The Symbolist Impulse in American Art across Media circa 1900
Eron, Abby Rebecca
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This dissertation analyzes the Symbolist movement in American art in the years around 1900. Symbolism was an antinaturalistic tendency that prioritized imagination and the intangible psychological realm. A reaction against Realism (and Impressionism, considered Realism’s logical extension), Symbolist art appears otherworldly, fantastic, and obscure. Works gravitate towards shared themes—the femme fatale and femme fragile, dreams, the duality of life and death, anguish, and mystical visions. Symbolism was not an organized movement in the sense of artists’ membership in a particular association but rather a trend in literary, artistic, and intellectual circles. While Symbolism has generally been considered from a European perspective, this dissertation describes a vital Symbolist impulse in American art through an evaluation of works by four artists: Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934), Alice Pike Barney (1857–1931), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), and George Grey Barnard (1863–1938). Each specialized in a different medium: photography, pastel, painting, and sculpture, respectively. This dissertation attends to surface and technique, and it argues that the animating tension of Symbolism lies in the relationship between the material and the immaterial. Alongside imagery and historical context, the dynamism of materiality and immateriality points to the evanescent yet undeniable presence of Symbolism in the United States. Though Käsebier, Barney, Tanner, and Barnard worked independently of each other, grouping them allows for a comparative analysis across media and enables contextualization beyond solo biographical accounts.