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The mid-Victorian era, also known as Grand Period, was full of interesting events and people. The Great Exhibition of 1851, usually referred to the Crystal Palace Exhibition, demonstrated the achievements in the world industry during the recent years. The size and richness of the exhibits impressed lots of people.
However, such prosperity was available not to every inhabitant. After the husband of Queen Victoria, the organizer of the exhibition, died, lots of changes took place within different spheres of life. One of the brightest events of that period was the creation of the Aesthetic Movement. This movement was created by a group of really talented people: artists, poets, actors, and writers. There is no concrete date of the birth of the Aesthetic Movement; however, its appearance is dated in the middle of the 19th century, between the 1870s and 1880s.
This movement had lots on common with French Symbolism or Italian Decadentismo. The main purpose of Aesthetes was to create a strong opposition to Victorian style. It was a kind of revulsion to what had been created during the Industrial Revolution. The best-known representatives of the Aesthetic Movement were Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Edgar Allan Poe, and James Abbot McNeil Whistler.
The Aesthetic Movement: Members and Their Principles
The Aesthetic Movement started as a reaction against the Victorian style, which was characterized by the use of jewellery in order to demonstrate the social status and the possibility to have only expensive and qualitative things.
William Morris, a British architect, was one of the first representatives of that movement, who started to disregard the Victorian preference of rich jewellery in favour of good craftsmanship and simple design. Morris tried to emphasize natural and not too expensive material. Usually it was stone, wood, and bricks of different size.
William Morris was born in London, in 1834. From his early childhood, he was really fond of reading. He could start reading anything that came on his way. His passion to Waverly novels and Arabian stories would certainly influence his future occupation. It is necessary to admit that Morris was not only an artist. He was also good at writing, furnishing, and designing. One of his best works was Tulip and Willow (1873).
The works of the Pre-Raphaelites also considerably influenced the Aesthetic Movement. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Edward Burne Jones idealized the life of medieval times. Evelyn De Morgan was also one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose works played a significant role in the history of the Aesthetic Movement.
She started painting at 15. She truly believed that our life was too short, and art would be always eternal, that is why she wanted to devote her life to art in order to make something useful and be remembered. In 1889, Evelyn De Morgan created Medea. The Aesthetes were admired that work, its freedom and naturalness.
There are so many representatives of the Aesthetic Movement, the works of which have considerably influenced the development of fashion during those times. “During the Aesthetic Movement, Americans realized that if they made their homes artful, they would make their lives better.” (Zukowski 7)
However, not only paintings and sculptures were inherent for the Aesthetic Movement. Les Fleurs du Mal, a volume of French poetry written by Charles Baudelaire, played a very important role to symbolist and aesthetic movements.
“The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds/ riding the storm above the marksman’s range/ exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered/ he cannot walk because of his great wings.” (Baudelaire 14) Baudelaire was a French poet and critic. He was born and dead in Paris, however, it does not matter that he spent his whole life in Paris only. He visited Brussels and Lyon in order to improve his knowledge and present really worthwhile projects.
Walter Pater and His Contributions
The Aesthetic Movement was dedicated to one of the most famous doctrines called ‘art for art’s sake’. It is a kind of art form, which is concerned with beauty only but not with some moral or social issues. The best representatives of this art were James McNeill Whistler, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde.
This slogan expressed a philosophy that concentrated on the values of true art. “Art-for-art’s-sake aesthetics have always implied that the artistic object is to be somehow elevated above any networks of signification, placed at an unreachable aesthetic distance, and then contemplated in its being.” (Nealon, 143)
Walter Pater was one of the best literary critics and novelist in the 19th century. He was born in Stepney, London, in 1839. In 1853, he was sent to Canterbury to study. This travel made an unbelievable impression on the writer, the beauty of cathedrals and religion supremacy influenced lots of his works.
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His letters against Victorian moralism helped to revolutionize people’s thinking and comprehend that each person had the right of choice, and someone else could not impose such choice. Walter Pater created every work in a very complicated way.
He checked each word in his essays and chose only those elements, which he could easily analyze and explain to his readers. He tried to express the unique style, criticizing various works of art and explaining their essence and significance. Walter Pater had an unbelievable influence to his followers and young writers and painters of those times. His criticism was usually taken into consideration in order to improve future works and impress the society.
Oscar Wilde, one of the followers of Pater, was one of the most successful poets and writers of the Aesthetic Movement. This Irish writer and poet was born in Dublin. He was accused of indecent behaviour, his connections with men, and was expatriated to France, where spent the rest of his life using another name.
His The Importance of Being Earnest written in 1895 is still popular and appreciated by lots of people. “Though Wilde’s life reflected both the moral and amoral streams of the aesthetic movement, his art theory primarily repeated and emphasized the aesthetic theory of Swinburne, Pater, and Whistler.” (Adams 40)
Symbolism and the Aesthetic Movement
It is necessary to mention that the Aesthetic Movement had lots in common with another, not less known movement, Symbolism. The similarities of these two movements lied in the major characteristics of both the Aesthetic Movement and Symbolism.
The representatives of those movements preferred to use suggestions and descriptions rather that concrete statements in their work; the use of symbols was characterized for both styles; and the unbelievable connection between colors and words was inherent to those movements as well. These three major points easily prove the connection of the Aesthetic Movement and Symbolism.
The relation of Symbolism to the Aesthetic Movement is also evident because of the aims each of those movements tried to achieve – to engage the senses and make the beholder impressed as long as possible. However, it was impossible to reproduce the senses on paper or by means of sculptures or paintings, that is why the best decision was to use symbols and interpret them in different ways.
The best representatives of Symbolism were the works by a Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin (Isle of the Dead) or Edgar Allan Poe (The Poetic Principle). Arnold Böcklin travelled a lot in order to find interesting material foe his works. He was born in Germany, then visited Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and the last days of his life spent in Italy. This person was one the brightest representatives of Symbolism at the end of the 19th century.
Edgar Allan Poe was an American poet and writer, who influenced the development of the Aesthetic Movement as well. His works, his gloomy stories with unpredictable ends amazed readers.
He spend some time in Boston (where he was born), some time in Philadelphia (when he got married), and died in Baltimore, Maryland. The changes of surroundings, climate, and people – all this made a certain impact on the works of this author. However, these very works impressed the representatives of the Aesthetic Movement and gave a birth to it.
The Aesthetic Movement played a significant role in many spheres of life in the middle of the 19th century. The influences of Japan (Japonaiserie) and the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood (Pre-Raphaelite), the ideas of ‘art for art’s sake’, and Victorian style – these are the major reasons of the aims, the representatives of the Aesthetic Movement wanted to achieve.
People of different countries and art spheres joined the Aesthetic Movement in order to share their ideas and help people use simple things to make this life better and more interesting. Even nowadays, the works of Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe captivates numerous readers. This very fact proves that the tendencies chosen in the late 1870s and called the Aesthetic Movement were correct and just in time.
Adams, Elsie, B. Bernard Shaw and the Aesthetes. Ohio State University Press, 1971.
Baudelaire, Charles and Howard, Richard. Les Fleurs du Mal. David R. Godine Publisher, 1983
Nealon, Jeffrey T. Double Reading: Postmodernism after Deconstruction. Cornell University Press, 1996.
Zukowski, Karen. Creating the Artful Home: The Aesthetic Movement. Gibbs Smith, 2006