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The Peacock Room, designed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, one of the most famous examples of Aesthetic movement interior design

The Aesthetic Movement is a 19th century European movement that emphasized aesthetic values over moral or social themes in literature, fine art, the decorative arts, and interior design.[1][2] Generally speaking, it represents the same tendencies that symbolism or decadence stood for in France, or decadentismo stood for in Italy, and may be considered the British branch of the same movement. It belongs to the anti-Victorian reaction and had post-Romantic roots, and as such anticipates modernism. It took place in the late Victorian period from around 1868 to 1901, and is generally considered to have ended with the trial of Oscar Wilde (which occurred in 1895).


Aesthetic Movement literature

The British decadent writers were deeply influenced by the Oxford don Walter Pater and his essays published in 1867–68, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) became a sacred text for art-centric young men of the Victorian era. Decadent writers used the slogan "Art for Art's Sake" (L'art pour l'art), whose origin is debated. Some claim that it was coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin, although Angela Leighton in On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism and the Legacy of a Word (2007) notes that the phrase is used by Benjamin Constant as early as 1804[3]. It is generally accepted to have been widely promoted by Théophile Gautier in France, who took the phrase to suggest that there was no connection between art and morality.

One of many Punch cartoons about æsthetes.

The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement tended to hold that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed the cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor in art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the movement were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, massive use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects—that is, correspondence between words, colours and music.It was the music that set the mood.

Aestheticism had its forerunners in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among the Pre-Raphaelites. In Britain the best representatives were Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, both influenced by the French Symbolists, and James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The movement and these poets were satirised in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience and other works, such as F. C. Burnand's The Colonel, and in comic magazines, such as Punch.

Compton Mackenzie's novel Sinister Street makes use of the type as a phase through which the protagonist passes under the influence of older, decadent individuals. The novels of Evelyn Waugh, who was a young participant in aesthete society at Oxford, portray the aesthete mostly from a satirical point of view, but also from that of an insider. Some names associated with this loose assemblage are Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford, A.E. Housman and Anthony Powell.

Aesthetic Movement visual arts

Artists associated with the Aesthetic movement include James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Aubrey Vincent Beardsley.

Aesthetic Movement decorative arts

An Aesthetic Movement overmantle, showing ebonized wood with gilded highlights of peacock feathers and flowers, and a top which has a color painting of birds and flowers.

Aesthetic furniture was limited to approximately late nineteenth-century. Furniture typically originated in Britain/Ireland (usually referred to as simply "Aesthetic") or in the United States (usually referred to as "American Aesthetic").

Aesthetic movement furniture is characterized by several common themes:

  • Ebonized wood with gilt highlights
  • Japanese influence
  • Prominent use of nature, especially flowers, birds, ginko leaves, and peacock feathers.
  • Blue and white on porcelain and china.

Ebonized furniture means that the wood is painted or stained to a black ebony finish. The furniture is sometimes completely ebony-colored. More often however, there is gilding added to the carved surfaces of the feathers or stylized flowers that adorn the furniture.

Japan was a relatively newly contacted culture in terms of influence, and looking at aesthetic furniture, there are commonalities especially in the overall rectangular shape with columns, and the intricate woodcarvings, this influence can be seen in a concurrent movement known as the Anglo-Japanese style, especially in the work of E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser.

1881 teapot in the shape of an Aesthete, with calla lily

As aesthetic movement decor was similar to the writing in that it was about sensuality and nature, nature themes often appear on the furniture. A typical aesthetic feature is the gilded carved flower, or the stylized peacock feather. Colored paintings of birds or flowers are often seen. Non-ebonized aesthetic movement furniture may have realistic 3D renditions of birds or flowers carved into the wood.

Contrasting with the ebonized-gilt furniture is use of blue and white in porcelain and china. Similar themes of peacock feathers and nature would be used in blue and white tones on dinnerware and other crockery. The blue and white design was also popular on square porcelain tiles. It is reported that Oscar Wilde used aesthetic decorations during his youth. This aspect of the movement was also satirised in Punch magazine and in Patience.

In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Canada where he toured the town of Woodstock, Ontario and gave a lecture on May 29 entitled; "The House Beautiful".[4] This particular lecture featured the early Aesthetic art movement also known as the "Ornamental Aesthetic" art movement, where local flora and fauna were celebrated as beautiful and textured, layered ceilings were popular. A gorgeous example of this can be seen in Annandale National Historic Site, located in Tillsonburg, Ontario, Canada. The house was built in 1880 and decorated by Mary Ann Tillson, who happened to attend Oscar Wilde's lecture in Woodstock, and was inspired. Since the Aesthetic art movement was only prevalent in 1880 through to 1890, there are not very many examples of this particular style left today.

Irrationalism and Aestheticism

A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 by WP. Frith, a satire on the influence of the Aesthetic Movement in dress. Oscar Wilde is depicted at the right, surrounded by admirers

Irrationalism and aestheticism were philosophical movements which formed as a cultural reaction against positivism in the early 20th century. These perspectives opposed or de-emphasized the importance of the rationality of human beings. Instead, they concentrated on Kant's "noumenal realm", or the experience of one's own existence.

Part of the movements involved claims that science was inferior to intuition. In this project, art was given an especially high place, as it was considered the gateway to the noumenon. The movement was not widely accepted by the public, as the social system generally limited access of the art to the elite (ie. a "Mandarin elitism").

Some of the followers of this idea are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henri Bergson, Lev Shestov and Georges Sorel. Symbolism and existentialism grew out of these schools of thought.

See also


  1. ^ Fargis, Paul (1998). The New York Public Library Desk Reference - 3rd Edition. Macmillan General Reference. pp. 261. ISBN 0-02-862169-7.  
  2. ^ [Denney, Colleen. "At the Temple of Art: the Grosvenor Gallery, 1877-1890", Issue 1165, p. 38, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000 ISBN 0838638503
  3. ^ Angela Leighton (2007) 32.
  4. ^ O'brien (1982) 114.
  • Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. New York: Harcourt, 1945. ISBN None.
  • Halin, Widar. Christopher Dresser, a Pioneer of Modern Design. Phaidon: 1990. ISBN 0-7148-2952-8.
  • Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement. Phaidon Press: 1996. ISBN 0-7148-3000-3.
  • O'Brien, Kevin. Oscar Wilde in Canada, an apostle for the arts. Personal Library, Publishers: 1982.
  • Snodin, Michael and John Styles. Design & The Decorative Arts, Britain 1500–1900. V&A Publications: 2001. ISBN 1-85177-338-X.

External links



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