Symbolism is a literary and artistic movement that appeared in France and Belgium around 1870, in reaction to naturalism and the Parnassian movement.

This movement was exported to Russia, especially thanks to Valery Brioussov, poet and founder of Russian symbolism.

George-Albert Aurier gave a definition of symbolism in an issue of the Mercure de France digest of 1891:

“The work of art must be first idealistic, since its unique ideal will be the expression of the idea, secondly it must symbolistic since it will express this idea in form, thirdly synthetic since it will write its forms, its signs according to a mode of general comprehension, fourthly subjective since the object will never be considered as an object but as a sign perceived by the subject, fifthly the work of art will have to be decorative.”

A reaction to naturalism

For the Symbolists it is a question of “clothing the idea of a sensible form”. They do not faithfully paint the object, unlike naturalists, but seek an impression, a sensation, which evokes an ideal world and privilege the expression of states of souls. The symbols make it possible to reach the higher reality of sensibility.


In literature, the symbolist movement finds its first origins in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857). Aesthetics was developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, aesthetics, through a series of manifestos, attracted a generation of writers. Baudelaire’s translation of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, with considerable influence, was the source of several tropes and images of symbolism.


The symbolist aesthetics had an important influence on the work of Claude Debussy. His choices of texts and themes come almost exclusively from the Symbolist canon. Compositions such as his arrangements of Baudelaire’s Five Poems, Verlaine’s various poems, Pelléas and Mélisande, and his sketch depicting two stories of Allan Poe, The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher, Indicate the tastes and symbolist influences of Debussy. His key work, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, was inspired by an eponymous poem by Stéphane Mallarmé.

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Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy, 1862-1918

Maurice Ravel, 1875-1937

Paul Valéry, 1871-1945

Pierre Louÿs, 1870-1925