Á Rebours (1884) is believed to have influenced The Picture of Dorian Grey

  • Oscar Wilde (novelist)

    • One of key British decadence writers alongside Arthur Symons

    • Because of his high visibility on the London social scene and his extravagant fashion and mannerisms, Wilde helped spread the notion of decadence, or decadentismo, throughout England and Europe
    • (British Library)
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  • Joris-Karl Huysmans’ most notable work, Á Rebours (1884) - translated to English as “Against Nature” or “Against the Grain” - is commonly believed to be the “poisonous” book that mesmerizes the eponymous Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  • Revolving around the hidden life of aristocrat main character, Des Esseintes, the novel details the character’s obsessive sensual experiments

  • Dorian Gray’s fervor for collecting and examining jewels and perfumes and immersing himself in exotic and sensual objects mirrors Des Esseintes’s pursuit of ever more refined sensory experiences
  • (B
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  • “All art is quite useless.” (Wilde 160)

  • “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible...” (Wilde 20)

  • “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” (Wilde 17)

  • “But we never get back our youth… The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.” (Wilde 21)
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Lasting Contemporary Influence

  • Along with symbolist style, decadence has contributed to the aestheticism movement dedicated to rejecting realism and literary naturalism to discover the beauty of bizarre, unconventional, and appearance-focused art and literature

  • Created new artistic perspective that persisted in France, England, and a large swathe of Western Europe

  • The Decadence movement’s obsession with appearance and lethargy of modern life continues to resonate with 21st century attitudes towards life

Works Cited

Burdett, Carolyn. "Aestheticism and Decadence." Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians. British Library, n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2015. <>

"English and Drama Blog." English and Drama Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2015. <>

"Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History." Symbolism. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.

"Symbolism Movement, Artists and Major Works." The Art Story. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Picture of Dorian Grey." (2011): n. pag. University of Alberta. University of Alberta, 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2015. <>

"Writers History." Writers History. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <>.