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Symbolism is the portrayal of an object or figure that takes on religious significance, such as a lamb that is painted to portray Christ's sacrifice. Some of the Symbolist painters included Puvis de Chavannes, Moreau and Redon; the principle sculptors were Gauguin and Rodin. The movement started about 1884. Arthur Rimbaud and Vincent van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1885 and made their break with Impressionism as they started Neo Impressionism and its' opposite movement, Symbolism. Various documents were published and beginning in 1886, such as "a Pleiade", "La Decadent", "La Vougue", and :"Le Symbolieste".

The literary Symbolist movement was started at the same time as the artistic movement. Symbolist writers included Jean Moreas, Stephane Mallarme, Paul Verlaine, Henri Bergson and Edouard Schure. In an article appearing in 1891 by critic Albert Aurier, the elements of symbolism were defined. According to Aurier, "The work of art must be:

1. Ideist, since its only goal will be the expression of the idea;

2. Symbolist, since it will express the idea in forms;

3. Synthetic, since it will transcribe the forms in a mode of general comprehension;

4. Subjective, since the object will never be considered in it as an object, but as the sign of the idea perceived by the subject;

5. (as a consequence) Decorative, for decorative painting properly so-called, as the Egyptians and very likely the Greeks and the Primitives conceived it, is nothing but a manifestation of an art that is at once subjective, synthetic, symbolist, and Ideist."

Symbolism was not as much a school, as it was an attitude and an environment. The Symbolists were further divided into four kinds, according to Andre Mellerio, who wrote "The Idealist Movement in Painting" in 1896: the four groups were the "Chromo-Luminarists", the "Neo Impressionists", the "Synthetists", and the "Mystics".

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