The Aesthetic Movement
|Aesthetic Bridegroom, “It is quite consummate, is it not?” Intense Bride, “It is, indeed! Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!” (from Punch Oct. 1880)|
“To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics.”- Walter Pater
“Alas! ladies and gentlemen, Art has been maligned… people have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture, but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state. [Art] is, withal, selfishly occupied with her own perfection only–having no desire to teach–seeking and finding the beautiful in all conditions and in all times…”- James McNeill Whistler
Fin de Siècle
The roots of Aestheticism can be traced back to the 1860’s; however, it was not until the 1880’s that the movement gained noticeable popularity. The Aesthetic movement is often associated with the French term “fin de siècle,” or the “end of the century,” which refers to the closing of an existing era and implies the beginning of a new one. It is often used to describe late nineteenth-century Britain, a time when the ideals of the Victorian Age were losing precedence and being replaced by Aesthetic values. The established Victorian lifestyle broke down partly because Britain’s political and economic supremacy faced new challenges in the form of emerging world powers, like the United States. Essentially, the glory days of Britain’s empire were coming to an end, which laid the foundation for a new, strictly anti-Victorian method of thought. The Aesthetic movement denounced the sober morality and middle-class values that characterized the Victorian Age and embraced beauty as the chief pursuit of both art and life. The movement is often considered to have ended with Oscar Wilde’s trials, which began in 1895. In doing so, it cleared the path for the emergence of Modernism in the twentieth century.
Art for Art’s Sake
Aesthetic writers and artists rallied behind this slogan, first adopted by French poet Théophile Gautier, in their attempts to stress the autonomy of art. They felt art should be independent from worldly issues, like politics, and should be appreciated for its own intrinsic beauty rather than for any moral purpose. The aesthetes also refuted the idea that there was a correlation between art and the age in which it was created. In other words, art should not be interpreted as historical evidence, but rather appreciated for its own, independent history and progress. Stylistically, their work was highly refined and appealed to the senses. The French author, Vernon Lee, perfectly captured the aesthetes’ philosophy on art when she remarked, “to appreciate a work of art means, therefore, to appreciate that work of art itself, as distinguished from appreciating something outside it, something accidentally or arbitrarily connected with it” (Evangelista 5).
Aestheticism did not suddenly emerge independent from outside influence. Like all movements, it grew from the ideas of its predecessors and eventually developed its own unique characteristics. While many individuals influenced the aesthetes, the two most important were Walter Pater and Charles Baudelaire.
Walter Pater (1839- 1894)
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
Baudelaire was a French poet who is generally considered to be the fore-runner of the French symbolists, a movement which held numerous parallels to British Aestheticism. Baudelaire’s poetry exhibited many qualities that the aesthetes would later adopt. For instance, Baudelaire was one of the first writers to include sexually explicit material within his poems, as some of his subjects were lesbians and vampires (Charles Baudelaire). The aesthetes, following his example, continued to push back the boundaries, which enclosed sexuality, within their own work. They also gained from Baudelaire an intense desire for sensuality and a need to understand the relationship between art and life. In his book, Aestheticism: The Religion of Art in Post- Romantic Literature, Leon Chai takes one of Baudelaire’s poems, “Harmonie du Soir”(1857), and uses it to show how Baudelaire’s ideas influenced the aesthetes. He notes that Baudelaire appeals to the senses with his description of fragrance within the air, and furthermore, equates life to art when he implies that the body is like a violin (Chai 48-62). Oscar Wilde, an aesthetic writer, would further develop this supposed relationship between art and life. In his essay, “The Decay of Lying: An Observation”(1891), Wilde claims that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” He is essentially arguing that art is superior to life because life relies on art as a means of finding expression and beauty. This notion, which was built upon the foundation of Baudelaire’s ideas, would eventually become a major part of aesthetic doctrine.
Hellenism and Aestheticism
The shift in focus from Latin to Greek during the Victorian era had a profound impact on British society. Initially, the field of Greek studies belonged to scholars and politicians, and stressed morality; however, it was the aesthetes who transformed the field into one of dissent (Evangelista 11). They did so by reestablishing the Greek concept of hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure and beauty, as the purpose of life. As a result, the aesthetes became infamous for their habits of passion and excess, in the forms of sensuality and sexuality. They refuted the strict morality of the age, which was based on Christian principles (Damrosch 1939); instead the aesthetes opted to follow the philosophies of the pagan Greeks. This breakdown in conventional moral conviction among the aesthetes led to the frequent association of “decadence” with Aestheticism.
It is also important to note that Victorian England was an age of scientific development and more specifically, one in which the ideas of Charles Darwin flourished. Science is often viewed as a threat to art, as its developments are practical and art’s are largely abstract. If a society makes a significant shift towards the sciences, there is a chance that the arts will be neglected or made inferior. Consequently, one author notes that the aesthetes praised Greece as a prime example of a culture that was able to secure a place for art within a scientific age, and furthermore, sought to emulate their example (Evangelista 12). This is not to say that the aesthetes were adverse to scientific innovation. They too favored the “triumph” of scientific progress over superstition and the “dream-world of Christianity” (Evangelista 12).
The Aesthetic Lifestyle
The aesthetes’ commitment to their theories and beliefs was so strong that eventually aestheticism transcended the boundaries of art and became a way of life. This meant that an aesthete was not only confirmed as such by his work, but also by his behavior. For example, one could typically pick out an aesthete simply by his word choice. They tended to use exaggerated metaphors and superlative adjectives, like “supreme, consummate, utter, and preciously sublime” (Damrosch 1939). Essentially, components of aesthetic ideology can be seen in the way the aesthetes approached fashion, sexuality, and alcohol/drugs.
|An example of dandy fashion, Oscar Wilde|
Dandyism, to some extent, has always existed. In general, a dandy is one who pays particular attention to his own personal appearance. Their dress is often eccentric, yet elegant. Specific to late-Victorian England, to be a dandy meant to also elevate the artificial over the natural. The opening lines of Oscar Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”(1894) state, “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.” One example of their attraction to artificiality is that they preferred urban, rather than rural, settings and were particularly enamored with London (Jackson 132). Furthermore, Victorian dandies aimed to uphold a high level of sophistication and valued wit as a measure of such. Many aesthetic writers were well-known dandies, such as Oscar Wilde, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Walter Pater.
Sexuality & Habits
In 1885 Britain’s Parliament outlawed homosexuality with the Labouchere Amendment. Males caught engaging in any type of sexual activity with another male could be sentenced to up to two years in prison. Despite this law, the late-Victorian period saw an increased interest in the exploration of sexuality. Not only were gender distinctions increasingly blurred, but the presence of homoerotic desires became more and more obvious within the public sphere. In fact, it was during this period that the words “homosexual” and “lesbian” were first used. The aesthetes were both products and propagators of these new liberal attitudes towards sexuality. Deborah Lutz claims that “Something of the erotic always lurks about the Aesthete: he faints with love; he luxuriates in exotic decadence; he tends even towards the perverse. He quivers, he throbs with the pure ecstasy of life, with the exquisiteness of his own experience” (Fox 247). Many aesthetes are known to have been either homosexuals or interested in homoeroticism, which can be partly attributed to their fondness of Greek culture. Since the Greeks allowed male to male love and even encouraged it as an acceptable source of pleasure, the concept of homosexuality appears frequently in their art and literature. (Example?) Many aesthetes saw the Greek example as a justification for their own homoeroticism and felt that such desires were “inseparable from [their] artistic and intellectual activities” (Evangelista 19).
However, it was more than just a connection to the past that led the artists of this movement to embrace sexual deviance. The aesthetes were fiercely individualistic, and as a result, opposed anything mainstream. They developed a love of “shocking” the middle classes with both their art and lifestyles (Jackson 152). Therefore, they created sexually suggestive pieces of work and adopted liberal sexual attitudes, both of which opposed the Victorian sense of morality. Furthermore, the combination of this desire to shock the conservative minded with their need to live within the present moment, led to the development of many habits which were considered to be vices. Aesthetes were generally seen as heavy consumers of alcohol, particularly absinthe, and were fascinated with drugs like opium and hashish, all of which granted them a greater intensity of sensation (Jackson 153). Though not all of the aesthetic artists developed these habits the death of many of them at a young age suggests that the habits were fairly prevalent. For example, Wilde died at forty, Aubrey Beardsley at twenty-six, and Ernest Dowson at thirty-three, among others. Jackson clearly summarizes this notion: “It would seem as if these restless and tragic figures thirsted so much for life, and for the life of the hour, that they put the cup to their lips and drained it in one deep draught…” (158).
- Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)
- John Addington Symonds (1840-1893)
- Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
- Vernon Lee (1856-1935)
- Arthur Symons (1865-1945)
- Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)
- Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)
- Max Beerbohm (1872-1956)
Chai, Leon. Aestheticism the religion of art in post-romantic literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1990. Print.
“Charles Baudelaire.” American Academy of Poets. 6 October 2009 <http://poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/607>.
Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 2nd Compact Edition Volume B. New York: Longman Group, 2003. Print.
Evangelista, Stefano. British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile. Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.
Fox, Paul (ed.). Decadences: Morality and Aesthetics in British Literature. New York: Ibidem-Verlag, 2007. Print.
Jackson, Holbrook. The Eighteen Nineties A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Tantallon, 2002. Print.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 11th ed. Project Gutenberg. Web. 5 October 2009.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay Of Lying: An Observation.” Online Books, Poems, Short Stories – Read Print Library. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. <http://www.readprint.com/work-6371/The-Decay-Of-Lying-An-Observation-Oscar-Wilde>.
Wilde, Oscar. “Shorter Prose Pieces.” Online Books, Poems, Short Stories – Read Print Library. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. <http://www.readprint.com/work-6382/Shorter-Prose-Pieces-Oscar-Wilde>.
Images of Baudelaire, Pater, and Wilde courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration from Punch magazine at