Painting with Dreams, Memories, History and Myths

Sonata of the Sea--Finale by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 1908.
Sonata of the Sea–Finale by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, 1908.

One of my favorite movements in art is the Symbolist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The artists were so free in exploring what mattered to them—personal narrative, rich histories and mythologies, and even their own dreams. There was less self-consciousness about if their subject matter was valid or appropriate, and more indulgence in their artistic muse. That mindset is inspirational to me.

The work that came out of this exploration is romantic, strange at times, but most of all striking because it is something that stands alone and not something that I can say I have seen before. Here are several ways the Symbolists play with landscape painting—methods that I think could make a difference in my own work, and hopefully in yours as well.

Play with scale. Realist landscape paintings tend to be mindful of presenting an accurate sense of scale: tree to hill to river and so on. But if you play with scale—like turning an ocean wave into a mammoth ten-story tidal wave—you are turning your painting from a mere depiction to something with a keener edge.

No need to be literal. Symbolists certainly knew how to create straightforward depictions in their landscape art but chose not to be literal for the sake of the story they wanted to present. Fantin-LaTour’s Le Soir shows three female figures bathing on the rocky shore of a misty coast. This place could be anywhere, and the artist left it that way because the details of the location were not the point. The landscape was a jumping off point for the narrative.

Le Soir by Henri Fantin-Latour. Broek in Waterland by Jan Toorop, 1889.
Le Soir by Henri Fantin-Latour. Broek in Waterland by Jan Toorop, 1889.

Water painting is key. Water—still waters, moving waters—is highly symbolic throughout Western literature and art. The Symbolists presented water in various ways—altering its color, playing with how light reflects on it, making it seem almost airy like a mist or fog—and sometimes positioned a river or stream in a way that seemed natural and highly unnatural all at once.

No matter if I am painting a landscape that I’ve invented in my mind like the Symbolists or one that I can stand right in front of, I want to know how to tackle certain landscape painting techniques so that I can do both successfully. I  find that kind of art instruction for landscape and cityscape painting with my subscriptions to The Artist’s Magazine, Watercolor Artist, and more. And all of the tips and new artists I am introduced to in the pages of each magazine issue inspire me when I am in the studio, delving into what can be explored through the narratives I use when painting landscapes of my own. I hope it is the same for you! Enjoy your subscriptions.


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

One thought on “Painting with Dreams, Memories, History and Myths

  1. It’s so nice of you to post a picture by my favorite painter and composer M.K. Ciurlionis!!! “Sonata of the Sea” (Finale) is not just a picture – he also wrote the sonata, a really lovely piece of music! All his pictures have their musical “twins”. And in this particular picture you can easily identify his initials – MKC in the foam of the wave – what a way to sign one’s picture!
    Thank you!