Decadent movement

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Félicien Rops, Pornokratès, 1878
A Decadent Girl, by Ramón Casas, 1899

The Decadent movement was a late 19th-century artistic and literary movement of Western Europe that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality. The first to coin the term was Théophile Gautier in his 1868 preface to Charles Baudelaire's collection of poems Les Fleurs du mal. However, the visual artist Félicien Rops's work and Joris-Karl Huysmans's novel Against Nature (1884) are considered the prime examples of the Decadent movement, that went on to flourish in France and throughout Europe, as well as in the United States.[1]


Decadence was the name given, originally by hostile critics, to several late nineteenth-century writers who valued artifice more than the earlier Romantics' naïve descriptions. Some of them adopted the name, referring to themselves as "Decadents". For the most part, they were influenced by the tradition of Gothic novels and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and were associated with Symbolism and/or Aestheticism.[2][3][4]

This concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from Montesquieu, and was adopted by critics as a term of abuse after Désiré Nisard used it against Victor Hugo and Romanticism in general. A later generation of Romantics, such as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire used the word proudly, to represent their rejection of what they considered banal "progress."[5] During the 1880s a group of French writers referred to themselves as Decadents. The classic novel from this group is Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature (1884), often considered the first great decadent work, though others attribute this honour to Baudelaire's works.[6] Prominent scholars of Decadence, such as David Weir, now regard Decadence as a transition between Romanticism and Modernism.[4]

In Britain, the leading figures associated with the Decadent movement were Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and some artists and writers associated with The Yellow Book. In the United States, the brothers Edgar and Francis Saltus wrote decadent fiction and poetry.

Symbolism has often been confused with Decadence. Several young writers were referred to derisively in the press as "decadent" during the mid-1880s. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Jean Moréas' manifesto on Symbolism was largely a response to this polemic.

Distinction from Symbolism[edit]

In a Stanford University website guide to a course, a blog post offers the following differences between Symbolism and Decadence:

While Symbolism uses extensive natural imagery as a means to elevate the viewer to a plane higher than banal reality, Decadence even goes so far as to belittle nature in the name of artistry. In Huysmans’ Against Nature novel, for instance, the main character Des Esseintes says: “There is not one single invention of (Nature’s), however subtle or impressive it may be thought to be, that the human spirit cannot create; There is no doubt whatsoever that this eternally self-replicating old fool has now exhausted the good-natured admiration of all true artists, and the moment has come to replace her, as far as that can be achieved, with artifice.”

Decadence also views books, poetry, and art itself as the creators of worlds that don’t exist in reality, thus the allegory of decadent Wilde’s Dorian Gray being poisoned by a book like a drug. In contrast, Symbolism treats language and meaning in imagery as extremely lacking, and as devices that can only therefore approximate and merely evoke complex emotions and superior ideas that the mind can think. In the words of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, “languages are imperfect in that although there are many, the supreme one is lacking.”

And while Symbolism has its eyes on this Greater Purpose or on the Ideal, Decadence despises such concerns. The heroes of Decadent novels, for instance, have the unquenchable accumulation of luxuries and pleasure, often exotic, as their goal, while Symbolist purpose has its focus on dreams. In Mallarme’s poem “Apparition”, for instance, the word “dreaming” appears twice, followed by “Dream” itself with a capital D. In “The Windows,” he speaks of this decadent disgust of contentment with comfort and an endless desire for the exotic. He writes: “So filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous, sprawled in comforts where his hungering is fed.” Symbolism has its own discontent, but is of the spiritual kind.

In this continuing search for the spiritual, therefore, Symbolism has been predisposed to concern itself with purity and beauty and such mysterious imagery as those of fairies. In contrast, Decadence would have space in its search for thrills for even the gory and the shocking. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, decadent Gustave Flaubert describes Saint Anthony’s pleasure from watching disturbing scenes of horror.

Ultimately, Decadence as a whole is an accumulation of signs or descriptions acting as detailed catalogues of human material riches as well as artifice. Symbolism, meanwhile, is an accumulation of “symbols” that are there not to present their content but to evoke greater ideas that their symbolism cannot expressly utter.[7]


Max Nordau wrote a bestselling attack on the movement titled Degeneration (1892). Meanwhile, Mario Praz's 1933-published detailed study of the movement titled The Romantic Agony attracted wide attention during its time and beyond.

Artists and writers[edit]


  1. ^ Dictionary of Critical Theory - Oxford Reference, pp.113-114
  2. ^ Philip Stephan (1974). Paul Verlaine and the Decadence, 1882-90. Manchester University Press ND. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-7190-0562-6. Retrieved 16 April 2012. 
  3. ^ A Chronology, retrieved December 24, 2009
  4. ^ a b David Weir (1995). Decadence and the Making of Modernism. Univ of Massachusetts Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-87023-992-2. Retrieved 16 April 2012. 
  5. ^ Remy de Gourmont (1994). An anthology of French symbolist & decadent writing. Atlas Press. p. 12. ISBN 0947757813. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  6. ^ Baudelaire and the Decadent Movement by Paul Bourget, retrieved December 24, 2009
  7. ^ "The Differences between Symbolism and Decadence". Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents. 2014-03-03. Retrieved 2017-01-23.