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The Aesthetic Movement Collage

The Aesthetic Movement

Started: 1860
Ended: 1900
The Aesthetic Movement Timeline
"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."
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James Whistler Signature
"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."
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Oscar Wilde Signature
"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."
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
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William Morris Signature
"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."
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James Abbott 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 color."
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"By using the word 'Nocturne' .. I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first."
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James Abbott McNeill Whistler
"To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."
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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."
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Walter Pater
"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."
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Algernon Charles Swinburne

Summary of The Aesthetic Movement

During the mid-19th 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, 20th-century modern art.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • 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, they 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.

Overview of The Aesthetic Movement

The Aesthetic Movement Image

"Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone," Whistler famously said, as he wished his paintings to appeal only "to the artistic sense of eye or ear," and thereby spearheading the Aesthetic Movement.

Key Artists

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet and playwright, one of the most influential and celebrated. Associated with the Aesthetic Movement, he connected to the visual arts of his time, especially via Whistler and Ruskin.
  • Lord Frederic Leighton was a leading figure in Victorian art and the President of the Royal Academy for almost two decades. His works depicted historical, biblical and classical subject matter.

Do Not Miss

  • The Arts and Crafts Movement was an international design movement that originated in Great Britain and had a strong following in the United States. It advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform and has been seen as essentially anti-industrial.
  • Art Nouveau was a movement that swept through the decorative arts and architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generating enthusiasts throughout Europe, it was aimed at modernizing design and escaping the eclectic historical styles that had previously been popular. It drew inspiration from both organic and geometric forms, evolving elegant designs that united flowing, natural forms with more angular contours.
  • The Vienna Secession was a group of Austrian painters, sculptors and architects, who in 1897 resigned from the main Association of Austrian Artists with the mission of bringing modern European art to culturally-insulated Austria. Among the Secession's founding members were Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich.

Important Art and Artists of The Aesthetic Movement

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.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: La Ghirlandata (1873)

La Ghirlandata (1873)

Artist: Dante Gabriel Rossetti

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 complementary warm flesh tones and flaming locks of hair pop.

The model for the central figure is Alexa Wilding, whom Rossetti painted multiple times. Wilding was one of three models (the others being Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddal) who inspired the artist's vision for of new standard of beauty. Wilding's large, well-defined eyes and lips, and lush red hair point to an inherent sensuality in the work. Her appearance marks a distinct contrast to the petite facial features traditionally considered to be a marker of beauty by the Victorians. Rossetti also exalted his model's luxurious auburn hair, a trait associated with sexual licentiousness in Victorian England, as beautiful and alluring. Rossetti's red-haired beauties became an important motif of Aestheticism, with variations appearing in Aesthetic paintings as well as in the streets of London, as dying one's hair with henna became increasingly fashionable.

James Whistler: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)

Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77)

Artist: James Whistler

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."

Leyland, however, was not impressed when he discovered the liberty Whistler had taken. The two argued extensively over the artist's compensation. Infuriated, Whistler apparently returned to the room and painted a mural of two male peacocks fighting - an allusion to the artist's and patron's falling out. Whistler dubbed the panel "Art and Money; or, the Story of the Room."

The Peacock Room is recognized as the most important example of Aestheticism applied to interior design in order to create an inspirational environment. Such Aesthetic rooms elevated interior design to the realm of fine art. Its simplified, silhouetted forms, rich glazes, and reference to distinctly Japanese motifs, such as the peacock and bamboo, also make it an important example of the Anglo-Japanese style.

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain

"The Aesthetic Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain
Available from:
First published on 22 Nov 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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