views updated


The term "aestheticism" is generally associated with artistic currents before and around the turn of the nineteenth century. It is especially prominent in the artistic, literary, and cultural discussion of late Victorianism and most particularly the 1890s, also referred to as the "mauve decade" (referring to the evasive, subversive, and aesthetic tendencies of the era), and largely congruent with ideas circulating in the current of decadence, l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake), and the fin de siècle (end of the century). The idea of exactly one mauve "decade" can be misleading, since the origins of aestheticist approaches to art go back far into the century, and its aftermath is visible into the 1920s and beyond in both European and American art. One of the most prominent and controversial figures of the era is certainly Oscar Wilde, but the group of aestheticist writers also comprises Walter Pater, Aubrey Beardsley, and many others as well as Donald Evans and Richard Le Gallienne, two aestheticists who later became known on the American scene. The movement influenced all literary genres and art forms from opera to the visual arts and design, where it was reflected in the arts and crafts movement. The discussions and controversies related to the movement had broad reverberations far beyond the turn of the century and extended from the realm of art to the social, political, and philosophical spheres.


Aestheticism can be defined as the ideal of creating works of art that renounce any purpose or meaning other than their own refined beauty. This beauty is completely autonomous: it is free to abandon conventional ideas of social acceptance, economic value, or greater moral goal. Accordingly these works also abandon the ideal of representing nature and focus instead on the creation of an autonomous artistic creation. The values of the real are replaced by those that appeal to the beholder of beautiful creations. The ideal for fictional creations of this kind is to be elegant and eloquent, entertaining and playful, stunning and sharp. The use of the term "fin de siècle" is extended to anything seen as advanced, modern, or decadent at the end of the nineteenth century. "Decadence" itself is a term used since Roman antiquity to refer to phenomena of moral or cultural decay, deviance from the social norm, physical or moral laxity, perversion, or effeminate demeanor. The poets and artists ridiculed and exposed as decadents in the 1890s embraced the term and used it to distance themselves from the rigid cultural norms of Victorian Britain.


The rise of aestheticism in the late nineteenth century originated in the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and the French symbolists. Poets, writers, and artists such as Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Pierre Loti created sceneries of indulgence and narcissism; their protagonists are mostly concerned with beauty and sensual matters. The artifacts show no or little concern for time and place and instead display an inwardness and self-consciousness that can best be seen in their predilection for a refined elegance of language and style, for decorative description, and for themes of reflection, dream, or oblivion. Gradually taking the shape of a movement, aestheticist thought spread from Paris throughout the Continent (notably to Barcelona, Vienna, Prague, Budapest) and to London. Aestheticism was an urban, intellectual, and cosmopolitan movement: since its subject matter was art itself, it relied on the education, taste, and wide reading of those interested in it. While it did not completely neglect political conflict and class struggle, the movement mostly used these issues as targets for bitter sarcasm and world-weary satire at best: social commitment was not the métier of the "decadents." However, their own self-fashioning as artists lent itself to confrontation with the governing moral, social, and political norms.


Aestheticism can indeed be understood as an attempt to counter the social and political developments of the era. In times marked by radical innovations and rapid urban and industrial growth—and, in Victorian England, an empire still evolving under the reign of a monarch who had been in power for over sixty years—there was a widespread consciousness at least among some intellectuals of a need for reflection and change. More people than ever before were literate and aware of the coming end of the century, of the vast technological progress and imperial conquests of the 1800s, and the industrial speed at which things were now advancing. Communications, business, and banking had increasingly pushed the limits of capitalism and imperialism, leaving little room for reasoning on the role, merit, and value of humans and their equality under these conditions. Darwinism appeared to provide the only valid explanation for this and was all too easily translated to the sphere of human existence. The movements of aestheticism, however, were more concerned with the marginal figures who had no place in the doctrine of Social Darwinism: vagabonds, artists, and all those who refused to adjust to the system of industrialized imperialism.


Human beings in decadent art and writing are irretrievably flawed and live in a state of disruption both with themselves and with an equally flawed Nature. Since this is the case, humans can only overcome this imperfect melancholy state momentarily in acts of sin, disguise, or pretense. The "perverted" and unnatural is valued higher than any natural state, and anything that can provoke or prolong an unnatural state of things is welcome. Life is seen as play and performance without content or meaning, and it is inferior to any state of dreamy existence. Experience is artificially enhanced by drugs and absinthe, a strong and slightly toxic green alcohol. Exotic foreign travel is another means of indulging in aesthetic and sensuous spheres, making the Orient and the South Seas common destinations for decadent travelers. In most cases these destinations are sights that either stand for the futile grandeur of empires past (Grecian, Egyptian, or Byzantine ruins), primitivism, complete forlornness, or religious rituals. Images of the sacred in decadent works of art are abundant. The typical originator, protagonist, or agent in aestheticist works of art is the dandy or flaneur (casual passerby). The dandy displays a clear disdain for everything ordinary and quotidian, values elegance and taste, and has no regard for traditional gender roles and sexual norms. The impulse of the decadent movement aims more at evasion and escapism than at the actual confrontation with the real world, in which it takes little interest.


Apart from the (in)famous Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), with his plays and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), a group of poets and writers in London gathered around The Yellow Book, a quarterly founded in 1894 by Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) and the American writer Henry Harland (1861–1905), who was the literary editor. The magazine soon became the central organ of the new aestheticist movement both in literature and the arts. Among other Americans involved with the development of the Yellow Book (which was named after the customary cover color of the scandalous French novels at the time) was the contributor Henry James, who was profoundly influenced by the London scene in his later descriptions of European sophistication (and corruption) and American naïveté (and innocence). Richard Le Gallienne (1866–1947), an English writer and critic, also was a contributor and a close acquaintance of the English critic Max Beerbohm before moving to New York. Le Gallienne wrote poetry, fiction (Quest of the Golden Girl, 1896), and several volumes of essays, papers, and reminiscences of the 1890s. Le Gallienne's view of humans through the eyes of the decadent poet is among the most poignant of his times. He sees humans as mysterious beings behind masks, as beings that remain inexplicable, be they nostalgic or filled with bliss. The American poet Donald Evans (1884–1921) expressed similar views. Evans published several volumes of poetry, among them Discords (1912), and Sonnets from the Patagonian (1918). His love poems, such as "Resemblance" and "Loving Kindness," are filled with conflicts and situations that defy normative visions of harmony and unmask the seductive appeal or cruelty of love. The themes, views, and aesthetics expressed in decadent writing outlasted their day and can be found in the works of writers such as Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.


If aestheticism and decadence have to be seen as subversive, the impulse of confrontation also drives the arts and crafts movement, a British initiative in the field of decorative arts and design whose influence was widely felt in both Europe and the United States. A group of artists, architects, and critics gathered under that name after the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society had been founded in 1888 in London. Their aim was primarily to foster a broad understanding and acceptance not merely of art but of new methods and styles that relied on manual skill and aptitude, quality materials, plain methods of construction, and ample decorative surfaces. The focus of the craftsperson was to be on the production process and the materials used as well as on the use of the product and the function of its design. The idea was to restore the link between creative individuals and their work, the goal of this restoration being a renewed unity—lost with industrialization—of art and production, form and function. The shaping and making of objects should be returned to the hands of one individual and not be segmented into several steps that could be administered rationally and distributed among several workers.


Beyond the spreading of artistic styles and methods of production, a broader social and political agenda was associated with the activities of the arts and crafts movement. The two chief proponents of this agenda were William Morris (1873–1932) and John Ruskin (1819–1900). Morris was a designer and skilled craftsman who also worked as a political essayist, writer, poet, and artist. Ruskin was an art historian and critic. Both worked toward a wider understanding of the procedures and actions involved in the making of design and artwork, referring to material arts (better, that is, more valuable, more lasting, and sometimes more prestigious materials, requiring more refined manual skills). The forms of art were not meant to be revolutionary, even though there was a greater potential for exhibiting art in public and propagating art in architecture (sculpture, furniture, frescoes). Ruskin took great interest in medieval traditions in the field of crafts and manufacturing, which he saw as a stage of individual creativity in which human beings had not yet been alienated from their fabrications. He also favored agricultural and rural modes of production that allowed for a natural rhythm in work processes, a more human pace in production, and an ultimately holistic concept of work. Ruskin ultimately upheld the moral values and concepts of beauty inherent in craftwork and preferred them to those of industrial production. Both he and Morris saw the extensive use of machines as a central problem of human existence that enslaved humans in labor consisting of repetitive and senseless segments and destroying the sincere and meaningful work of individuals. Morris later became a committed socialist and communist who saw expansionist and imperialist Victorianism as a threat to human welfare. Another significant influence on the doctrine of the arts and crafts movement and its promotion was the English industrial designer Christopher Dresser, who had studied Japanese art and design, which he later taught in the United States, applying his knowledge mostly to the shaping of engines and industrial components.


While the arts and crafts movement worked toward a more detailed and profound arts appreciation and changes in the modes of production and reception or consumption, aestheticism lacked all political ambition and was eager to flee the pressures and restrictions of Victorian society. Both used the same models and ideals, dwelling on the ideas of an agrarian idyll and glorifications of the past, and both equally rejected the idea of progress, imperialism, capitalism, and pragmatism. After World War I the elements of both movements blended into art nouveau, which relied on organic models and exotic themes while it also favored geometrical simplicity and a focus on the effect of the artwork.

See alsoArt and Architecture; Arts and Crafts; Bohemians and Vagabondia; Foriegn Visitors; Genteel Tradition


Primary Works

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du mal. 1856. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1978.

Evans, Donald. Discords. Philadelphia: N. L. Brown, 1912.

Evans, Donald. Sonnets from the Patagonian. Philadelphia: N. L. Brown, 1918.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. A rebours. 1884. Paris: GF-Flammarion, 2001.

Le Gallienne, Richard. Quest of the Golden Girl. 1896. New York: John Lane, 1920.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Secondary Works

Bell-Villada, Gene H. Art for Art's Sake and Literary Life: How Politics and Markets Helped Shape the Ideology and Culture of Aestheticism, 1790–1990. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Burns, Sarah. Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Freedman, Jonathan. Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth, ed. After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Stokes, John. In the Nineties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Weir, David. Decadence and the Making of Modernism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

Zorn, Christa. Vernon Lee: Aesthetics, History, and the Victorian Female Intellectual. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Christian Berkemeier