Symbolism began as a reaction to the literal representation of subjects preferring to create more suggestive and evocative works. It had its roots in literature with poets such as Baudelaire believing ideas and emotions could be conveyed not only through the meaning of words but also in their sound and rhythm.

The styles of the Symbolist painters varied considerably, but they shared many of the same themes particularly a fascination with the mystical and the visionary. The erotic, the perverse, death and debauchery were also regular interests for the Symbolists. The leading figures of the movement included the two French men, Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin, but Symbolism was not limited to France with other practitioners including the Norwegian Edvard Munch, the Austrian Gustav Klimt and the British Aubrey Beardsley.

The movement also known as Synthetism flourished from around 1885 and continued until 1910. It was an important move away from the naturalism of the Impressionists and showed a preference for feeling over intellectualism. A number of sculptors were also involved including the Belgian Georg Minne and the Norwegian Gustav Vigeland. In Symbolism's faith in the power of expressivity possible in a colour or a line, the movement is crucial in understanding the development of the abstract arts in the 20th century.