Fin-de-siècle Paris was a time and place of political upheaval and cultural transformation, during which sustained economic crisis and social problems spurred the rise of radical left-wing groups and an attendant backlash of conservatism that plagued France throughout the late 1890s. In 1894, President Sadi Carnot fell victim to an anarchist assassination, while the nationally divisive Dreyfus Affair began with the unlawful conviction for treason of Alfred Dreyfus, an officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent. Such events laid bare the poles of France: bourgeois and bohemian, conservative and radical, Catholic and anticlerical, antirepublican and anarchist.

Mirroring the facets of an anxious, unsettled era, this period witnessed a spectrum of artistic movements. By the late 1880s, a generation of artists had emerged that included Neo-Impressionists, Symbolists, and Nabis. Their subject matter remained largely the same as that of their still-active Impressionist forebears: landscapes, the modern city, and leisure-time activities; however, these scenes were joined by introspective and fantastical visions, and the treatment of these familiar subjects shifted.

The avant-garde ambition to spontaneously capture a fleeting moment of contemporary life ceded to the pursuit of carefully crafted works that were antinaturalistic in form and execution, and which sought to elicit emotions, sensations, and psychic changes in the viewer. Despite their sometimes contradictory stances, these artists shared the goal of creating art with a universal resonance, and there was even overlap among members of the groups. Surveyed together, the idioms of this tumultuous decade map a complex terrain of divergent and collective aesthetic and philosophical theories, while charting the destabilizing events on the cusp of two centuries.