Document Type


Date of Degree


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Art History

First Advisor

Dorothy Johnson


Rebellion against traditional aesthetics to express personal symbols and dreamlike visions connects the nineteenth-century Symbolists with the twentieth-century Surrealists. Yet the techniques of automatic writing and drawing to pursue self-discovery and the unconscious mind's inherent creativity remain primarily associated with Surrealism, and the extent to which this later movement's irrational content was inspired by Symbolist predecessors such as Gustave Moreau and Paul Gauguin remains uncertain. This dissertation explores the nineteenth-century psychological theories and occult beliefs behind automatism and the unconscious from the late Romantic to the Surrealist movements.

The first chapter addresses how Romantic revolutions in art and psychology respond to theories such as mesmerism, spiritism, and the "discovery" of the unconscious, and the later impact of these developments on Symbolism. The second chapter analyzes Victor Hugo's séances and "spirit" drawings in the 1850s as early examples of automatism that influenced Symbolism and Surrealism. The following chapter expands this research to include the impact of psychology and spiritism on the Symbolist movement's esoteric subjects and increasingly abstract style. Sickened by their materialistic society and with Naturalism's attention to the physical world, the Symbolists may have attempted to release conscious control over their designs to pursue a higher reality and express the inner states and emotions that emerge during dreams and hypnosis.

Although current art historical scholarship acknowledges basic connections between the Symbolists' visionary compositions and Surrealist concepts of the unconscious, the psychological and supernatural aspects of how Symbolist art transitions from dreamlike yet representative imagery towards pure abstraction and automatism merit further investigation, which I address in the final chapter. This research offers new perspectives on how the psychology of dreams and the unconscious evolved from an interest of Romantic and Symbolist artists to the ultimate revelation of individual creativity and expression in Surrealist automatism.

The primary visual sources include nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century paintings; artistic, "spirit," and some scientific photographs, and artist's prints, collages, and drawings. Both consciously-created and allegedly automatic artistic productions, such as Gustave Moreau's abstract oil paintings and watercolors, reveal the development of surreal and automatic techniques and allow insight into the artists' intentions. This study divulges previously overlooked influences of painters, printmakers, photographers, critics, writers, and poets on their own era's cultural and intellectual milieu and on the aesthetic movements that followed. The conclusion offers suggestions for further research beyond the project's current scope, such as analyzing how automatism and mythology in early modern art culminated in the calligraphic, shamanistic imagery of Abstract Expressionism.


xvi, 341 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 324-341).


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Copyright 2012 Alice Miller Phillips