Aestheticism was a 19th-century literary, artistic, and cultural movement influenced by the aesthetic philosophies of the German romantic school, by the art criticism of John Ruskin, and by French writers such as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. Aspects of aestheticism can be found in the poetry and painting of the British Pre- Raphaelites from the 1850s on and in the work of Edgar Allan Poe in America. As a cultural movement, however, aestheticism reached its height in the 1870s and 1880s, before developing into the decadent aestheticism of the 1890s. Artists and writers associated with aestheticism include James McNeill Whistler, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde.

Aestheticism advocates the principles of art for art’s sake: Art is an end in itself; art need not serve moral, didactic, or political ends; art should not be judged by nonaesthetic criteria. Stylistically, aestheticism is characterized by preciosity, archaisms, and sometimes obscurity. Aesthetes insisted that any subject matter could be made beautiful in art, and therefore some aesthetes treated the perverse, the abnormal, and the morbid in their work. Ideologically, aestheticism represented a revolt against the materialism of Victorian middle-class culture and the effects of industrialization and mass production. Aesthetes retreated into the world of art in an attempt to transcend what they regarded as the ugliness of middleclass Victorian life. At the same time, however, aesthetes sought to beautify their own surroundings, to experience life in the spirit of art. As such, aestheticism’s influence extended beyond literature and art into the realms of fashion, furniture design, the decorative arts, and architecture.

Though aestheticism is most often discussed in relation to painting, poetry, and the decorative arts, its influence is also notable in the short fiction of the late Victorian period. On the one hand, aestheticism characterized a genre of short story with a sumptuous, almost poetic style. Often the plot is slight, the emphasis being on mood and character, the embodiment of intellectual insights in an imaginative form, and the representation of the artist fi gure or sensitive individual struggling to realize an ideal in an inhospitable environment. Notable examples of such stories appear in Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits (1887), Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), Arthur Symons’s Spiritual Adventures (1905), and Ernest Dowson’s Dilemmas (1895). On the other hand, aestheticism and the aesthete figured as important subject matter in much late 19th-century short fiction, often treated negatively. Some of HENRY JAMES’s short stories of the 1880s and 1890s, for example, including “The Author of Beltraffio” (1884), “The Lesson of the Master” (1888), and “The Middle Years” (1893), explore the personal costs of the aesthete’s extreme devotion to art.

Aestheticism has traditionally been associated with male artists and writers. Recent scholarship, however, has drawn attention to women’s participation in the movement and the ways in which they embraced, rejected, or sought to reconfigure aestheticism. Women writers also drew attention to the problematic aspects of aestheticism in their short fiction, notably the male aesthete’s objectification of women, emotional distance, and narcissism. Examples of this treatment of aestheticism can be found in Vernon Lee’s “Lady Tal” (1892), Sarah Grand’s “The Undefinable: A Fantasia” (1894), Ella D’Arcy’s “The Pleasure Pilgrim” (1895), and Ada Leverson’s “A Suggestion” (1895).

Walter Pater and Aestheticism

Symbolism, Aestheticism and Charles Baudelaire


Harris, Wendell V. British Short Fiction in the Nineteenth Century: A Literary and Bibliographic Guide, 72–81. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979.
Reed, John. “From Aestheticism to Decadence: Evidence from the Short Story,” Victorians Institute Journal 11 (1982–83): 1–12.
Schaffer, Talia, and Kathy Alexis Psomiades, eds. Women and British Aestheticism. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Categories: Art Theory, Literary Terms and Techniques

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