The Aesthetic Movement
Important Art and Artists of The Aesthetic Movement
The below artworks are the most important in The Aesthetic Movement - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in The Aesthetic Movement. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872-75)
Artwork description & Analysis: This work depicts a night view of Battersea Bridge on the Thames River in London. The bridge was made of wood, and has since been replaced with a modern one. The view is painted at twilight, with mist on the river, vague lights of buildings in the distance and fireworks in the sky beyond. The effect is serene and romantic, concealing the river's pollution and the noisy reality of urban life. Unconcerned with creating a true-to-life depiction, Whistler focused instead on provoking an emotive response in the viewer through a soothing color palette, soft brushwork, and harmony of forms.
Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London
La Ghirlandata (1873)
Artwork description & Analysis: La Ghirlandata (meaning "the garlanded lady") is generally understood to be the "embodiment of love and beauty." Different from Rossetti's earlier Pre-Raphaelite paintings, this image features a softening of line indicative of what has been described as the artist's sensual phase, a style that has more in common with painters of the Aesthetic movement. The painting displays a balanced and nearly symmetrical composition. At centre, a woman delicately strums a harp, her figure obscured beneath flowing drapery and layers of floral vegetation. The woman's delicate features are echoed in the faces of two angelic faces overhead. The color palette is vibrant and harmonious, with the green of her dress melding into the foliage, so that the complimentary warm flesh tones and flaming locks of hair pop.
Oil on canvas - Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)
Artwork description & Analysis: Shipping magnate Frederick Leyland invited interior architect Thomas Jekyll to design a dining room for his London home that would both compliment a painting in situ by Whistler entitled The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (1863-65) and display the patron's collection of blue and white porcelain. Unable to finish the commission due to illness, Jekyll was soon replaced with Whistler, who was asked to put finishing touches on the room. Whistler, however, interpreted this as carte blanche and completely redesigned the space as he saw fit. He covered the walls with turquoise blue and golden murals, painted the ceiling gold, and adorned it with a design of blue peacock feathers (a typical Aesthetic motif). Whistler later explained, "I just painted on. I went on - without design or sketch - it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached [...] a point of perfection." Whistler's finished room, as he described it, embodied "harmony in blue and gold."
Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather and wood - Freer Gallery, Washington DC
Artwork description & Analysis: This is one of many teapots designed by Christopher Dresser in the Aesthetic style between 1878 and 1879. Its clean lines and angularity contrast with traditional Victorian design, which was condemned by Aesthetes as fussy and complicated. Dresser was one of the first to realize that industrial design for household items was important, and that it could be achieved in a fashionable and artistic manner. The artist's metalwork in particular is recognized as an important precursor to the modern designs of the Bauhaus. The Victoria and Albert Museum describes Dresser as "an industrial designer before the profession had been invented, a man who found new ways of designing for production that few of his contemporaries could have imagined. He grasped both the properties of materials and the processes of production and adapted his designs and aesthetics to them brilliantly."
Silver and ebony - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Golden Stairs (1880)
Artwork description & Analysis: Created for the Grosvenor Gallery's exhibition in 1880, The Golden Stairs is the Burne-Jones painting that most closely fits the ideals of the Aesthetic movement. Although many of the artist's paintings do include narrative content and moral messages, in The Golden Stairs he eschews this to create a composition entirely based on aesthetics. Each of the women walking down the elegant sweep of the golden stairs is wearing a similarly classicized gown, and each is proportioned to be tall and slim, echoing the shape of the painting itself. The figures' dresses are subtly different, providing decorative details that keep the viewer's eye interested but not overwhelmed. Each also carries a different musical instrument as they rhythmically descend stairs that have been described as a visual reference to musical scales. Undoubtedly a nod to Walter Pater's famous assertion that "all the arts aspire to the condition of music," the original title of the painting was Music on the Stairs.
Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London
Reading Aloud (1884)
Artwork description & Analysis: Albert Moore's paintings frequently depict women in moments of leisure, wearing elaborately draped classical-style dresses. In this example, two women lean against an extravagantly upholstered sofa as they listen intently to another reclining woman reading a book. The atmosphere is one of languor and relaxation, with the women situated in a semi-exotic environment that nonetheless lives up to Victorian standards of safety and decency. The scene lacks any narrative momentum so that the effect of the flattened, linear composition is purely decorative. Indeed, Moore frequently named his paintings after the work was finished, pointing to his determination to paint scenes that were primarily decorative rather than narrative.
Oil on canvas - Kelingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow
Charger (c. 1888)
Artist: William de Morgan
Artwork description & Analysis: This large plate features an elaborate peacock in full plume. The arcing spread of the peacock's feathers echoes the curvature of the plate. The peacock's colorful display against a more subdued but no less intricate vegetal design presents a harmonious and carefully balanced composition. The male peacock was a key motif within the Aesthetic movement. In their more festive guises, male Aesthetes wore clothes as elaborate as their female counterparts, calling to mind the showy male peacock whose tail feathers consequently became a symbol for Aesthetes' expressive appearances.
Glazed ceramic - Birmingham Museum, Birmingham, UK
The Bath of Psyche (1889-90)
Artwork description & Analysis: An admirer of classical art, Frederic Leighton depicts Psyche from the popular legend of Cupid and Psyche, adopting a pose that echoes that of the ancient Greek sculpture Venus Callipyge (made as early as 300 BCE). The figure appears to be undressing before her bath, captivated by her own reflection in the water below. Psyche's association with mirrored reflections speaks to Aestheticism's emphasis on the visual and, in particular, its appreciation of ideal beauty.
Oil on canvas - Tate Britain, London
Leighton House (1864-95)
Artist: Frederic Leighton and George Aitchison
Artwork description & Analysis: In 1864, Frederic Leighton commissioned architect George Aitchison to build a studio and house for him on a plot of land in London's Chelsea District. The original building was relatively modest in size, with an elegant classical facade. However, over the next 30 years Leighton asked Aitchison to extend and revise the house, resulting in a unique building that represents the zenith of Aesthetic architecture and interior design. Intended to be a "private palace of art," Leighton House featured art, textiles, and furnishings arranged with attention to their aesthetic effect and with little consideration for objects' historical or cultural significance.
- 12 Holland Park Road, London
Artist: Liberty of London
Artwork description & Analysis: This long and flowing robe with full, puffy sleeves recalls medieval dress, which was an important source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites. Similarly loose apparel featured prominently in Pre-Raphaelite paintings by artists such as Rossetti. This type of free-flowing fashion and the Pre-Raphaelite concept of ideal female beauty was embraced by women in succeeding decades.
Silk and cotton brocade, lined with taffeta, with a silk-satin front panel - Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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Related Art and Artists
A Burial at Ornans (1849-50)
Artwork description & Analysis: With A Burial at Ornans, Courbet made his name synonymous with the young Realist movement. By depicting a simple rural funeral service in the town of his birth, Courbet accomplished several things. First, he made a painting of a mundane topic with unknown people (each attendee is given a personalized portrait) on a scale traditionally reserved for history painting. Second, he eschewed any spiritual value beyond the service; the painting, often compared to El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), leaves out El Greco's depiction of Christ and the heavens. Third, Courbet's gritty depiction showed the fashionable Salon-goers of Paris their new political equals in the country, as the 1848 Revolution had established universal male suffrage. Artistically, Courbet legendarily stated, "A Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism," opening up a new visual style for an increasingly modern world.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay
Red, Brown and Black (1958)
Artwork description & Analysis: Mark Rothko's paintings are titled by color variations, and all consist of soft, rectangular bands of color stretching horizontally across his canvases. Red, Brown, Black exemplifies a kind of chromatic abstraction known as Color Field painting. Color Field painters were concerned with brushstroke and paint texture, but they came to view color as the most powerful communication tool. Rothko's interests in mysticism, religion, and myth hearken back to the Surrealists, and his blocks of color are meant to provide a contemplative, meditative space in which to visually investigate one's own moods and affiliations with the chosen palette. He sought to distill an essence, or true nature, out of codified hues.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art
Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl (1862)
Artwork description & Analysis: Originally titled The White Girl, this painting depicts a young woman, Whistler's mistress and model Joanna Hiffernan, with long, flowing red hair and wearing a simple white cambric dress. She stands on a similarly colored bearskin rug as she grasps a white flower at her side, her distant gaze lending her a doll-like quality. Indeed, Whistler treats her as a toy or pawn of sorts in that that artist is here less concerned with the accuracy of portraiture as he is with using the canvas as a means of exploring tonal variations. That Whistler later re-titled the painting Symphony in White, No.1: The White Girl to draw attention to the varying white tones of the work and suggest a comparison between them and music notes, clarifies this objective.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.