Songs of the night

Songs of the night

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Title: Songs of the night.

Author : OSBERT Alphonse (1857 - 1939)

Creation date : 1896

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 77 - Width 124

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

Picture reference: 91-000974-02 / RF1992-48

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

Publication date: March 2008

Historical context

At the end of the XIXe century, many artists intend to react against the realism and uncertainties of a changing world, and against a naturalistic art deprived of ideal. This desire to break with naturalism and triumphant materialism gave birth to the Symbolist movement which affected all countries and all areas of artistic creation from 1880.

Born in Paris in 1857, Alphonse Osbert is one of the representative figures of the Symbolist movement. Appreciated by critics and supported by the newspaper Feather, Osbert is now recognized as one of the foremost Symbolist painters. Supported by the State, he received important public commissions: he carried out, among other things, the decoration of the great hall of the Vichy spa establishment in 1904 - two wall paintings entitled " Source " and " The bath " which owe much to the influence of Puvis de Chavanne -, and, between 1911 and 1913, the decor of the hall of the town hall of Bourg-la-Reine.

Image Analysis

With Songs of the Night, which he painted in 1896, Alphonse Osbert produced one of the many monochrome landscapes of which he made a specialty. In a nocturnal nature, soberly lit by the diffuse glow of the moon and misty with blue, characters evolve with imprecise and ghostly outlines.

In this unmistakably Symbolist work, the artist already manifests his desire for independence and his refusal to follow the evolving course of the art of his contemporaries, in favor of unfailing loyalty to his metaphysical vision of artistic expression. In it, he affirms a monochromy prefiguring many modern painters: his blue joins the celebrity of "Klein blue" of which he is not unworthy. The flatness, the practice of geometry and essential lines - horizontal and vertical -, the simplified treatment of the human figure, participate in an ideal and spiritualized vision of nature.

Alphonse Osbert asserts himself here as a strong and original artistic personality in an era dominated by materialism.


In French painting of the second half of the XIXe century, the desire to break with the realism of Gustave Courbet or Gustave Caillebotte gave birth to various artistic currents, in particular the Nabis and the painters of Pont-Aven, creators attached to the symbolism of colors, anxious to experiment the shape and its decorative aspect. Idealist symbolism, which Alphonse Osbert claims to be, is another current that brings together artists wishing to associate plastic research with a spiritual message. Individualists above all, these painters nevertheless participated in circles of thought and action, notably the Salons de la Rose-Croix, organized from 1892 to 1897 by the writer and occultist Joséphin Péladan, and the exhibition of "Painters of the Soul" initiated by the journal Art and Life in 1896.

Idealistic symbolism speaks to the mind, to the imagination, not to the gaze. Beyond appearances, the artist evokes an ideal world and favors the expression of moods or dreams. He describes the real world using metaphorical expressions and drawing his inspiration from ancient or Germanic mythologies, medieval or Renaissance art, symbols of an era of sacred art. Often unconsciously, the Symbolists influenced the art of the 20th centurye century: they announced Art Nouveau and carried the seeds of modernity.

  • Salon of the Rose-Croix
  • symbolism
  • campaign
  • Puvis de Chavannes (Pierre)
  • Seurat (Georges)
  • Nabis


Véronique DUMAS, The Symbolist painter Alphonse Osbert (1857-1939), C.N.R.S. Editions, Paris, 2005.

Philippe JULLIAN, The Symbolists, Neuchâtel and Paris, Ides et Calendes, the Library of the arts, 1973.

To cite this article

Alain GALOIN, "The Chants of the Night"


  • Symbolism: A late 19th century literary and artistic movement whose followers preferred the evocation of the spirit world to the description of reality.
  • Symbolists: Poets first and then painters, of the last quarter of the 19th century, who reject modern naturalism and positivism. They put thought and imagination back at the heart of creation.

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