Aestheticism is a 19th-century theory that art, whether visual or literary, is self-sufficient and need have no moral or social purpose. Aestheticism (also the Aesthetic Movement) is an intellectual and art movement supporting the emphasis of aesthetic values more than social-political themes for literature, fine art, music and other arts. This meant that Art from this particular movement focused more on being beautiful rather than having a deeper meaning – ‘Art for Art’s sake’. It was particularly prominent in Europe during the 19th century, supported by notable figures such as Oscar Wilde, but contemporary critics are also associated with the movement, such as Harold Bloom, who has recently argued against projecting social and political ideology onto literary works, which he believes has been a growing problem in humanities departments over the last century.
In the 19th century, it was related to other movements such as symbolism or decadence represented in France, or decadentismo represented in Italy, and may be considered the British version of the same style.
The doctrine is most succinctly expressed in the phrase ‘l’art pour l’art’ (art for art’s sake) attributed to the French philosopher Victor Cousin (1792–1867) in his lectures on Le Vrai, le beau et le bien (1818, published 1836) Wider dissemination came with the publication of Madamoiselle de Maupin (1835) by Thèophile Gautier who, in the preface, goes further than Cousin by suggesting that any moral purpose is injurious to art Aestheticism flourished in England from the 1870s to the 1890s, its principal theorists being Walter Pater, in the conclusion to The Renaissance (1873), and Oscar Wilde The latter’s assertion, under cross-examination, that there was no such thing as an immoral book was probably one of the factors that led to his imprisonment and his subsequent disgrace signalled the movement’s decline The foremost practitioners in painting were Whistler and Albert Moore The former’s habit of giving his works musical titles (Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1877; Detroit, Inst of Arts) is symbolic of the Aesthetic movement’s desire to emulate music, the most abstract, and therefore purest, of the arts
The British decadent writers were much influenced by the Oxford professor Walter Pater and his essays published during 1867–68, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, with an ideal of beauty. His text Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was very well regarded by art-oriented young men of the late 19th century. Writers of the Decadent movement used the slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” (L’art pour l’art), the origin of which is debated. Some claim that it was invented by the philosopher Victor Cousin, although Angela Leighton in the publication On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word (2007) notes that the phrase was used by Benjamin Constant as early as 1804. It is generally accepted to have been promoted by Théophile Gautier in France, who interpreted the phrase to suggest that there was not any real association between art and morality.
The artists and writers of Aesthetic style tended to profess that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and George MacDonald’s conception of art as something moral or useful, “Art for truth’s sake”. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it only needed to be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed a cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor of art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the style were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, great use of symbols, and synaesthetic/ Ideasthetic effects—that is, correspondence between words, colours and music. Music was used to establish mood.
Predecessors of the Aesthetics included John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and some of the Pre-Raphaelites who themselves were a legacy of the Romantic spirit. There are a few significant continuities between the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy and that of the Aesthetes: Dedication to the idea of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’; admiration of, and constant striving for, beauty; escapism through visual and literary arts; craftsmanship that is both careful and self-conscious; mutual interest in merging the arts of various media. This final idea is promoted in the poem L’Art by Théophile Gautier, who compared the poet to the sculptor and painter. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones are most strongly associated with Aestheticism. However, their approach to Aestheticism did not share the creed of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ but rather “a spirited reassertion of those principles of colour, beauty, love, and cleanness that the drab, agitated, discouraging world of the mid-nineteenth century needed so much.” This reassertion of beauty in a drab world also connects to Pre-Raphaelite escapism in art and poetry.
In Britain the best representatives were Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, both influenced by the French Symbolists, and James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The style and these poets were satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience and other works, such as F. C. Burnand’s drama The Colonel, and in comic magazines such as Punch, particularly in works by Georde Du Maurier.
Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street makes use of the type as a phase through which the protagonist passes as he is influenced by older, decadent individuals. The novels of Evelyn Waugh, who was a young participant of aesthete society at Oxford, describe the aesthetes mostly satirically, but also as a former participant. Some names associated with this assemblage are Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford, A.E. Housman and Anthony Powell.
Aesthetic visual arts
Artists associated with the Aesthetic style include James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Aubrey Beardsley. Although the work of Edward Burne-Jones was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery which promoted the movement, it also contains narrative and conveys moral or sentimental messages hence it falls outside the given definition.
Aesthetic Movement decorative arts
The primary element of Decorative Art is utility. The maxim ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, identifying art or beauty as the primary element in other branches of the Aesthetic Movement, especially Fine Art, cannot apply in this context. Decorative art must first have utility but may also be beautiful. Decorative art is dissociated from Fine Art.
Important elements of the Aesthetic Movement have been identified as Reform and Eastern Art. The Government Schools of Design were founded from 1837 onwards in order to improve the design of British goods. Following the Great Exhibition of 1851 efforts were intensified and Oriental objects purchased for the schools teaching collections. Owen Jones, architect and Orientalist was requested to set out key principles of design and these became not only the basis of the schools teaching but also the propositions which preface The Grammar of Ornament (1856), which is still regarded as the finest systematic study or practical sourcebook of historic world ornament.
Jones identified the need for a new and modern style which would meet the requirements of the modern world, rather than the continual re-cycling of historic styles, but saw no reason to reject the lessons of the past. Christopher Dresser, a student and later Professor at the school worked with Owen Jones on The Grammar of Ornament, as well as on the 1863 decoration of The Oriental Courts (Chinese, Japanese, and Indian) at the South Kensington Museum, advanced the search for a new style with his two publications The Art of Decorative Design 1862, and Principles of Design 1873.
Production of Aesthetic style furniture was limited to approximately the late 19th century. Aesthetic style furniture is characterized by several common themes:
Ebonized wood with gilt highlights.
Far Eastern influence.
Prominent use of nature, especially flowers, birds, ginkgo leaves, and peacock feathers.
Blue and white on porcelain and other fine china.
Ebonized furniture means that the wood is painted or stained to a black ebony finish. The furniture is sometimes completely ebony-colored. More often however, there is gilding added to the carved surfaces of the feathers or stylized flowers that adorn the furniture.
As aesthetic movement decor was similar to the corresponding writing style in that it was about sensuality and nature, nature themes often appear on the furniture. A typical aesthetic feature is the gilded carved flower, or the stylized peacock feather. Colored paintings of birds or flowers are often seen. Non-ebonized aesthetic movement furniture may have realistic-looking 3-dimensional-like renditions of birds or flowers carved into the wood.
Contrasting with the ebonized-gilt furniture is use of blue and white for porcelain and china. Similar themes of peacock feathers and nature would be used in blue and white tones on dinnerware and other crockery. The blue and white design was also popular on square porcelain tiles. It is reported that Oscar Wilde used aesthetic decorations during his youth. This aspect of the movement was also satirised by Punch magazine and in Patience.
In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Canada where he toured the town of Woodstock, Ontario and gave a lecture on May 29 entitled; “The House Beautiful”. This particular lecture featured the early Aesthetic art movement, also known as the “Ornamental Aesthetic” art style, where local flora and fauna were celebrated as beautiful and textured, layered ceilings were popular. An example of this can be seen in Annandale National Historic Site, located in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada. The house was built in 1880 and decorated by Mary Ann Tillson, who happened to attend Oscar Wilde’s lecture in Woodstock, and was influenced by it. Since the Aesthetic art movement was only prevalent from about 1880 until about 1890, there are not very many examples of this particular style left nowadays. But one such example is 18 Stafford Terrace, London which provides an insight into how the middle classes interpreted the principles of Aesthetics.