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Oscar Wilde - Biography and Legacy

Irish Writer, Critic, Aesthete

Born: October 16, 1854 - Dublin, Ireland
Died: November 30, 1900 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Aesthetic Art

Biography of Oscar Wilde


Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born into a family of professional and literary parents. His father, Sir William Wilde, was Ireland's preeminent ear and eye surgeon and a philanthropist and writer who published books on archaeology, peasant folklore and a biography of the satirist Jonathan Swift. Wilde's mother, Jane, a committed Irish nationalist, and recognized authority on Celtic myth, was a revolutionary poet who wrote under the pen-name "Speranza". It was Jane Wilde who can be credited with instilling in her son his love for poetry and neo-classical art.

Early Education and Training

A pupil at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen between 1864-71, Wilde was already gaining a reputation as something of a wunderkind. He demonstrated an early prowess for humorous storytelling and excelled in reading the classics. He also took to languages, becoming fluent in French and German. Wilde went on to win awards for his translations of Greek and Latin texts, including a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin, Ireland's most prestigious university. Attending between 1871-74, Wilde became an outspoken member of Trinity's Philosophical Society. A champion of the maverick Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the "passionately atheistic" poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Wilde would win one of Trinity's top academic awards, the Berkely Gold Medal for Greek, while actively promoting himself as an Aesthete. Even at this early age, Wilde had started to attract attention through his unique writing style and his nonconformist lifestyle.

Oscar Wilde in his iconic Bohemian regalia

Between 1874 and 1878, Wilde studied classical literature at Magdalen College at Oxford University where he distinguished himself as a classical scholar, a poseur and a humourist. He was attracted by the rituals and dress of Freemasonry and attained the "Sublime Degree of Master Mason"; and though he held widely conflicting views on religion, he was deeply attracted to Catholicism, even meeting Pope Pius IX in 1877.

In his third year at Oxford, Wilde met the essayist and art critic Walter Pater who advocated the rejection of "vulgar" bourgeois virtue in favor of an art that exists without the need for justification or moral purpose. Pater argued, moreover, for an enhanced sensibility towards beauty, and a life lived with aesthetic intensity. Under Pater's influence, Wilde's devotion to art intensified while the teachings of art historian and critic John Ruskin offered the young scholar fresh perspectives on the nature of art. Wilde began to dabble in art criticism himself with his review of the opening show of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 for Dublin University Magazine. As the literary historian Anne Bruder observed, "His review exemplifies his early attitudes toward the coming of modernism, views clearly derived from Ruskin" in the way he "elevates that which represents nature most clearly to the highest position of excellence".

Following Pater's maxim "burn always with a hard gemlike flame", Wilde revelled in the idea of the aesthetic pose and immersed himself in the Aesthetic and Decadent movements. Growing his hair long and dressing flamboyantly, he decorated his rooms with objets d'art, peacock feathers, lilies and sunflowers, declaring, "Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!". Wilde won Oxford University's prestigious Newdigate Prize, an annual poetry award (won previously by Ruskin) for his poem Ravenna. By now, Wilde had started to attract a group of dedicated followers who were drawn to the Irishman's iconoclasm and his glorification of the virtues of youth.

After completing his studies at Oxford, Wilde returned to Ireland where he hoped to revive his romantic relationship with Florence Balcombe, a celebrated beauty. Florence, much to Wilde's anguish, became engaged to Bram Stoker (author of Dracula) prompting Wilde to move to London where he boarded with the highly successful society portraitist Frank Miles. Miles, who shared Wilde's love of flowers, had purchased a house in the newly fashionable Tite Street in Chelsea; a street that counted the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and the illustrator Charles Rickets and his partner Charles Shannon, amongst its residence. Miles's home was decorated (as was Whistler's) with sparse furnishings and with a Japoniste colour scheme and styling.

Mature Period

In 1881 Wilde published (at his own expense) his first poetry collection, Poems. Drawing heavily on the likes of Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Keats (a little too heavily for some critics') it drew mixed notices. The satirical magazine Punch, which lampooned Aestheticism as an effeminate art form, singled out Wilde as its literary talisman: "The poet is Wilde, but his poetry's tame" it pronounced. Any objections to Poems did not dent his rising fame, however, and the names of Wilde and Miles soon spread throughout London's Society circles who flocked to Chelsea to socialize with the two aesthetes.

Wilde, photographed in New York City, 1882

With the rising interest in the Aestheticism movement in America, Richard D'Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario who staged the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, sent the 27-year old Wilde on a lecture tour of North America. His role was to promote Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience, which satirised the Aesthetic movement and partly parodied Wilde as the "fleshly poet" Bunthorne. The American press had been somewhat scathing of Wilde's indolence and his aesthetic attire (of velvet jacket, knee breeches, and silk stockings) but they were, nevertheless, eager to get an original quote from him. Several newspaper reporters even hired a launch boat to meet Wilde on his ship before it docked in New York. But it was on his passage through the port's customs office that Wilde offered the most famous of all his witticisms, declaring "I have nothing to declare but my genius". In an interview the following day, Wilde added that "I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that".

The lecture tour, originally scheduled for four months, lasted an entire year, with Wilde giving a total of 140 lectures. At Harvard University, the students dressed as Bunthorne, paraded to their front row seats, brandishing sunflowers and lilies. Alerted of their actions in advance, Wilde confounded expectations by taking to the stage in conventional evening dress and announcing, "Caricature is the tribute that mediocrity pays to genius [...] Save me from my disciples". A highlight of Wilde's travels came at a silver mine in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There, he read passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the eminent 16th century Italian silversmith. The "uncultured" miners were disappointed that Wilde had not brought Cellini with him as a guest! Informing them that Cellini was dead, one of the miners asked, "Who shot him?" Wilde also met with various distinguished writers, including Henry Longfellow, Henry James and Walt Whitman. To Whitman, Wilde wrote, "There is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honor so much". Whitman later told the press that he and Wilde had "a jolly good time".

Alice Pike Barney's portrait of her daughter Natalie as Lucifer

While staying at the Long Beach Hotel on New York's Long Island, Wilde encountered the wealthy industrialist Albert Clifford Barney, his wife Alice, and their daughters Natalie and Laura. Alice listened intently to Wilde's pronouncements on the importance of developing children's artistic tastes and how to decorate one's home aesthetically. Wilde left an indelible impression on Alice, who herself went on to pursue a bohemian lifestyle and a new career in art (despite her husband's vocal protests). On one occasion, Wilde rescued Natalie from a gang of chasing schoolboys who by scooping her up onto his lap and calming her by recounting a fairy tale. From that moment, Wilde became Natalie's lifelong hero. She grew up to become one of Paris's most celebrated and notorious literary salon hostesses, and a lesbian lover of Wilde's niece Dolly.

Returning from America, Wilde embarked on a lecture tour in Britain, regaling his audiences with his impressions of the New World. In 1884, he proposed to Constance Lloyd whom he had met three years earlier. Their marital home at 16 Tite Street in London was renovated at considerable expense to match the couple's Aesthetic ideals. The couple had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but after he second pregnancy, Wilde was left physically repelled by Constance. His first homosexual experience was probably with Robert "Robbie" Ross, who Wilde met in Oxford in 1886. Ross's inclinations were open and unrestrained, despite Victorian Britain's attitudes towards morality.

Cover of an edition of <i>The Woman's World</i>

Between 1887-89, Wilde acted as editor for The Lady's World magazine (renaming it The Woman's World). In addition to his views on art and literature, he contributed serious articles on parenting, culture, and politics, and even stories to be read to children. Wilde saw the magazine as "the recognized organ for the expression of women's opinions on all subjects of literature, art and modern life, and yet it should be a magazine that men could read with pleasure". While The Woman's World was not a commercial success, his involvement with the publication helped catapult Wilde to even greater fame. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was published meanwhile in 1888, revealing his talent for allegoric fairy tales (one of which carried a cutting criticism of Whistler's Impressionistic painting Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1887)).

Wilde produced his most important works in his later life. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray - a story about a self-destructive man who maintains eternal youth at the expense of his soul - was published in the July 1890 edition of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. It was expanded by six chapters into book form the following year. Despite the cautionary tale that was the hero's self-destruction, the novel came under fire for its decadence and homosexual allusions with The Daily Chronicle describing it as "unclean", "poisonous", and "heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction". Wilde vigorously defended himself in letters to the press, but later revised the book, removing the passages of overt homo-eroticism, and adding a preface of 22 epigrams on the purpose of art.

In 1891, Wilde published a collection of essays on aestheticism in Intentions (1891), an anthology influenced by the ideas of the French poets Théophile Gautier and

Nevertheless, Wilde travelled to Paris where he was celebrated as a respected writer at renowned literary salons. It was through his conversations in social settings that Wilde truly thrived. Writer Frances Winwar described how, before "a group of listeners, especially if they were young and handsome and titled, he outdid himself. In the spark of their admiration his mind quickened. Epigram followed epigram, one more dazzling, more preposterous than the other, yet always, like the incandescent core of the firework, with the burning truth at the heart".

Wilde had first met William Morris in 1881. Following that meeting, Morris wrote that though Wilde was "certainly clever" he thought of him as "an ass". The two men did, however, become friends and their political views were close enough that ten years on Morris's essay "The Socialist Ideal" appeared together in a pamphlet with Wilde's "Soul of Man under Socialism" (also published in The Fortnightly Review in February 1891). Wilde's essay has confused scholars who have queried his motivations. As historian Xavier Giudicelli observed, the essay is "a surprising and slippery text, whose nature and value is difficult to ascertain". He suggests that "One possible way of solving the problem [...] is to dismiss it as a mere playful variation upon such notions as socialism, individualism or democracy and to regard it as a flippant response to contemporary debates in late Victorian Britain". But both Morris and Wilde backed the socialist principle that the worker's "moral character" was only improved if there was a creative aspect to manual labor. Wilde wrote: "A great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of manual labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is morally and mentally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such".

The Pre-Raphaelite style design by Charles Richetts of Oscar Wilde's <i>A House of Pomegranates</i>

Later in 1891 Wilde was back on more familiar territory with the publication of two volumes of stories and fairy tales: Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories and A House of Pomegranates. The publication of the latter confirmed Wilde's friendship with Charles Rickets whose graphic work was inspired by the dreamy maidens of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (he would also illustrate Wilde's The Sphinx in 1894, and painted the hero of Wilde's short story, The Portrait of Mr. W. H., which was used as the frontispiece of the book). The men formed a close and lasting relationship with Rickets, who described Wilde as "the most remarkable man he had met", even publishing a personal memoir, Recollections of Oscar Wilde in 1932. (shortly before Rickets's death). (The memoir was written through the narrative device of an imagined conversation between Rickets and a fictitious French writer he named Jean Paul Raymond (a decision which would have no doubt met with Wilde's approval).

Later Period

It was, however, for Wilde's society stage comedies, executed in the strict style of drama known as the pièce bien faite ("well made play") that he would become best known. His first stage success was the comedy of manners, Lady Windermere's Fan, first performed in 1892. Set in London, the play involves a jealous wife whose husband's becomes closely acquainted with a mysterious and beautiful older woman, Mrs. Erlynne. It transpires that Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere's divorced mother who had disappeared from her daughter's life when she was just a baby. Mrs. Erlynne and the well intentioned and proper Lord Windermere are not engaged in an illicit affair at all but, rather, Mrs. Erlynne is hatching a plot to be reunited with her estranged daughter. Taking to the stage after its first performance (in February), Wilde announced, "The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself". The play duly toured Britain, earning Wilde £7,000 (around £800,000 in todays money) in its first year.

Gustave Moreau, <i>The Apparition (Dance of Salomé)</i> (1876). The biblical story of <i>Salomé</i> had been a popular theme in art since the Renaissance.

After becoming captivated by the New Testament story of the beheading of John the Baptist, Wilde interpreted, firstly in French, the macabre story of Salomé as a one-act play. The story had been a popular subject for Christian art since the Renaissance (well-known examples include Masolino de Panicale's 1435 fresco, Salome Bringing the Head of the Baptist to Herodias and French Symbolist Gustave Moreau's 1876 painting, The Apparition (Dance of Salome)). Wilde's Salomé was published in 1893, and in English the following year, promoted with the help of designer Aubrey Beardsley's controversial illustration. It was not performed until 1896, however, because of Britain's ban on the representation of biblical characters on stage. When it finally reached the West End stage, a critic for The Times said of Salomé, "It is an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred". Salomé was quickly followed by three society comedies, bringing their author significant financial rewards.

The first was A Woman of No Importance (1893), a comedy of manners (the name given to a type of play that satirizes the behaviour in a particular social group) targeting English upper-class mores and hypocrisy, and a protest against gender inequalities. The critic William Archer said of the play it "must be taken on the very highest plane of modern English drama". An Ideal Husband and, by almost unanimous agreement, his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest both followed in 1895. An Ideal Husband is a scandalous social satire about a political blackmail plot that embroils a lively cast including an idle philanderer, young lovers, an imperious father, society doyennes and a fearsome femme fatale. The play opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London in January 1895 to popular acclaim, and exceeded 100 performances. His final play, The Importance of Being Earnest (subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People) proved his greatest legacy to the stage as he took the conventions of farce and transformed them, in three acts, through a series of satiric epigrams that ridiculed Victorian hypocrisies.

A comedy of overlapping mistaken identities (two philanderers, Jack and Algernon, adopt the same pseudonym (Earnest)), The Importance of Being Earnest opened at George Alexander's St. James Theatre in London's West End on Valentine's Day 1895. It was said that on its opening night, as a mark of recognition for Wilde's aestheticism, many women dressed in lily corsages, while many men wore lilies of the valley in their lapels. Wilde himself arrived in typically flamboyant dress. It was widely reported in the press that he wore a black coat with a velvet collar, a white waistcoat, a black moiré ribbon watch chain, white gloves, a green scarab ring, and lilies of the valley in his lapel. It was not lost on Wilde devotees, either, that the West End was the red light district; a place where married men could abandon their true identity and indulge in the reckless pursuit of pleasure. Indeed, most of Wilde's works operated around the themes of sin, indiscretion and their destructive consequences. Indeed, his maxim that "life imitates art" (as opposed to "art imitates life") was proving to be most prescient as he himself was beginning to feel the destructive consequences of his own pursuit of unbridled pleasure.


Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas, May 1893.

In 1891 Wilde had been introduced to the 17-year old, Lord Alfred Douglas, who was studying at Oxford. They embarked on an indiscreet and tempestuous affair, with the infatuated Wilde indulging the spoilt Douglas's every whim. Douglas introduced Wilde into the world of gay prostitution, and illicit meetings with working-class boys. Their relationship exacerbated Douglas's already rocky relationship with his father, the Marquess of Queensberry. On February 18th, 1895, four days after the opening of Earnest, the Marquess left a calling card for Wilde inscribed, "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]". Urged on by Douglas, but against the advice of close friends, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel.

An 1877 <i>Vanity Fair</i> caricature of the Marquess of Queensbury

Queensberry had to demonstrate that his accusation was true and hired private detectives to uncover evidence of Wilde's sexual deviance. Details of Wilde's private life began to appear in the press, and when a number of male prostitutes agreed to testify against him, Wilde dropped the prosecution. On leaving court, Wilde, who had ignored advice from his friends to flee to France, was immediately arrested for "gross indecency". During his first trial, Wilde dazzled the court with his witty repartee, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict. At the re-trial, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour. His initial incarceration at Pentonville Prison consisted of many gruelling hours on a treadmill and the mundane task of separating out fibres from old rope. Subsequently, at Wandsworth Prison, he collapsed from illness and hunger, rupturing his right ear drum in the fall. He was later transferred to Reading Gaol where he was addressed and identified only by his prison number: C33. Rickets visited his good friend in Reading (and publicly reproached the "social reformer" William Morris for not doing so) but according to Wilde the visit was not a success.

Between January and March 1897, Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, tracing his spiritual journey of redemption and fulfilment. He was barred from sending the letter, but was permitted to take it with him when released from prison in the May of that year. In the letter, published posthumously in 1905 as De Profundis, Wilde reflected upon his life and career, as one who "stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age". The dramatically cut De Profundis was filled with recriminations against Douglas for encouraging him into debauchery and for distracting him from his life's work though the two lovers would be briefly reunited.

Oscar Wilde, photographed in Rome, shortly before his death in 1900

On the day of his release, a bankrupt and broken Wilde, headed for France, never to return to Britain. He spent the last three years of his life in exile, living under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. His only further published work was a long poem called "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898), an eloquent plea for prison reform. His wife Constance refused to meet him or allow him to see their sons, although she did provide him with monies. Wilde and Douglas lived together near Naples for a few months before they were effectively separated by both families under the threat of cutting off all further funds.

In 1898 the English painters Augustus John and William Rothenstein met Wilde in Paris. John, "appreciative of him as a great man", described Wilde as a "distinguished reprobate [...] a big and good-natured fellow with an enormous sense of fun, impeccable bad taste [and] a deeply religious apprehension of the Devil". Wilde was similarly taken with John, describing him as a "charming Celtish poet in colour". George Bernard Shaw, meanwhile, noted that despite his numerous woes, Wilde maintained "an unconquerable gaiety of soul" and he was also visited by loyal friends, the caricaturist and wit Max Beerbohm, and his future literary executor Robert Ross. By November 25th 1900 Wilde had developed cerebral meningitis and died five days later at the age of 46, having been finally received into the Roman Catholic Church. Wilde had proved true to his word when he had predicted that he "could never outlive the [nineteenth] century as the English people would not stand it".

The Legacy of Oscar Wilde

Although Wilde did not contribute directly to the plastic arts, stylistically, Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for Wilde's play Salomé helped promote the florid decoration of Art Nouveau and the illustrations of artists such as William Rothenstein. Indeed, Wilde was a giant presence within the Aesthetic movement, promoting its values through his writing, and his seemingly single-handed invention of the "cult of personality". He offered as much as anyone in defining the alternative culture of Victorian London. As the living personification of his art, he pre-empted a trait amongst contemporary artists, that reached a new apex in Britain in the mid-1990s with the Young British Artists movement, for hedonistic self-publicity.

In more enlightened times, Wilde (despite being personally conflicted over his sexual drives) has been cast by the LGBTQ activists as a martyr to their cause and was commemorated with a stained-glass window at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey in 1995. In 2014, he was one of the inaugural honorees in the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco's Castro neighbourhood noting LGBTQ people who have "made significant contributions in their fields".

Writer, director and thespian, Rupert Everett wrote, directed, and starred as Wilde in The Happy Prince (2018), the latest in a long line of filmed adaptations of Wilde's life. Everett stated, "for me he is an integral character in that [...] he really is, in modern times, the first "out" gay man and I think for all of us [gay men] that's quite important in the sense that homosexuality up until him was something nobody ever talked about [...] The road to liberation I think started with him [...] he's my Christ figure really".

Oscar Wilde and Important Artists and Artworks

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Oscar Wilde Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 24 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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