By: John Hunt
Aesthete: A person who has, or affects to have, a special appreciation of art and beauty.
The Aesthetic Movement of 1860-1900 was an Artistic, Social, and Design movement largely based in England. It was a reaction against the staunch Victorian Styles and mores and the Industrial Revolution. Its main tenets involve the appreciation of pure beauty, art for art’s sake. It also stressed the importance of the utilitarian and handmade works. Furniture and décor of the period were characterized by ebonized and gilt wood, far eastern influences, and naturalistic themes such as flowers, birds, gingko leaves, and peacock feathers. An 1858 Trade Treaty with Japan had opened ties with China and Japan, re-introducing the West with Asian Art and Porcelain.
By far the most well-known, oft-quoted, and strongest supporter of the movement was Oscar Wilde. Before his literary career, Wilde appeared on the London Scene as a self-proclaimed Professor of Aesthetics and Art Critic. The picture above shows a portrait of Wilde by William Powell Firth, showing him surrounded by his aesthetic followers while being ignored by the Victorians. Wilde’s (then) outrageous outfits and sharp wit brought new-life to the Movement, and he became the editor of “The Woman’s World,” a publication which supplied a checklist for all that was desirable in interior design at the time. Regardless of scandal and outrage at some of Wilde’s beliefs, he was sent on a tour of the US to lecture on design and aestheticism.
A sometime friend and always contemporary of Wilde was artist and designer James McNeill Whistler. His Peacock Room is one of the most recognized and scandalous interiors of the modern age, preserved to this day. Hired to design the entryway of the estate, Whistler was asked to suggest a color for the shutters and doors of the dining room, which had been designed to hold the owner’s blue and white china collection. After the owner’s departure back to Liverpool, Whistler completely changed the room’s design, coating it in gold leaf and peacock feathers. The owner was furious at the over-ornamentation, and Whistler turned one peacock mural into an allegory of the conflict.
Another contemporary and acquaintance of Wilde was designer, artist and writer William Morris. His designs for wallpaper and textiles are lush, elaborate styles with a proliferation of vines, flowers, leaves, birds…all of the elements of the Aesthetic Movement. While on his American Tour, Wilde told spectators “…find your subjects in everyday life, your own men and women, your own flowers and fields, your own hills and mountains, these are what your art should represent to you.” The work of William Morris is the embodiment of this ideal, a beautiful representation of the sensualism of nature.
Most critics agree that the Aesthetic Movement died with Oscar Wilde in 1900. However, this movement gave rise to the next major movement: Arts and Crafts. If you strip the last vestiges of Victorian Embellishment from the Aesthetic Ideal, you are left with the utilitarian appreciation for handcrafted items and the beauty that can be found in nature. It also gave us the modern appreciation for Blue and White export porcelain. These are the best aspects of the movement which have come down to us, and I will agree with Mr. Wilde:
“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”