Visual realism combined with a mood of silence, isolation, and reverie characterizes Fernand Khnopff's approach to Symbolism. A wealthy magistrate's son, Khnopff abandoned law school and entered the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1876, studying under Realist artists. After twice traveling to Paris, Khnopff left the Académie for Paris in 1879. There he trained under French Realist painters and studied Paris's artistic masterpieces. Khnopff first exhibited publicly in 1881 in Brussels.
Dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual meaning in academic and Impressionist painting, he developed a style combining precisely depicted surfaces with enigmatic states of mind. Applying this approach to portraiture, he became popular with Brussels society and painted thirty-four portraits between 1884 and 1890.The first paintings Khnopff exhibited with Les XX displayed an Impressionist style indebted to another founding member, James Ensor. But as the two artists turned in different artistic directions, they became rivals. Around 1900 Khnopff developed an international reputation; he also began constructing a villa, his private temple to Symbolist art that balanced his active public life of painting large public commissions and designing costumes and theater sets. Like most Symbolists, Khnopff worked for Socialist causes. He was also a book illustrator, sculptor, designer, photographer, and writer.