Symbolism was a late nineteenth-century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. In literature, the movement had its roots in Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, which Baudelaire greatly admired and translated into French, were a significant influence and the source of many stock tropes and images. The aesthetic was developed by Stephane Mallarme and Paul Verlaine during the 1860s and 1870s. In the 1880s, the aesthetic was articulated through a series of manifestoes and attracted a generation of writers. The label "symbolist" itself comes from the critic Jean Moreas, who coined it in order to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadent movement in literature and art.
Distinct from, but related to, the movement in literature, symbolism in art represents an outgrowth of the darker, gothic side of Romanticism, but where Romanticism was impetuous and rebellious, symbolist art was static and hieratic.
Symbolism was largely a reaction against naturalism and realism, anti-idealistic movements which attempted to capture reality in its gritty particularity, and to elevate the humble and the ordinary over the ideal. These movements invited a reaction in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams, the path to symbolism began with that reaction. Some writers, such asJoris-Karl Huysmans, began as naturalists before moving in the direction of symbolism, for Huysmans, this change reflected his awakening interest in religion and spirituality. On the other hand, certain of the characteristic subjects of the decadents reflect naturalist interest in sexuality and sordid subjects, but in their case this was mixed with a stiff dose of Byronic Romanticism and the world-weariness characteristic of the fin de siecle.
Not so much a style of art, Symbolism was more an international ideological trend. Symbolists believed that art should apprehend more absolute truths which could only be accessed indirectly. Thus, they painted scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner. They provided particular images or objects with esoteric attractions.
There were several, rather dissimilar, groups of Symbolist painters and visual artists. Symbolism in painting had a large geographical reach, reaching several Russian artists, as well as American. The closest to Symbolism was Aestheticism. The Pre-Raphaelites, also, were contemporaries of the earlier Symbolists, and have much in common with them. Symbolism had a significant influence on Expressionism and Surrealism, two movements which descend directly from Symbolism proper. The work of some Symbolist visual artists directly impacted the curvilinear forms of the contemporary Art Nouveau movements in Europe and Les Nabis.