Symbolism refers to an artistic movement in painting and sculpture at the end of the 19th century, in which very different styles are represented. Its heyday was between about 1880 and 1910.
Décadence, which attempted to artistically accompany the decay and decline of an epoch and to find its salvation in overly pointed sensualism, is often seen as the mode of play of Symbolism. Other Symbolists, on the other hand, emphasise precisely the unconsumed natural (such as the early primitivist works of Paul Gauguin) or the fact that the world of man-made objects points beyond their individual lives. In general, the subjective imagination or abstract thought dominates in the picture as opposed to the sensual perception of the moment or the precise observation of nature. Richard Hamann and Jost Hermand see an important characteristic of Symbolism in the fact that it rises above mere "material realities" and refers to an idealistic "supra-individual ought", whereby the symbols often remain blurred in their ambiguity. Symbolism is "on the front line against Impressionism" and the "slide into an unattached epicureanism", against the "individualistic and historically eclectic"; it is often characterised by a greater will to style.
Symbolism is not a particular style; it uses a wide variety of stylistic devices from academic realist painting to Art Nouveau. Like the latter, Symbolism is considered a link between the preceding Impressionism and the subsequent Expressionism. In addition, Symbolists are also referred to as precursors of the Surrealists.