Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. [...] A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers. Of course man may sell the flower, and so make it useful to him, but this has nothing to do with the flower. It is not part of its essence. It is accidental.
Characteristics of the Aesthetic Movement
The Aesthetic Movement, as a 19th-century artistic movement, was a rather fluid and ephemeral philosophical approach to life and the creation and appreciation of art. That said, there are several characteristics shared among many of its adherents:
1. Art for art’s sake
As Wilde explained in his 1890 letter, art should seek to be aesthetically pleasing above all. Embedding deeper meaning — whether moralistic, sociopolitical or otherwise — only functions to cheapen the experience of joy. This tenet on the “meaninglessness” of art should indicate anything but shallowness; the Aesthetic movement was highly intellectual, drawing heavily from Kantian philosophy.
2. Emphasis on aesthetic beauty
Aestheticism eschewed the gaudiness of Victorian furniture styles and decorative motifs, seeking to refine designs. This included “Dandy” fashions of the day, which were often flamboyant, to paintings and literature. The movement advocated for the pursuit of beauty in all things related to interior design, from wallpapers and shelves to chandeliers and side tables.
3. Natural motifs
Aesthetic artists often considered nature as the ultimate source of all beauty, drawing heavily from Japanese decorative iconography. Other natural imagery abounded in Aesthetic art, and peacock feathers became a widespread motif in the shared visual language of the painters and designers of the movement. Artists like William Morris particularly embraced the pleasures of the natural world, focusing almost solely on all-over prints of natural abundance.
4. Rejection of Victorian stuffiness
The Victorian era held a rather restrictive view of immorality, and many laws were developed to uphold the highly conservative social norms. These strictures often enacted strict punishments for divergent lifestyles — particularly sexual offenses such as homosexuality and prostitution. Advocates of Aestheticism rejected the perceived materialism of the era, though they simultaneously sought a new form of decadence in the pursuit of joy and beauty.
5. More than a movement, Aestheticism was a lifestyle.
Aesthetes, more than seeking to enjoy and indulge in beautiful things, sought to live lives that privileged beauty. More than visual art alone, Aestheticism’s principles applied also to literature, poetry and furniture. A dandy himself, Oscar Wilde incorporated Aestheticism throughout his life. He indulged in elegant, yet divergent and outlandish, fashions in dress and personal grooming. He held lavish parties for his friends and acquaintances, decorating his apartment with silk, blue china, peacock feathers and endless bouquets of flowers.
Fine Art of the Aesthetic Movement
Many artists of the Aesthetic movement overlapped with several other movements of the 19th century — particularly Pre-Raphaelite and early Art Nouveau paintings, due to the shared adoration of nature and rejection of Academic tradition. One such artist who defies easy categorization is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who once quipped: “It is beautiful, the world, and life itself. I am glad I have lived.” In many ways, the Aesthetic artist’s effervescent compositions honor the beauty he saw all around him. In the 1880 painting below, entitled The Day Dream, Rossetti does not reference any mythological or biblical figure. Rather, the subject of the painting is Jane Morris, the wife of fellow Aesthetic movement artist William Morris.
Like many British Aesthetes, William Morris attended Oxford University. There, he became close friends with fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones. While traveling together through northern France in 1885, the pair committed themselves to “a life of art,” to pursue artistic creation and beauty above all. They began to apprentice with other Aesthetic and Pre-Raphaelite artists, before Morris abandoned painting to pursue wallpaper design and textiles — fully embracing his call to infuse everything in the home with a decadent beauty. Honeysuckle is merely one of a multitude of Morris’s compelling patterns, which indulged in natural motifs and forms that would heavily influence the Art Nouveau movement.
Another work that highlights these aesthetic considerations is a work from Spanish artist Antonio Torres Fuster, entitled On the Terrace. Torres-Fuster’s depiction of the woman, marked by beautiful tones and textures, gives this work a depth and luminosity that is truly spectacular; the influence of Aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelite painting are highly visible. The subject is a young woman — sumptuously dressed seated on a terrace, gazing thoughtfully into the distance of a lush landscape. A viewer might imagine that she is contemplating the beauty that surrounds her. Other smaller details, like the peacock feathers in her fan, indicate the artist’s Aesthetic influences. A similar fan can be viewed in Frederic Leighton’s Pavonia.
Fine Furniture and Objet d’Art of the Aesthetic Movement
The attention to aesthetic beauty also affected furniture and other utilitarian objects created by other followers of the movement. Many to streamline and naturalize the dramatic stylistic norms of the Victorian era, and in doing so, created new designs that turned everyday objects into objet d’art.
One such craftsman was Christopher Dresser, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland and attended the Schools of Design in London, a school dedicated to training students in creating designs specifically for industrial production. Machine manufacturing made household items more accessible to the general population in the late 19th century, creating opportunities for artisans to innovate in process and design. Dresser’s education — combined with his affinity for the tenets of Aestheticism — led him to experiment in these realms, resulting in some of the most beautiful and visionary silverplate objects ever created. The artist was introduced to Japanese decorative arts at the 1862 International Exhibition in London, and the minimalistic design and clean lines of this tea set embody the great influence of Japanese art on Dresser’s aesthetics.
The Centennial International Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia introduced the unique style to cabinetmakers and other craftsmen in the United States. It remained an essential driving force in American fine art — particularly in domestic furnishings — throughout the 1880s. It was, however, relatively short-lived, making the most impressive examples of furniture quite rare and sought after by those looking to purchase historic and artful home decor.
The brass and silverplate table above, created by the Charles Parker Company, is a particularly exceptional example of the aesthetic furnishings that were so coveted during this period. Its artistry and craftsmanship reveal the heights that American artisans achieved during the Aesthetic Movement, and it is comparable to American Aesthetic furnishing found in museums throughout the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. A compelling mix of material, texture and form in the impressive design lend the table a character that is both luxuriant and reminiscent of Japanese influences, with stylized flowers and other motifs in the metal.
Legacy of the Aesthetic MovementThe Aesthetic Movement was highly successful in shaking up mid and late-19th century Victorian England, garnering a fair number of supporters and critics. Many contemporaries criticized the movement as hedonistic and shallow, or debated the value of art without moralistic messages. Of Aestheticism’s core values, philosopher Frederich Nietzsche famously wrote: “…what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? select? highlight? By doing all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations… Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake)?”
Further, the movement was brief. Many artists and writers of the Aesthetic Movement were associated with a multitude of different styles — Rossetti was both a Pre-Raphaelite and an Aesthete, Morris was both an Aesthete and a progenitor of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and so on. In places like the United States, the Aesthetic Movement style lasted only about a decade. Despite the critics and the fleeting nature of the philosophy, its impacts continued to ripple in European and American art for decades to follow. Many note the naturalistic and stylized motifs popularized by Aesthetes as precursors to the Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements.
Even today in the 21st century, subtle nods to the powerful and salient Aesthetic philosophy can be found. In Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s ubiquitous logo, the lion’s roaring head is crowned by a film strip that reads “ARS GRATIA ARTIS” — a Latin phrase intended to mean “Art for Art,” or “Art for Art’s Sake.”
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