The Aesthetic Movement achieved notoriety as a flamboyant cultural phenomenon in the 1870s, but its essential components developed in the work of serious artist long before then. In the 1850s and 60s, trends such as RossettiÂ’s medievalism, a revival of classicism, and interest in French realism and Japanese prints were developing. These tendencies, combined with a reaction to the particularity of Genre painting and to literary, moralistic art, formed the basis of Aestheticism.
The Aesthetic Movement achieved notoriety as a flamboyant cultural phenomenon in the 1870s, but its essential components developed in the work of serious artist long before then. In the 1850s and 60s, trends such as Rossetti’s medievalism, a revival of classicism, and interest in French realism and Japanese prints were developing. These tendencies, combined with a reaction to the particularity of Genre painting and to literary, moralistic art, formed the basis of Aestheticism. Though it is often dismissed as a temporary fad and obscured by misconceptions, the Aesthetic Movement emerged logically from the deepest concerns of Victorian art and society, and had vital implications for contemporary culture.
William Gaunt has described Aestheticism as a unity of purpose, not of styles, and while superficially the classicism of Albert Moore, the impressionism of Whistler, or the aestheticised History Painting of Frederick Leighton appear to have little in common, it is possible to discern a coherent philosophy at the heart of each.
Vital impetus was provided by Victor Cousin (1792-1867), a French philosopher who pioneered the concept of l’art pour l’art – art for art’s sake – claiming that art’s only responsibility was to beauty and perfection of form. This idea was enthusiastically endorsed in Britain, where it was felt to articulate the widespread aversion to Ruskin’s belief that art should imitate nature and be morally uplifting. By prizing beauty above all else, Aestheticism rejected these mimetic and didactic functions of art. The recurring image of female - and sometimes male – beauty became the ideal means to express this theme. But it was articulated variously – Whistler’s works demonstrate the asymmetry of the Japanese prints that became popular in the 1860s. Moore’s figures are classical in conception, revealing the revival of interest in classicism that had been promoted by the death of Ingres in 1867 and a retrospective exhibition. In each case, these works were not portraits, but idealised images of beauty. They are characterised by a distant, languid tone – the opaque eyes are rarely confrontational, often downcast or gazing into mirrors. There is no psychological contact between the figures. In Rossetti’s works especially, the figures are often arrayed with luxurious objects and fabrics, emphasising their sensuous quality.
The ideal of beauty was exemplified by the image of the flower (especially sunflowers and lilies), which became an emblem of the Movement - a honeysuckle device is used in Moore’s works. The motif was ridiculed in the press, but was in fact an analogy for beauty: ‘The masterpiece should appear as the flower to the painter – perfect in its bud as in its bloom – with no reason to explain its presence – no mission to fulfil – a joy to the artist.’
A second analogy was with music. Many of Whistler’s works had musical titles, while Moore often incorporated musical instruments, and it has been suggested that their compositions sought ‘a visual equivalent to musical rhythm and interval.’ Walter Pater (1859-94) codified this tendency by writing that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ – in other words Aestheticism aspired to an abstract form based on the ‘pure’ painterly elements of form, colour and line, and free of narrative, subject matter, and social responsibility.
Whistler, The Princess of the Land of Porcelain (1864)
A result of this emphasis on pure beauty and decorative effect was that the status of design, which had been perceived as inferior to art, became elevated. The Aesthetic Movement was equally significant in this field, producing masterpieces such as those by Aubrey Beardsley. The more mutual status allowed artists and designers to co-operate – Whistler worked with Thomas Jeckyll in designing the Peacock Room, London, in 1876-77. He contributed the stylised peacock motif (itself an emblem of Aestheticism) and the room also provided the perfect frame for his painting The Princess of the Land of Porcelain (1864). Burne-Jones was involved in the applied arts, designing tapestries and windows for Morris & Co. This affected his sensibility as an artist, encouraging a highly decorative, flat and tactile quality, with the main emphasis being on surface and colour.
The connection with design provided impetus for the Movement itself. Victorian design had often been of notoriously low quality, characterised by eclecticism and grotesqueness. This situation was criticised in Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, with its vulgar and cluttered interior. The need for improvement in design was widely recognised and this helped Aestheticism and the pursuit of beauty to gain acceptance as a positive force for change in art and design. This culminated in Burne-Jones’s King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884), in which a king forsakes his wealth for beauty and love – signifying the rejection of Victorian materialism.
Hunt, The Awakening Conscience
Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884)
Since the love of beauty became a cult, art worship ‘became a substitute for religion.’ This is evident in Leighton’s painting Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna, which depicts a celebration of Cimabue’s religious icon, which was to serve as an altarpiece. But by depicting the secular procession, Leighton divorces it from this context. The foreshortening in his rendering of the picture situates the virtuosity of the artist at the centre. Similarly, the principle figure is Cimabue – the Bishop and the king are relegated to the margins of the image: both are subordinated to the cult of art. The figure beside Cimabue is his pupil Giotto – thus signifying the triumphant progress of art.
Leighton, Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna
Julian Treuherz has commented that the Aesthetic Movement was paradoxical in that, although beauty was the central concern, the need was felt for art to have a deeper meaning. For this reason, the cult of beauty was accompanied by an attempt to cultivate the taste of the public. Walter Hamilton wrote that ‘The essence of the Movement is the union of persons of taste to define and decide upon what is to be admired.’ Therefore, it would be an oversimplification to say that the Movement had no didactic purpose: without trying to morally improve the public, it did try to edify by promoting superior taste, and a distinction between Aesthetes and Philistines developed. This is evident in G.F. Watts’s works, but another interesting result was seen in children’s books. Artists and publishers saw an opportunity to instil artistic values in children to condition them into Aesthetes, and illustrators such as Kate Greenaway and Edmund Evans (1826-1906) radically improved the quality of children’s books.
The attempt to elevate taste required publicity, and for this reason Oscar Wilde embarked on a lecture tour of the USA, while Whistler was moved to give his ‘Ten o’clock’ lecture when he saw that Aestheticism had become for many a casual fashion.
But the other side of this search for publicity was the satirical response of society. Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience was mentioned last week, and a long-running repost to the Movement occurred in Punch, which satirised Whistler’s musical titles and the flower motif, portraying Wilde as a sunflower. It also made fun of a pretentious family of Aesthetes called the Cimabue Browns.
But society’s attitude to Aestheticism could also have more serious repercussions. Leighton’s works were accused of emasculating the male-dominated genre of History Painting. For example, Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (1871) depicts a heroic, ennobling event in the manner of History Painting, but hierarchical distinctions between the figures are wrong: the main event is displaced to the edge of the image. The focus is not on the heroic male, but the passive female body, which is elongated to give a reposeful, horizontal emphasis. For this reason, Leighton’s work, which adapted History Painting to Aestheticist concerns, was accused of effeminacy and therefore dismissed as trivial.