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Movements The Aesthetic Movement

The Aesthetic Movement

Started: 1860

Ended: 1900

Quotes

"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty."
Oscar Wilde
"Art is a goddess of dainty thought, reticent of habit, abjuring all obtrusiveness, purposing in no way to better others. She is, withal selfishly occupied with her own perfection only - having no desire to teach."
James McNeill Whistler
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
William Morris
"Painting is to artists what the verse of Theophile Gautier is to poets: the faultless and secure expression of an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful."
Algernon Charles Swinburne
"The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter - perfect in its bud as in its bloom - with no reason to explain it's presence - no mission to fulfill - a joy to the artist, a delusion to the philanthropist - a puzzle to the botanist - an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man."
James McNeill Whistler
"As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of colour."
James McNeill Whistler
"To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
Walter Pater
"Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments sake."
Walter Pater

KEY ARTISTS

James WhistlerJames Whistler
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Dante Gabriel RossettiDante Gabriel Rossetti
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Christopher DresserChristopher Dresser
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Edward Burne-JonesEdward Burne-Jones
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William De MorganWilliam De Morgan
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Albert MooreAlbert Moore
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"My picture of 'Harmony in Grey and Gold' is an illustration of my meaning - as snow scene with a single black figure and lighted tavern. I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot. All that I know is that my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture. Now this is precisely what my friends cannot grasp."

Synopsis

During the mid-nineteenth century, the provocative and sensuous Aesthetic movement threatened to dismantle Britain's fussy, overbearing, and conservative Victorian traditions. More than a fine art movement, Aestheticism penetrated all areas of life - from music and literature to interior design and fashion. At its heart was the desire to create "art for art's sake" and to exalt taste, the pursuit of beauty, and self-expression over moral expectations and restrictive conformity. The freedom of creative expression and sensuality that Aestheticism promoted exhilarated its adherents, but it also made them the object of ridicule among conservative Victorians. Nonetheless, by rejecting art's traditionally didactic obligations and focusing on self-expression, the Aesthetic movement helped set the stage for global, twentieth-century modern art.

Key Ideas

Rebelling against Victorian materiality and modern industrialism (particularly what they criticized as the impoverished and repetitive designs of consumer products created cheaply by "soulless" machines), Aesthetic artists placed a premium on quality craftsmanship in the creation of all art. Some even revived pre-industrial techniques in the process.
Aesthetic artists touted the adage "art for art's sake," divorcing art from its traditional obligation to convey a moral or socio-political message. Instead, the focused on exploring color, form, and composition in the pursuit of beauty.
Distinct from the Victorian preference for fussy decor, curvaceous forms, and abundant detail, Aesthetic art is characterized by subdued colors, geometric designs, and simplified linear forms. The movement took as its primary sources of inspiration Pre-Raphaelite painting's of flaming red haired beauties, medieval geometric designs, and Japanese motifs and aesthetics.
The Aesthetic Movement maintained that art should not be confined to painting, sculpture, and architecture, but should be a part of everyday life. To this end, Aestheticism embraced not only the "high" arts, but also ceramics, metalwork, fashion, furniture-making, and interior design. Many Aesthetes, most notably Oscar Wilde, even adopted public personas through which they lived according to Aesthetic principles.

Most Important Art

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872-75)
Artist: James Whistler
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.

A longtime admirer of ukiyo-e painter Katsushika Hokusai, Whistler composed the bridge in a manner that shared compositional similarities with Hokusai's Under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa (c. 1830-34). It was through images such as this that Whistler introduced characteristics of the Japanese aesthetic, including silhouetted forms, breathy brushwork, and flattened compositions, to British adherents to the Aesthetic movement.

The title "nocturne" refers to a musical composition inspired by the night. Whistler conceived of a deep connection between painting in the Aesthetic style and music, titling his paintings after musical forms in order to highlight their "tonal" similarities (comparing musical notes to paint colors) and to place the emphasis on their visual nature rather than on their narrative content. Indeed, Whistler produced this painting during his libel suit against Ruskin and asked the jury to consider his work not as a traditional painting, but rather as an artistic arrangement. He argued that "Art should be independent of all claptrap - should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it ..." Whistler's argument for sensorial similarities between painting and music proved to be particularly influential to German Expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky, who expanded on Whistler's ideas by creating images as abstract as music itself, drawing upon a correlation between colors and musical notes.
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Beginnings

The Great Exhibition of 1851 marked a turning point for the visual arts in Britain. Although the event showcased important recent innovations, including the new medium of photography, much of the work on display conformed to the fussy and shallow design style of the Victorian era. Worse still was the mechanization of the creation process, which according to famous critic John Ruskin, meant the dehumanization of design. These predictable, repetitive designs coupled with the strict Victorian standards for art that placed greater importance on the moral message conveyed than quality of the work fostered a stifling environment from which many artists were desperate to escape.

Pre-Raphaelite Roots

Shortly after the Great Exhibition concluded, a group of artists went about creating a new and simpler aesthetic - one inspired by the intricate detail and intense colors of medieval art and design. Art of the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gained popularity by the 1860s thanks in part to favorable reviews by John Ruskin. The group split thereafter when younger artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, joined Dante Gabriel Rossetti to create a "Cult of Beauty," laying the foundation for Aestheticism. Rossetti's sensual portraits of unconventionally beautiful women with large eyes and flaming red hair adorned in loose, flowing gowns introduced a new ideal for feminine beauty that challenged Victorian associations between non-corseted, red-haired women and sexual licentiousness; and eventually became an importance motif of the Aesthetic movement.

The Japanese Influence

When in 1854 Japan began openly trading with foreign powers, their products flooded the British market. Artists and consumers alike were captivated by the stylized organic motifs, circular designs, and geometric patterns that characterized this new aesthetic. Its simplicity and elegance of form contrasted sharply with overcrowded and busy Victorian designs. British consumers began collecting Japanese screens, fans, and porcelain, as well as staining their furniture ebony in imitation of Japanese lacquer. Painters, such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, began incorporating these items into their work, while also modifying their compositions to reflect the original aesthetic. Designers E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser were similarly inspired. Gradually a new style emerged within the Aesthetic movement known as the Anglo-Japanese style.

Art for Art's Sake

Aesthetic artists, like their Pre-Raphaelite predecessors, placed a great deal of importance on a work's visual composition. But whereas Pre-Raphaelite art almost always contained a degree of narrative content, Aesthetic artists generally avoided any clear storyline or message. Instead they strove to evoke a mood, explore color harmony, or rediscover the intricate details they associated with superior craftsmanship. Drawing on diverse sources, such as Ancient Greek, Japanese, and Medieval art, they loudly touted their motto: "art for art's sake," taken from French critic and poet Theophile Gautier's novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1836). This modern notion that art should be evaluated on the basis of its own criteria rather than the subject's significance or truthful depiction, became a rallying cry for artists eager to separate art from Victorian materialism. Walter Pater became one of the most important voices of the Aesthetic movement when he argued for the primacy of the viewer's aesthetic experience of art in Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). According to Pater, "Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality of your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments sake."

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The Grosvenor Gallery

When the Grosvenor Gallery on Bond Street opened in 1877, it provided a space for artists, most notably Aesthetic artists, to exhibit work that conflicted with the Royal Academy's classical expectations. In particular, it promoted the careers of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Albert Moore, George Frederic Watts, and Edward Burne-Jones. The Grosvenor Gallery was not only the first to have electric lights; it also introduced a new method of display (now the standard method for galleries and museums) wherein paintings were hung with ample spacing to facilitate the viewer's absorption, as described by Walter Pater. Designed to mimic a picture gallery in a private residence, the exhibition space was surrounded by other sumptuously decorated rooms that adhered to the Aesthetic rules of design. Adornments included ionic pilasters with gilt capitals, green Genoan marble, a wide staircase, and green and yellow silk damask covered walls, prompting it to be mocked as the "greenery-yallery Grosvenor Gallery" in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience.

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The Aesthetic Movement Overview Continues

Condemnation by Ruskin

Noted critic John Ruskin praised the Pre-Raphaelites' creative expression and agreed that standards of design for machine-produced decorative arts had declined so much so that they had become repetitive, lacking soul and quality craftsmanship. However, he also advocated for the social utility of art, which directly conflicted with the Aesthetic movement's "art for art's sake" mentality. For Ruskin, art was not simply a matter of taste, but also a conveyor of intellect, feeling, morality, and knowledge. When the Grosvenor Gallery opened in 1877 with an exhibition of work by Burne-Jones and Whistler, Ruskin published a scathing review of the latter's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874). Objecting to what he perceived to be meaningless content carelessly created, Ruskin wrote, "I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face..." Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin the following year and, although the artist's victory yielded a mere farthing in damages, it proved to be detrimental to Ruskin's critical career, which never fully recovered. Ruskin, who had been responsible for elevating the careers of several Pre-Raphaelite painters during the 1850s, now found himself out of sync with the up-and-coming modern art movement.

Concepts and Styles

Painting

Inspired by Rossetti's sensual female portraits, Aestheticism made its first appearance in paintings. Through this medium, the movement and its values trickled into other fields. Of all Aesthetic artists, painters were perhaps best equipped to realize the movement's goal of creating art for art's sake. This is because paintings, unlike the decorative arts and fashion, for example, can be separated from utilitarian functions quite easily. Thus, painters like Moore, Whistler, and Leighton were able to focus entirely on creating beautiful compositions that were pleasing to the senses. Because oil paints allow for subtle tonal changes, Aesthetic painters could use the medium to explore color harmonies and tonal variety. Many of these artists, particularly Whistler, also incorporated Japanese motifs (peacocks, fans, vases) and aesthetics (such as feathery brushwork or simplified forms) into their work.

Music

Although some Victorian musicians, most notable Eduard Hanslick, championed formalism and the separation of music from any obligation to express something beyond itself, there appear to have been no specifically Aesthetic musicians. Nonetheless, the medium was an important source of inspiration for many Aesthetic painters. In the 1870s, the critic Walter Pater famously asserted that "all the arts aspire to the condition of music." This was taken to heart by Aesthetic artists who believed that music provided an ideal form of art that painting could emulate. This process involved eradicating narrative content in favor of creating an impression or evocation through the "harmony" of colors and composition. Painters, such as Whistler and Frederick Leighton, even titled their paintings after musical forms. Whistler explained the connection between art and music and the artist's role as creator: "Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful - as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony."

Architecture

Houses and studios designed by and erected under the supervision of Aesthetes deviated from the classical academic tradition by bringing together seemingly disparate sources of inspiration to create a unique structural layout. Frederic Leighton's house, for example, incorporated Oriental, Middle-Eastern, and Italian Renaissance references. Instead of a traditional British foyer or tearoom, guests enter into what is called "Arab Hall," an elaborately decorated domed room that blends many different middle-eastern design elements. Meanwhile, Whistler designed the famous Peacock Room for the shipping magnate Frederic Leyland, which was inspired by a Japanese lacquer box. These eclectic homes often demanded collaboration among industrial artists, such as William Morris and Charles Voysey. For Aesthetic architects and designers, the beauty of the structure as a reflection of its complex inhabitants trumped adherence to any one style.

Design

The Aesthetic movement saw, for the first time, designers being recognized and even made famous for their excellent craftsmanship. Before Aestheticism, designers were rarely credited. But thanks in part to designer-poet-socialist William Morris, design as a profession gained legitimacy as an art form. Famous designers of the era included Christopher Dresser, Edward Godwin, and William Morris himself. These artists created furniture, metalwork, textiles, and ceramics characterized by geometric designs, stylized floral, vegetal, and zoomorphic motifs inspired by medieval and Japanese aesthetics. These designs offered clean lines and simplicity of form intended to be an antidote to the fussiness of most Victorian products. Some designers, like Morris, established their own brand. Others, including Walter Crane and Christopher Dresser, collaborated with shops and manufacturers to create products for middle class homes. Thanks to Oscar Wilde's notion of "the house beautiful," which asserted that a home's interior should be as beautiful as possible with the aim of providing an inspirational environment for its inhabitants, Aesthetic shops offering such products prospered. The most famous of these was Arthur Liberty's of London, which opened in 1875 and sold textiles from the Middle East and Japan as well as specially designed Aesthetic style consumer goods.

Fashion

By the 1890s, Aesthetic shops were marketing consumer products to satiate the public's desire to play the part of the Aesthete. For some, this meant dressing the part. Echoing the graceful beauties depicted in Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite paintings, women abandoned restrictive corsets and heavy fabrics for more "bohemian" loose, unstructured dresses decorated with delicate floral embroidery. Some even enhanced their hair color with henna. Men, inspired by the extravagant male peacock (a popular motif of the Aesthetic movement), dressed the part of the foppish dandy, favoring velvet jackets, flowing ties, and breeches. Playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde, the ultimate dandy, became the celebrity symbol most closely associated with the movement. Like many other Aesthetic men, Wilde was ridiculed for his fashion sense. He received considerable criticism, for example, when he attended the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery wearing a flamboyant suit designed to look like a cello.

Literature

For Aesthetic literature, as in the visual arts, beauty of form trumped conveying a social or moral message. Inspired by Walter Pater's essays of the late 1860s, Aesthetic writers, most notably Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, composed poems and prose that were sensuous and riddled with suggestions rather than clear statements. Aesthetic poems and writers were scorned and satirized by their Victorian peers, including Gilbert and Sullivan as well as the editors of Punch magazine.

Later Developments

The popular success of Aestheticism seemed assured when Aesthetic painter Frederic Leighton became President of the Royal Academy in 1878. Leighton made it his mission to ensure that paintings by non-academicians received equal consideration and were prominently displayed at their annual spring exhibition. He also nominated other Aesthetic artists, including Albert Moore and Edward Burne-Jones, for election to the Academy.

Aesthetic Art

Although Aestheticism was popular with many people, it also became the subject of ridicule. In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Patience, a comic opera which mocked Aesthetes and their ideals, while George du Maurier produced a famous cartoon that depicted a stylish "Aesthetic" couple worrying about whether they could live up to the example of their beautiful teapot.

The absence of a single, cohesive philosophy to bind members of the movement together meant that some artists gravitated in different directions. Socialist William Morris, for example, complained of "ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich" and sought to make his work available to the masses, not just progressive aristocrats. His ideas gathered strength and Morris became a leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. In Britain, his involvement inspired designers to revive pre-industrial techniques to distinguish their craftsmanship from machine-made products. In Germany, where distain for modern machinery was not as pervasive, the Bauhaus movement reconciled what Morris could not. They combined aesthetic notions of craft and design with modern technology to mass-produce quality designs for household items, particularly furniture.

Still other Aesthetes, most notably Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, delved deeper into shocking Victorian society out of its complacency. Their efforts evolved into the Decadent movement, which quickly faded in popularity when it became associated with immorality and sexual promiscuity, in part because of Oscar Wilde's trial and imprisonment for "gross indecency" with men.

Although public perception of Wilde's involvement with the Aesthetic movement meant that it, too, suffered, the modern notion of "art for art's sake" affirmed the movement's place in art history. The idea that art had its own intrinsic value released it from the obligation of having a moral or historical meaning. This rejection of the past (of historical or mythological narratives) became vital for modern painters. The artist, it was thought, should have freedom of expression - in terms of subject choice and stylistic representation. This concept of self-expression combined with an eagerness to explore the formal aspects of painting (color, form, and composition), culminated in the Abstract Expressionist movement of the mid-twentieth century and continues to be a basis of creative exploration for many contemporary artists in the twenty-first century.




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Useful Resources on The Aesthetic Movement

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Articles
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

By E.P. Thompson

Life and Art of Dante Gabriel Rossetti

By Sir Hall Caine

The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton

By Mrs. Russell Barrington

More Interesting Books about The Aesthetic Movement
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movememnt 1860-1900, V&A

By Fisum Guner
Theartdesk.com
April 2, 2011

The Aesthetic Movement

By Fiona MacCarthy
The Guardian
March 26, 2011

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement

By Charlotte Crow
History Today
March 24, 2011

Design Reform

By Sara J. Oshinsky
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
October 2006

More Interesting Articles about The Aesthetic Movement
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised by Sandy McCain

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised by Sandy McCain
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The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English painters whose goal was to reform art by rejecting the classical influences of Raphael, to return to a more mediaval approach to the arts. Romanticism was a great influence on this group and they were interested honest depictions of nature.
TheArtStory: The Pre-Raphaelites
William Morris
William Morris
William Morris
William Morris was an English textile designer, writer, and social activist who was associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement. Morris not only made great contributions to British textile works but also is considered to be one of the fathers of the modern fantasy genre.
William Morris
Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones
Edward Burne-Jones
A Pre-Raphaelite movement artist, Edward Durne-Jones is most famous for his work with stained glass. His paintings closely followed the style of other Pre-Raphaelites and artists of the Aesthetic movement.
Edward Burne-Jones
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was an English poet, illustrator, and painter who cofounded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Rossetti was famous for his paintings of medieval subjects, nature, and women, and his relationships with the models who sat for them.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler
James Whistler was a nineteenth-century American expatriate artist. Educated in France and later based in London, Whistler was a famous proponent of art-for-art's-sake, and an esteemed practictioner of tonal harmony in his canvases, often characterized by his masterful use of blacks and greys, as seen in his most famous work, Whistler's Mother (1871). Whistler was also known as an American Impressionist, and in 1874 he famously turned down an invitation from Degas to exhibit his work with the French Impressionists.
TheArtStory: James Whistler
Edward William Godwin
Edward William Godwin
Edward William Godwin
Edward Godwin was a Victorian British architect who was well-known for his polychromatic gothic style, but was also interested in the 'Anglo-Japanese' style which was brought about by the Aesthetic Movement.
Edward William Godwin
Christopher Dresser
Christopher Dresser
Christopher Dresser
Christopher Dresser was a designer of home furnishings, and is known for being one of the founders of the Aesthetic Movement. His independent designs took on the 'Anglo-Japanese' styles and had a long-lasting influence on English Modern designs.
Christopher Dresser
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet and playwright, and is widely considered one of the modern era's most influential writers, celebrated for his dry wit, irony and flamboyant character. Commonly associated with the Aesthetic Movement of writing and philosophy, Wilde's greatest works include the The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which proved to be his final play before passing 1900.
Oscar Wilde
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley was a nineteenth-century English illustrator and author. IN black ink he created highly erotic, grotesque and decadant drawings, much in the style of Japanese woodcuts. Beardsley's work was part of the Aesthetic movement, and was highly influential to the subsequent Art Nouveau movement of the early-twentieth century.
TheArtStory: Aubrey Beardsley
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
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