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  • Writer's picturemadeline bobo

Symbolism: An Interview with Madeline Bobo

From: Unending Emanation LinkedIn Post Published on July 7, 2021


"Symbolism is a movement that can be hard to place within parameters, as it is found across disciplines. Painters, writers, and designers all began emphasizing the use of symbols within their work during la Belle Époque. To contextualize this movement within la Belle Époque, we spoke with our Artistic Director, Madeline.


Can you tell me a bit about your background and how it has enabled you to contribute to this project?


I studied as an artist in undergrad at the University of Northern Colorado working in installation and performance work. I was a multi-disciplinary artist and enjoyed distilling everything around me into their basic forms: colors, shapes, and lines. I was able to curate two exhibitions and studied abroad in Florence, Italy in 2018 where I painted landscapes and drew nudes for a semester. I fell in love with Europe and decided to come back for my graduate studies, but this time with a new approach to art from a business angle and an emphasis on luxury.

My background as an artist has allowed me to contribute to this project as I can understand the struggles and triumphs of being an artist and I want to be able to show the world a story through a collection of works. Most of my previous artworks were based on impactful experiences of my personal life and I want to be able to allow people from all backgrounds to be able to step into a space and feel accepted by what they are viewing.

Being a part of an international team has been so lovely, as I have been back and forth from Europe since 2017 and meeting amazing people along the way. I have learned a lot about the world through new perspectives and gained an understanding of other cultures and lifestyles other than my own. With this project, I find it unique that all of us came to Paris with a completely different background but found a connection here through our studies.


You seem to be drawn to the role of symbols during la Belle Époque. Can you give us a brief overview of how they influenced social spaces during this time period?

Symbols during la Belle Epoque became redefined as artists were in the process of deconstructing the current order and style that aligned with the applied and fine arts. They wanted to create a ‘new art’ that led to the movement of Art Nouveau, bringing modernity and elegance together in design. In the end, it was the work done by decorators and painters that was displayed in a decorative sense; they wanted to make art available to the masses.


The artistic thinking changed at the turn of the century and people began to examine their character while creating works that implied social criticism. Symbolism was simultaneous movement occurring at the same time that focused on communicating their ideas through symbols, rather than directly representing reality. It was a reaction to the art movements that happened just before la Belle Epoque (Impressionism, Naturalism, and Realism) that depicted the natural world in a more realistic manner. One of my favorite paintings at the moment is by Symbolism artist Alphonse Osbert, Soir Antique, from 1908 and is now in the Petit Palais in Paris. The essence and colorful mood of the painting brings me back to Greece in a dream-like state that allows me to appreciate the stillness of life and celebrating moments of solidarity and beauty.

There was a fascination with line and ornamentation that was apparent in the artworks being created at the time as well as with the decoration of women. Women as individuals were seen as “mobile works of art,” which was an idea that related to buying into ‘experience culture.’



Lily 1898, Rose 1898, Iris 1898, Alphonse Mucha

Some particular symbols that come to mind when thinking about la Belle Époque are women, flowers, and light, all of which all overlap in one form or another. There is a very strong inspiration coming from nature and incorporating it into artworks, decoration, and architecture by stylizing and creating forms to mimic similar organic movements.

In an atmosphere of symbolic refinements, these particular embodiments of women were celebrated by artists. Women and flowers can be seen together in the social atmosphere associated with the café society as well in the Art Nouveau graphic posters. When floral compositions can evoke grace and eroticism side by side, it usually suggests the presence of a woman. In Mucha’s works, we can see the fluidity between the woman and the flowers, and the subtle eroticism implied through the closeness of the flowers and the playfulness of the curvy lines; one of my favorite pieces by him is Lily from 1898. Flowers on their own stand as symbols representing different emotions and when outlining a woman, even more implications surround the meaning of the flower and the composition as a whole.

Irises, lilies, roses, and orchids were popular as they are connected to luxury and high society in the late 19th century. Orchids particularly were seen as a rare gem; they were “a badge of wealth and refinement and worldliness.” It was said that orchids were also used as gifts or social cues for courtesans and their clients to make an arrangement in a social setting, such as a café like Maxim’s.

At this time, women were also beginning to have more freedoms and opportunities, leading them to seek more control of their lives in an independent manner. The story of the courtesan is one to be mentioned in order to understand some of the underlying symbolic meaning behind light and flowers.

Cocottes, Paris-based courtesans, otherwise known as prostitutes of elite status and wealth based on her upper-class clients, were seen as legendary and powerful beauties. Some would step into the light after the sunset in order to allow themselves to be on display for potential clients. Light is important as it was progressing in development from gas lighting (1870’s and 1880’s popularity) to electric light in 1879. These women were viewed as a symbol of the time as they were inspirational in their own way – they made a living for themselves; they determined the fashion of the time, were seen as a muse of many artists and paved a path for women’s liberation.


Do you see any echoes of these symbols in Paris today? Do they represent the same thing or have they evolved?

I think the importance of flowers still remains today as the floral industry remains a sacred profession and craft within the city. I do not think they represent the same thing on the surface level, but when used in an artistic manner, I think they can imply similar notions of the era.

As far as light, the development has advanced, which allowed for progression in gallery lighting and display of artworks. With regard to the women standing under the light as glorified beauties, I am not so sure that remains the same.

Women continue to remain powerful and are the muse for many artists as I would see it. The empowerment seems to carry on as society changes. The courtesans were the group that helped to shape female sexuality and I think that it still present in today’s world as the mindset around sex keeps evolving.


Which symbol from la Belle Époque is your favorite or do you identify with?

The first thing I think of when asked this question is the lily. I have always found a connection with the white lily, even before beginning this project. I think all this time researching and connecting to the time period has allowed me to gain a stronger appreciation for their beauty and their deep connection to luxury. The artworks from this time period always excite me when I see the floral elements – they seem to add this whimsical perception and protection over the women they typically surround."


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