Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2021

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Art History & Archaeology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Focusing on the art and writings of Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and Odilon Redon, this dissertation examines the significance of a decorative aesthetic for symbolist visual art. Symbolism’s search for a visual language apt for rendering the unseen realms of ideas and emotions was predicated on the artistic principle of suggestion, rather than naturalistic description. Promoters of symbolism thereby called for a devaluation of the illusionistic and mimetic conventions of naturalism, instead elevating a seemingly more expressive deformation, which became coded as decorative in contemporary theory and criticism. This decorative aesthetic, understood as a mark of an artist’s liberated imagination, was in turn crucially endowed with the ability to reach a viewer’s emotions and even provoke imaginative perception. It was therefore fundamental to the distinctly participatory creation of meaning proposed by symbolist artworks. The first chapter establishes the development of a decorative aesthetic within impressionist art and criticism. Chapter 2 examines how the decorative was then revalued by symbolist artists and critics in the early 1890s. Bringing together the artistic philosophies of Gauguin, Redon, and Denis, as well as the writings of aesthetic theorist Charles Blanc, philosopher Paul Souriau, and psychologist Théodule-Armand Ribot, the third chapter examines the symbolist potentials of the decorative as a representational mode crucially associated with the imagination. Chapter 4 proposes intermediality as a defining characteristic of the symbolist decorative aesthetic, exploring the essential ways in which symbolist paintings invoked carpets, tapestries, and stained glass in their “remediation” of easel painting. The fifth chapter addresses the significant points of theoretical convergence between the decorative and music for symbolist theory. An epilogue looks beyond the 1890s to select legacies of the symbolist decorative aesthetic in twentieth-century modernist discourses.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Elizabeth C. Childs

Committee Members

Gloria L. Groom, John Klein, Angela Miller, William E. Wallace,

Available for download on Tuesday, August 19, 2031