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Symbolism and Modern Urban Society


  • 110 b/w illus. 8 colour illus.
  • Page extent: 384 pages
  • Size: 246 x 189 mm
  • Weight: 1.009 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 709/.03/47
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: N6465.S9 H57 2004
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Symbolism (Art movement)
    • Art, European--19th century--Social aspects
    • Cities and towns in art
    • Europe--Social life and customs--19th century

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521810968 | ISBN-10: 0521810965)

and Modern Urban Society

Symbolism and Modern Urban Society is the first social history of the Symbolist movement. Sharon Hirsh adopts a variety of methods, including gender theory, biography, visual analysis, and medical and literary history, in order to investigate this esoteric movement and ground it firmly in fin de siècle issues of modernity and the metropolis. Hirsh argues that Symbolism, often associated with notions of individualism, nostalgia, and visual reverie, offers an engaging critique of urbanity. Providing new definitions and theories for Symbolism and Decadence, she also addresses issues such as spatial and street confrontations with the crowd, the diseased city, the New Woman as “should-be mother,” as well as the ideal city of Bruges and its social upheaval in the 1890s. Focusing on works by well-known artists such as Van Gogh, Munch, and Ensor, Hirsh also considers the works of artists who contributed in important ways to the Symbolist movement and the cities – Amsterdam, Brussels, Geneva, Oslo – in which they worked.

Sharon Hirsh is Charles A. Dana Professor of Art History at Dickinson College. A scholar of nineteenth-century European art, she is the author of a number of books, including Ferdinand Hodler, and served as coeditor of the volume Art, Culture and National Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Europe.



Dickinson College

The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, United Kingdom

The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK
40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211, USA
477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC 3207, Australia
Ruiz de Alarcón 13, 28014 Madrid, Spain
Dock House, The Waterfront, Cape Town 8001, South Africa

© Sharon L. Hirsh 2004

This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2004

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

Typeface Adobe Garamond 11.5/13.5 pt.   System LATEX 2e  [TB]

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Hirsh, Sharon L.
  Symbolism and modern urban society / Sharon L. Hirsh.
   p. cm.
  Includes bibliographical references and index.
  ISBN 0-521-81096-5 (HB)
  1. Symbolism (Art movement) 2. Art, European – 19th century – Social aspects.
 3. Cities and towns in art. 4. Europe – Social life and customs – 19th century. I. Title.

N6465.S9H57 2004
 709′.03′47 – dc22 2003056909

Publication funds for this book have been provided by a grant
from the Charles A. Dana Chair Fund, Dickinson College.

Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the
Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association.


ISBN 0 521 81096 5 hardback


List of Illustrations page vii
Acknowledgments xi
Preface xiii
Notes 279
Bibliography 327
Index 355


COLOR PLATES (appear following page 172)
I Vincent van Gogh. Boulevard de Clichy. February–March 1887
II Edvard Munch. Evening on Karl Johan Street. 1892
III James Ensor. Self-Portrait with Masks. 1899
IV Jan Toorop. The Three Brides. 1893
V Charles Maurin. The Dawn of Work. 1891
VI Giovanni Segantini. The Evil Mothers. 1894
VII Xavier Mellery. The Staircase from The Life of Things [renamed The Soul of Things]. 1889
VIII Fernand Khnopff. Abandoned City. 1904


1    Fernand Khnopff. Memories. 1889 page 5
2    J. Thorn-Prikker. Epic Monk. 1894 7
3    Fernand Khnopff. Listening to Schumann. 1883 10
4    Fernand Khnopff. With Grégoire Le Roy: My Heart Weeps for Other Times. 1889 11
5    Paul Gauguin. Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? 1897 12
6    Fernand Khnopff. Altar of Art. c. 1905 13
7    Map of Brussels, c. 1891 20
8    Brussels, Rue Royale. Postcard, c. 1898 20
9    “Oberlander,” “By the Lake,” Le Globe Illustré (Brussels), April 5, 1891 21
10    Vincent van Gogh. Boulevard de Clichy. February–March 1887 27
11    Edvard Munch. Night. 1890 30
12    Edvard Munch. The Inheritance. 1897–1899 31
13    Vincent van Gogh. The Sower. Autumn 1888 36
14    Vincent van Gogh. The Sower. June 1888 37
15    Fernand Khnopff. Angel (with Verhaeren). 1889 39
16    “The rue de Sèvres staircase during the blanc.” (1887 agenda, Bon Marché department store) 40
17    Wojciech Weiss. Obsession. c. 1900–1901 41
18    Edvard Munch. Anxiety. 1894 50
19    James Tissot. The Shop Girl from the La Femme à Paris series. c. 1883–5 51
20    Edvard Munch. At the Roulette Wheel II. 1892 54
21    Edvard Munch. At the Roulette. 1892 54
22    James Ensor. The Players. The Point of Bankruptcy. c. 1890 55
23    Reginald Cleaver. Gambling at Ostend: The Club Privé of the Kursaal. Illustration, The Graphic (London). October 23, 1897 55
24    Gustave Caillebotte. Paris Street: Rainy Day. 1877 64
25    Edvard Munch. Evening on Karl Johan Street. Preliminary sketch, 1889 65
26    Felician von Myrbach. Illustration from Wienerstadt. Lebensbilder auf der Gegenwart (Vienna 1895) 68
27    Felician von Myrbach. “Vienna in the Morning Hours.” Illustration from Wienerstadt. Lebensbilder auf der Gegenwart (Vienna, 1895) 69
28    Lesser Ury. At the Friedrichstrasse Station. 1888 70
29    Michelet. “Brussels at Night – Boulevard Anspach (Bourse).” Wood engraving published in Le Globe Illustré (Brussels) (May 23, 1886) 71
30    Godefroy [pseudonym for de Georgina]. “Geneva,” Caricature in Le Carrillon de St. Gervais (Geneva). August 11, 1894 74
31    “Voila! The Aesthetic of Cities!” Caricature in Le Diable au Corps (Brussels). April 1, 1894 75
32    “In the Country.” “– Adorable! This solitude…You don’t often get bored here? – Oh no, this is the first time.” Caricature in Le Diable au Corps (Brussels). May 28, 1893 76
33    Jan Toorop. The Young Generation. 1892 77
34    Postcard of Karl Johan Street. c. 1900 81
35    Edvard Munch. Karl Johan Street in the Rain. 1886–9 83
36    A. W. Pugin. A Christian City in 1440 and 1840. 1841 86
37    Behind Christian Krogh Street. c. 1900 87
38    James Ensor. Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889. 1888 89
39    Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893 93
40    Edvard Munch. Golgotha. 1900 94
41    Edvard Munch. Red Virginia Creeper. 1898–1900 95
42    Fernand Khnopff. En Passant (Regent Boulevard). 1881 97
43    James Ensor. Ensor and Death. December 25, 1887 104
44    James Ensor. Peste Dessous, Peste Dessus, Peste Partout (Plague Here, Plague There, Plague Everywhere). 1888 105
45    Advertisements from the Classified section of La Réforme (Brussels) no. 185, July 2, 1885 109
46    Edvard Munch. The Dead Mother and Child. 1897–9 110
47    Giovanni Segantini. Consolation through Faith. 1896 111
48    James Ensor. The Bad Doctors. 1892 113
49    Edvard Munch. Untitled sketch (Physician’s Examination). c. 1907? 113
50    “Sanitary Police” and “Morality Police.” Caricature in Le Diable au corps (Brussels). February 25, 1894 119
51    Ferdinand Hodler. The Consecrated One. 1893–4 122
52    Carlos Schwabe. Poster for the First Salon de la Rose + Croix. 1892 123
53    Alexander Seon. Perfume of the Flowers. 1892. 124
54    Henry Peach Robinson. Fading Away. c. 1880 125
55    Jean Benner. Salome. c. 1899 131
56    Edvard Munch. Young Woman and Death. c. 1894 134
57    Hans Baldung Grien. Death and the Woman. 1518–19 135
58    Rambert. Debauchery and Luxury. 1851 139
59    Félicien Rops. Human Comedy (At the Street Corner). 1878–81 140
60    Jan Toorop. Vil Animal (Woman with Parrot). 1890 141
61    Edvard Munch. The Dance of Life. 1899–1900 143
62    Paul Gauguin. Barbarian Tales. 1902 149
63    Fernand Khnopff. Portrait of Germaine Wiener. c. 1893 156
64    James Ensor. The Tribulations of St. Anthony. 1887 157
65    “Types of Delinquents.” Plate IX of Cesare Lombroso, L’Uomo Delinquente, vol. I. Milan: Hoepli, 1876 161
66    Félicien Rops. Satan Sowing Weeds. 1879 169
67    Paul Gauguin. Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching). 1892 171
68    Fernand Khnopff. Portrait of Marguerite Khnopff. 1887 175
69    Edvard Munch. Three Stages of Women (The Sphinx). 1899 177
70    Edvard Munch. Madonna. 1895 178
71    After F. Hille, “Fifteen Cases of Twisted Umbilical Cord.” Plate LXX, Eduard Arnold Martin, Hand-Atlas der Gynäkologie und Geburtshülfe. Berlin: Hirschwald, 1881 (orig. 1862) 179
72    Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Found. 1853 181
73    Vincent Van Gogh. Sorrow. April, 1882 182
74    Fernand Khnopff. Who Shall Deliver Me? 1891 183
75    Max Klinger. Death and the Maiden (Death at the Grave). 1874/77 186
76    Max Klinger. “Into the Gutter,” from the series A Life. 1883 187
77    Max Klinger. “Awakening,” plate 8 of the series A Love. 1887 188
78    Max Klinger. “Shame,” plate 9 of the series A Love. 1887 188
79    Albert Besnard. “The Suicide.” From La Femme. c. 1886 189
80    Advertisements for midwives and abortionists. La Réforme (Brussels), July 2, 1885 193
81    Frank Holl. The Foundling. Frontispiece to The Graphic, VII (April 26, 1873) 195
82    Gustave van de Woestijne. The Two Springs. 1910. 198
83    Giovanni Segantini. Fruit of Love. 1889 199
84    Charlotte Bouten. The Poor. Drawing. Present location unknown; from Onze Kunste (Amsterdam), p. 64 204
85    Charles Maurin. Maternity. 1893 205
86    Giovanni Segantini. The Punishment of Lust. 1891 206
87    Eugene Laermans. After Fleurs de Mal. 1889 207
88    Jan Toorop. Shakaluna. 211
89    Gustav Klimt. Hope I. 1903 214
90    Albert Trachsel. Festival of Nature from Les Fêtes Réelles, 1897 215
91    Xavier Mellery. The Bedroom from The Life of Things (renamed The Soul of Things), 1889 219
92    Xavier Mellery. Kitchen Interior from The Life of Things (renamed The Soul of Things), 1889 225
93    Gustavus Arthur Bouvier. In the Morning. Three Young Ladies in an Aesthetic Interior, 1877 231
94    Gustave Doré. “Here I opened wide the door: – Darkness there and nothing more.” 1883 237
95    James Ensor. Haunted Furniture (original title: The Old Dresser) 1885 238
96    Fernand Khnopff. I Lock the Door upon Myself. 1891 239
97    Bedroom of Count de Montesquiou-Fezensec. c. 1890s 244
98    Curio Room, home of Count de Montesquiou-Fezensec. c. 1890s 245
99    James Ensor. My Favorite Room. 1892 248
100    Plan of the “Bois de Cambre” development. Illustration in La Belgique Illustrée 1891 249
101    Fernand Khnopff’s Villa, Bois de Cambre, completed 1902 251
102    The Blue Room, photograph of Fernand Khnopff’s Villa, c. 1901 252
103    Xavier Mellery. My Vestibule. Effect of the Light from The Life of Things (renamed The Soul of Things), 1889 253
104    Richard Bergh. The City Walls of Visby. 1893 259
105    Fernand Khnopff. Memories of Flanders. A Canal. 1904 261
106    William Degouve de Nuncques. The Canal. 1894 262
107    Xavier Mellery. Bruges. Triptych. Before 1907 263
108    J. Gilbert. Fêtes d’Inauguration des Ports de Bruges. 1907 269
109    Gustave Pickery. Bruges’ Awakening. 1894 270
110    Charles Rousseau. Hommage to Creators of the Port of Bruges. 1910 271
111    Gustaaf de Smet. Bruges the Dead, Bruges the Living. 1904 273


This book has taken a very long time to research and write, and I have been the beneficiary of assistance and support for this work for the past ten years. At the outset I thank all of my family, friends, and colleagues who for more than a decade of their lives have listened to my explanations, complaints, and excitement about this project, with unbelievable patience and unfailing support. I also appreciate the very helpful comments of the two Cambridge readers, and thank Beatrice Rehl for her enthusiastic support of the book at an early stage of development as well as for seeing it through all phases of production.

      Several colleagues have offered critical readings of portions of this text. Patricia Berman, Sue Canning, Reinhold Heller, Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski, Elizabeth Lee, and Sharon O’Brien all deserve my thanks for substantive and insightful critiques. In addition, I thank colleagues Sylvie Davidson, Sura Levine, Dieter Rollfinke, Robert Siebelhoff, Louis van Tilborgh, and Gerard van Wezel for sharing their expertise with me on particular questions, often on repeated occasions, with a shared sense of scholarly interest and incredible good humor.

      Initial research for this book was supported by several grants from Dickinson College as well as a research grant from the Pro Helvetia Foundation. I will be forever grateful for a residency at the Center for Advance Studies in the Visual Arts, which allowed me the time, facilities, and assistance to begin my writing. I thank the Millard Meiss Fund Grant of the College Art Association for a generous subvention grant providing the color illustrations for this book, and the Research and Development Fund as well as the Charles A. Dana Chair at Dickinson College for funding toward other reproduction costs.

      Curators, archivists, and other library and museum professionals have offered help with distance as well as on-location research for which I am most grateful, especially colleagues at the (U.S.) National Library of Medicine, Stad Brugge Secretarie and Library, Oslo Byakiv, Bibliothèque Royale de Albert 1er, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Van Gogh Museum, Munch-Museet, Schweizerisches Institute für Kunstwissenschaft, Queens University Library and Art Library, Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts Library, and the Waidner-Spahr Library of Dickinson College. I thank Hans-Jörg Heusser, Hans Lüthy, Lamia Doumato, Nina Boyd, Rozan Roberts, and Soffi Attramadal for their personal assistance in this research at these archives. I also express my appreciation to all of the collectors and owning institutions that have agreed to make available in reproduction form the Symbolist and related works illustrated here. In particular, I appreciate the assistance, above and beyond the call of their respective duties, of Maria Fernanda Meza and Julie Scaillet, who so cheerfully responded to my endless questions about collections with prompt and practical answers.

      Friends and colleagues at Dickinson College were, as usual, extraordinarily helpful. My gratitude is extended to Peter M. Lukehart; also to Bob Cavenagh, Pierce Bounds, Karen Glick, Joanne Gingrich, Stephanie Keifer; also to Tina Maresco and her Interlibrary Loan staff. My colleagues in the Art and Art History Department, Ward Davenny, Barbara Diduk, and Melinda Schlitt, deserve special mention for their unflagging support of all my research and writing, and for this project in particular. Finally, I thank my wonderful teaching and research assistants and Dana Research assistants who have, over such a long time, offered enthusiastic and much needed help with the seemingly endless details of manuscript editing and preparation: Amy Biasotto, Kathleen Clawson, Adrienne Deitch, Nora Mueller, Shannon Rutherford, Marnie Shimp, Katie Sikes, Shannon Temple, Laura Turner, and Kathy Zupulla.

      This book is dedicated to my two favorite men, Neil and Michael.


The topic of this book – the shaping of Symbolist artists by urban culture and the views of urban society in Symbolist art – proposes a point of departure for the study of Symbolist images that in the past have been read as the expression of a completely inner world of ideas and ideals. This study is not intended as a survey of Symbolist art, but rather as a reframing of Symbolist theory and of many Symbolist works in light of their references to life in the late-nineteenth-century metropolis. Because Symbolist art has traditionally been considered asocietal, and its artists asocial beings, I have used a variety of methodologies to approach the art and the artists of this movement. Some biography has been introduced, for example, in an effort to retrieve Symbolist artists from a mythology that has placed them into an esoteric, often even mystical realm disengaged from their own society. In some ways, therefore, this study is an attempt to see the Symbolist artists as more “normal” and to place their art within a timely arena of social relationships and concerns. The artists on whom this study focuses – Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Jan Toorop, Xavier Mellery, and Fernand Khnopff, and to a lesser extent Giovanni Segantini and Ferdinand Hodler – were all considered for much of their lives to be absolutely aberrant. They were labeled, by admiring and condemning critics alike, as decadent and degenerate; they were called isolated, strange, and in some cases mad. Yet their response to the detrimental aspects of the new metropolis – to which they were among the first generation exposed – is, although predictably conflicted, a measured, intelligent, and quite reasoned reaction. Although they espoused radical and liberal policies regarding art, they also exhibited numerous conservative concerns typical of their own times. Although adamantly rejecting established art that was commercial, illustrative, or technically brilliant, the Symbolists simultaneously used their own radical art to portray the most entrenched conservative views of gender and class. Of singular importance is the fact their response was neither avoidance nor complete despair. Quite the opposite, they contrived an art that would positively seek to remedy one of the city’s worst deleterious effects, one which was not on socialist activists’ list of urban ills (such as poverty, crowding, or poor air and water): the loss of the inner life of the individual.

      Only since the 1970s have studies of Impressionism offered social interpretations of works once considered to be related only in style; these have established Impressionism’s Paris as a city revamped by Baron von Haussmann to accommodate a new middle class,1 the so-called spectacle society.2 In works from the mid-1860s through the mid-1880s, Impressionist views of the societal shift that led from family to café life and from private to public sites imply a tacit acceptance of the new urbanization. In Impressionism, Paris is seen as a setting for the people who dominate it; it is the backdrop against which they are grouped as individuals, interacting with one another. Social histories have also been offered for Neo-Impressionism, suggesting that Seurat’s iconography and perhaps even his new style reflected negative opinions of this same Parisian public.3 Finally, recent studies of certain Symbolist and Art Nouveau artists in fin de siècle culture have sought to frame the art of the late nineteenth century in relation to current social discourses. These have begun to establish Symbolism’s key role as one of several movements that were deeply concerned with the complex social upheavals of their day.4

      The majority of the literature on Symbolist art, however, continues to address the “creative imagination”5 of the artists rather than the everyday society in which they lived and worked.6 It is also true that Symbolist art is rarely considered important to studies of the city. While major exhibitions and studies have focused on city views7 and included a widespread selection of various media, almost no Symbolist works have been included.8 Perhaps this is because so many studies of the late-nineteenth-century city focus on Paris, and most major Symbolists were not Parisians. Instead, with the notable exception of Gauguin and Segantini who did flee the city, they lived in other major European cities (for example, Oslo, Geneva, Ostend, and Brussels, on which this book focuses), which were at that time undergoing rebuilding as modern metropolises, in direct emulation of the model set by Haussmannian Paris.9 Exclusion of Symbolist views in city studies is also due, however, to the fact that the Symbolists are generally considered escapists – from life in general and from the city in particular – and thus it is assumed that they never addressed the new metropolises in which they lived. As I hope this study will establish, this presumption could not be further from the truth.

      This book presents a rethinking of Symbolist theory in which Symbolism is viewed as an attempt in the visual arts to attain a conduit for regaining what was perceived to be a loss of individuality and “inner being,” brought about by the wholly new social pressures and ways of living in urban centers.10 This concern became the dominant issue of fin de siècle philosophy and sociology.

      Since the Enlightenment, the ideal of a balanced, harmonious, developed character that could deal with outer pressures while maintaining an inner, spiritual life had seemingly held sway. This notion of a true individual was the basis of revolutionary constitutions and philosophical proclamations. The rise of a new society of the city, however, with its public crowds, rushed sense of time, and overregulation, threatened to be the demise of the individual, who would instead become an anonymous cog in the machine of urban progress.

      At the same time, treatment of gender differences in the nineteenth century also threatened to deny this same sense of the individual by taking the two “sides” that formed a balanced personality and separating it, with increasing stringency, into the so-called characteristics of sex, delineated as opposites for men and women. Whereas men were considered to be external types, actively working outside in a competitive business world, women were retreating, perceptive but passive figures who were relegated to domestic life. Characteristics that in the past had ideally belonged to the same individual (independence as well as dependence, intuition as well as intellect, bravery, and modesty) were over the course of the century divided and assigned to the separate spheres of men and women. This conflicted arena of distinct and repressive gender identities, as well as the confusion of the two (effeminate men and dangerous women, for example), and its repercussions in Symbolist works are discussed. Furthermore, it is readily apparent that all of the Symbolists discussed in this book are men. Despite recent efforts to enlist women artists of the fin de siècle into the ranks of Symbolism,11 this study, with its emphasis on both the theory (based on male identification of creativity) and the social goals (based on the dominant male view of gendered society at that time) focuses exclusively on well-known (and therefore male) artists. The fear of women on the part of these male artists resulted in the imaging of specific types of women, such as the well-known femme fatale as well as the not-yet-addressed city woman who engaged in a “flight from maternity” (a type that I here term the “should-be mother”). These types of women, newly recognized as dangerous and on the rise in urban centers, required complicated reconstructions of both masculinity and femininity on the part of the artists as well as their audience.

      In addition, I hint at issues of nationalism throughout the book without making them a major emphasis. At times, the role of nostalgia and the past so important for Symbolists coincided with a surge of nationalistic fervor encouraged politically by imperialism and culturally by the phenomenon of World’s Fairs. Thus the Belgians’ attention to primacy of place and especially siting of interiors has been seen as a nationalistically driven selection of symbols.12 In the last chapter of this book, I discuss a novel by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach; underlying this story is a strong commitment to keeping the old Flanders city of Bruges “intact,” not only as a “dead city” of Symbolist spaces but also as a reminder of past Flemish (as opposed to French) Belgian glory. By the same token, Swiss artists discussed here, such as Hodler and Albert Trachsel, allowed nationalistic considerations to affect their attention to city (at times deliberately antiurban) images and even their development of style.

      Concurrent with these pan-cultural issues was one that struck each Symbolist personally: living in the “sick city” was a challenge that affected one’s response to crowds, nature, body types, and even, as we shall see, self-image. Late-nineteenth-century constructions of illness combined notions of historic epidemics (cholera, for example) with newly recognized and public diseases (syphilis), recent psychological diagnoses (agoraphobia, claustrophobia), as well as socially constructed pathologies (neurasthenia) that engendered a model of cultural sickness, called degeneration. Furthermore, this notion of an entire race in decline held a special fascination for the Symbolists because both they and their art had been held out as examples of degeneracy in their own time.

      Finally, the sensorial world – to which artists are so attuned – had changed radically in the metropolis of the fin de siècle. City streets, the new site of the bourgeoisie and “the crowd,” were a tangle of electric and telegraph wires, garish lights, and jarringly loud, alarmingly fast trams. Mapping the city had become almost impossible from any vantage point, but especially from street level, where the usual hierarchies and order of signage had been dislocated, even deconstructed. Not only this disruptive sense of place but also the irregular and disorienting sense of time assaulted the Symbolists, changing their traditional approaches to space and temporal reconstruction in art as well as in their lives.

      Into this confusing, conflicted world of the modern metropolis were born the Symbolists. Of primarily middle-class parentage, they approached the problems of their native cities – overcrowding and overstimulation, impersonality, as well as the slippage of gender roles and class identities – with intelligence and creativity. Throughout, they remained very much of their own time. It is no wonder that this approach to modernity was highly equivocal, but absolutely engaged.

      In this book, I introduce evidence from a variety of sources – visual and written, popular and scholarly – and from a variety of disciplines. This is not because I have presumed each of these to be analogous or even equally significant or weighty in their evidential support, but rather to show the ubiquity of the concerns discussed in all ramifications of society in which the Symbolists lived. Each chapter focuses on a different artist and on selected works. All of my examples were admittedly chosen as the best representatives of each chapter’s theme arising out of the Symbolist city, but they are representative nonetheless. There is also a certain emphasis on the “great masterworks” of western European Symbolism, works that have often been interpreted (some might contend overinterpreted) in prior literature. But this is my point: many of these works do have a strong historical background of life in the metropolis, which only augments the richness of their Symbolist evocations as they might already be known.

      As a primary perception of these transitional and conflicted times, I use the writings and ideas of Georg Simmel, one of the earliest urban sociologists. Simmel, whose work has become much more well known in humanities studies of the past few years (and, in fact, since I began research for this book), was a crucial member of the turn-of-the-century generation of intellectuals who took on the task of trying to culminate the thought developed throughout the nineteenth century but also to formulate clear and different directions for the future. Reviewing the basic optimism that underlay most nineteenth-century progressivism, this generation introduced a strong subtext of pessimism as it faced the negative aftereffects of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time that they rejected positivism and progressivism, however, they were not yet ready to give up on individualism: a great part of their work was devoted to the analysis of modernity’s struggle with individuation. In his particularly sensitive and astute understanding of this struggle as well as in his underlying optimism about its resolution in future society, Simmel was, I believe, closest to the basic beliefs and ideals of the Symbolists. Like the Symbolists, Simmel clearly saw the dangers of urbanity, modernity, and the crowd; like the Symbolists, he also maintained, despite such threats, a belief in the potential for a new urban individuality, and the consequential inner identity that might be achieved. Like the Symbolists, Simmel was a thoroughly modern, at times biting, critic of his own time who nonetheless hoped to restore meaning to society and culture. Furthermore, as one of the most insightful of the Symbolists’ generation, Simmel was also bound by the same inherent conflicts of those times: wanting to critique current life in order to help the future, he was inevitably constrained by the conservative and conflicted past that he had inherited.

      Comparison to Simmel’s search for a positive outcome to the potential ills of fin de siècle life can be found, for example, in the Belgian Symbolist Emile Verhaeren’s so-called social trilogy, two collections of poems and one play published in the 1890s that together described the destruction of the traditional country (Les Campagnes hallucinées, or The Hallucinatory Countrysides, 1893), the strangling metropolis (Les Villes tentaculaires, or The Tentacled Cities, 1895), and the hoped-for resolution of Les Aubes, or The Dawns, 1898. Despite the overarching imagery in these works of a wicked city spreading its dark and dirty factories as tentacles throughout the countryside, Verhaeren’s hope for a healthier future is not a reversion to the rural past nor an acceptance of an inevitably evil metropolitan existence. Rather, his conclusion comes in the form of a compromise, whereby the country can once again prove fertile, while the city can regain its vitality. Like so many other Symbolists who are horrified by the suffocating power of machines and the masses, Verhaeren does not so much reject modernity as seek to reform it.13

      Thus Simmel and his intellectual cohorts have been identified as heroic in their efforts to be so inclusive yet frustrated in their final efforts, their deliberate universalism failing; but in its attempt they “pav[ed] the way intellectually for the dispersed and specialized thought of the twentieth century.”14 Intriguingly, much the same criticism has been leveled at Symbolism, the universalism and idealism of which immediately identifies its inherent conservatism.

      As I demonstrate in this study, the Symbolists were in an ideal situation to take this problem of modernity to task for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of their self-determined “outsider” status in society. In this respect also, they relate to Simmel, who identified a new notion of “The Stranger” in his essay of that title.15 According to Simmel, being the stranger allows for an objectivity that is special – and implicitly balanced – because the stranger shares enough in common to be informed yet will always remain separate from that being observed. Simmel, like the Symbolists, proposed this “stranger” as a fin de siècle replacement for the earlier flaneur, who always remained one of the observed crowd. Simmel himself, it should be noted, was also a “stranger” in Berlin at the very time he was making the groundbreaking observations about the new metropolitan society: as a Jew, he lived there, belonged there, and yet was always separate. It is significant that in his essay Simmel ends by noting that what stands out about the stranger is what is not common, and that therefore the stranger is always seen as a subgroup rather than as an individual. His example is the Jews of the Middle Ages who, relegated to and punished as a subnormal group, were taxed as Jews rather than being taxed on an income and property basis like everyone else. His point thus seems to be that the stranger, like those medieval Jews, is in an excellent position as one of a group already “set aside” from his society to be the perfect knowing yet outside observer of his own society.16 As noted earlier, this kind of isolated or even outcast designation was also applied to the Symbolists. Furthermore, Symbolist artists often began their work as decadents, who perceived themselves to be different from the crowd and who produced images imbued with the highly personal, idiosyncratic vision of the hypersensitive outsider. This made them “strangers” who were better able to witness and reflect on the complex strife – what Munch called “Life Anxiety”– of the city. Symbolists shared not only this identification of the outsider seer with Simmel; they also believed as he did in the potential good of the city’s impersonal behavioral codes, if only it could allow for private, inner strengthening of the individual. For Simmel and the Symbolists, critique of current society was undertaken to contribute to the great tradition of seeking the meaning of life.17 For Simmel, this purpose led from sociological analysis to philosophy; for the Symbolists it grew from the experience of modernity to evocative works of art.

      My comparisons to literature in this study focus on three books that might serve as motifs throughout; these are introduced in the next chapter. Although it is likely that some of the artists knew of or actually read at least some of these books, I do not want to limit myself with these examples to what historians Norman Bryson and Mieke Bal have termed “humanist” scholarship, by which every historical link between an artist and his or her sources is established or at least suggested.18 Rather, I use these literary discussions of the city in the same way that I use Simmel’s sociological analyses: as sensitive critical perceptions that tell us how the new metropolis was viewed at this time and offer insight into the intellectual and emotional reactions of the Symbolist artists.

      The survey in the next five chapters focuses on major issues of urban society in the late nineteenth century: city society as “crowd,” the loss of order and structure in the city, disease, and the city woman. The last two chapters investigate two of the favorite Symbolist retreats from these concerns: interiors and the dream of an ideal city (neither of which, ironically, would prove viable). I analyze only a few of the hundreds of appropriate Symbolist works (and limit them, in this study, to mostly two-dimensional examples) in which these issues are addressed.

      Finally, I have not attempted an in-depth analysis of certain aspects of late-nineteenth-century life that were critical, if deeply conflicted; recent publications have addressed two of these. Patricia Mathews’s Passionate Discontent, about theories of creativity and gender in French Symbolist art, offers a much-needed elucidation of the complicated notions of artistic genius, especially as critiqued by French artists and writers. She also introduces the possibility of women artists who, despite the masculine basis and bias of the movement, “did what they could” within the Symbolist aesthetic.19

      In addition, there is the issue of Symbolist artists’ religious backgrounds and beliefs. We know, for example, that Munch’s view of society was partially informed by his father’s austere interpretation of biblical text. His psychological and perhaps also his visual interpretation of the newly public and seemingly liberated fin de siècle society that he witnessed was certainly influenced by the clash of his father’s strict Protestantism with the bohemian antireligious tenets of the fellow decadent artists who he encountered in Berlin and Paris. Jan Toorop’s oscillation between his Dutch Protestant background and the Neo-Catholic revivals of Parisian art finds its reflection in the inconsistent visual references to religion that were only partially resolved by his belief that all faith was in decline. The excellent recent study by Debora Silverman, offering an extended comparison of the diametrically opposite training and views of religion between the Dutch Protestant “modern theology” of Van Gogh and the lapsed, spiritualizing Catholicism of Gauguin, has contributed fresh understandings of their works, including their visualization of each religious mode of thought in their different styles and techniques.20 A recent study by historian Stephen Schloesser explores the context of nineteenth-century considerations of spiritual “wonder” (rather than institutional religion) for the work of Edvard Munch.21 I did not attempt to include personal religious backgrounds for every artist addressed in this book, however, to keep the focus of my investigation on secular societal contexts.22

      Viewing Symbolist art from the standpoint of our own “free-floating and impersonal” times, it is often the hyperbole of such art that strikes us first, and most. This assessment of postmodernism as impersonal is that of theorist Fredric Jameson, who has argued that work by modernists (and his art examples are two Symbolists, Van Gogh and Munch) represent a “waning of affect” that has now been lost. For Jameson, the Symbolists’ “age of anxiety” expressed themes of “alienation, anomie, solitude and social fragmentation and isolation” that would epitomize some of the last of the “psychopathologies of…ego,” but also represented the end of style, “in the sense of the unique and the personal.” If we now have a sense of liberation from this anxiety, in our culture and our art, he argues, it may well be because we share a “liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling.”23

      In Symbolist art, we are reintroduced to art as affect, born of fears that now appear valid, and a desperation that is now palpable. In Symbolist art, the “symptoms” of a fin de siècle societal malaise are evident, but so also is the mind-expanding and visually captivating suggestion of consolation that they offer. Faced with the real threat of metropolitan life on the future of the individual, the Symbolists sought an art that would reinstate the idea, and the ideal, of inner life to their metropolitan world. In an artistic tour de force, they used visible images of the external world to evoke an invisible interior realm. Wanting to “make visible the invisible,” they bravely, and even audaciously, turned to their own city streets.

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