Aesthetic Movement Arises Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

English intellectuals and artists established the principles of art for art’s sake and experience for experience’s sake as a form of rebellion against Victorian moral judgment and Victorian restrictions on art, literature, and life.

Summary of Event

The aesthetic movement’s intellectual roots can be found in the writings of German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant Kant, Immanuel [p]Kant, Immanuel;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] and German poet, playwright, and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von [p]Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] . Breaking with a centuries-old tradition regarding the function of art as a tool of instruction, both suggested that great art need not be didactic, or instructional. The concept that art, and literature, need not be didactic, coupled with the Romantic notion that art not only was mimetic but also expressive and reflective of a writer’s experience of life, was influential in shaping the ideas of the first exponent of aestheticism, French writer Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile . Aesthetic movement England;aesthetic movement Art;English Literature;English Philosophy;aesthetic movement Pater, Walter [kw]Aesthetic Movement Arises (1870’s) [kw]Movement Arises, Aesthetic (1870’s) [kw]Arises, Aesthetic Movement (1870’s) Aesthetic movement England;aesthetic movement Art;English Literature;English Philosophy;aesthetic movement Pater, Walter [g]France;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] [g]Great Britain;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] [c]Literature;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] [c]Art;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] [c]Crime and scandals;1870’s: Aesthetic Movement Arises[4390] Gautier, Théophile Wilde, Oscar Symons, Arthur Whistler, James McNeill [p]Whistler, James McNeill;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] Flaubert, Gustave [p]Flaubert, Gustave;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] Huysmans, Joris-Karl Baudelaire,Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] Verlaine, Paul Mallarmé, Stéphane

Although Gautier earned his living as a critic, he thought of himself as a poet and also wrote fiction. Dismayed by the low status in which art was held in a growing materialistic society, he argued in the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836; English translation, 1887) that art is valuable only if it is useless. Artists must be free to deal with any subjects they choose; insofar as a poem, novel, play, musical composition, or painting serves as a vehicle for improving morals or social conditions, it is not really art. This revolutionary theory—art for art’s sake—appealed to a select group who shared Gautier’s Romantic sensibilities but was met with strong negative reaction in France and later in England; hence, the belief in art for art’s sake became the rallying cry for a small coterie of practitioners and critics known as proponents of aestheticism.

While the French reading public continued to prefer the social realism of novelist Honoré de Balzac Balzac, Honoré de and the Romanticism of novelist Victor Hugo, Gautier’s philosophy attracted a group of writers whose works reflect his advocacy of the care for form and the freedom from social constraints. Novelists Gustave Flaubert Flaubert, Gustave [p]Flaubert, Gustave;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] and Joris-Karl Huysmans, Huysmans, Joris-Karl and poets Charles Baudelaire Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] , Paul Verlaine, Verlaine, Paul and Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé, Stéphane were among the more noted practitioners of aesthetics. Several of these writers came to believe that artistic language should be different from everyday speech and writing, so they began to develop their own special meanings for common terms and to invest their work with meanings often not apparent to the general reader. Eventually, those who adopted these principles became known as Symbolists Symbolist movement . Many broke with established conventions regarding subject matter, too, addressing taboo topics such as sexual relationships, heterosexual as well as homosexual, with a degree of frankness that scandalized their contemporaries.

Before the movement had attracted wide-scale attention from the English-speaking public, a handful of American and English writers had already begun to promote doctrines similar to those of Gautier Gautier, Théophile . American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe Poe, Edgar Allan , an early devotee of Symbolist poetry, wrote in the posthumously published essay “The Poetic Principle” (1850) that art should be judged by standards other than moral or social; his ideas made him a kind of intellectual godfather to the generation of writers who would openly embrace aesthetic principles in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Similarly, poets such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti, Dante Gabriel and Algernon Charles Swinburne rebelled against strictures concerning subject matter and celebrated the kind of lifestyle that would become associated with the aesthetic movement by the century’s end.

In England, the aesthetic movement can be understood best as a reaction to the dominant ideas held by the Victorians regarding the function of art, ideas promoted in the work of literary giants John Ruskin Ruskin, John [p]Ruskin, John;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] and Matthew Arnold Arnold, Matthew [p]Arnold, Matthew;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] . Although Ruskin concentrated on the visual arts and Arnold was mainly concerned with literature, both agreed that for art to be great, it must be useful in educating and uplifting its viewers and readers. Ruskin wrote in the third volume of his multivolume Modern Painters (1843-1860) that great art always included great ideas and could be produced only by those who possessed a noble nature.

Similarly, Arnold believed great literature possessed a quality he called high seriousness, the ability to help readers improve themselves (intellectually, if not materially) through the experience of engaging with a novel, poem, or play. In Essays in Criticism (1865 and 1888) he defined the critic’s task as seeing “the object as in itself it really is,” implying that it was possible for an artist’s message to be understood and used as a guide for living. Hence, from Ruskin and Arnold the Victorians had learned that great art must be clear in its meaning and moral in its import. These notions were turned upside down by Walter Pater, an Oxford scholar whose 1873 work Studies in the History of the Renaissance became the bible for the English aesthetic movement.

In examining the work of a number of Renaissance artists, Pater abandons the practice of comparing works with one another, or looking to established external principles for determining value in a work of art. Instead, he tells the reader how he was affected by particular paintings, sculptures, and writings.

James McNeill Whistler.

(Library of Congress)

The ideas Pater advances in Studies in the History of the Renaissance were revolutionary in at least two ways. First, his call for art to exist for its own sake, as an object of beauty for contemplation by those of refined sensibilities, flew in the face of current theory about the function of art. Playfully reversing Arnold’s premise, Pater insists that for the aesthetic critic, “the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is.” Reality, he goes on to argue, is simply a series of impressions, and the best one can do is to appreciate the impact of those impressions. This insight led to his second radical premise.

Pater argues that the way to make life worth living in the dreary, mechanistic world of Victorian Britain is to cultivate intense impressions, and to not follow conventional moral principles. Endorsing the notion that the goal of life is to pursue “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself,” Pater announced in the conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame”—to seek experience for its own sake—would lead to happiness. For Pater there was no right or wrong experience; all were equally possible of promoting keen sensations, which in turn would give meaning and joy to life. Pater’s pronouncement spawned a celebration of a lifestyle that would shock and offend “proper” Victorians: the life of the aesthete.

The reaction from mainstream Victorians to Pater’s new doctrine was swift and negative. He was denounced in the Quarterly Review for substituting personal impressions for traditional critical principles. He was attacked for trying to set up the critic as a mediator between the artist and the world at large, thus investing critics with special knowledge. He was accused of promoting a philosophy of hedonism that encouraged people to pursue pleasure as the only end in life. These harsh commentaries, and others like them, caused Pater to withdraw the conclusion from several subsequent editions of Studies in the History of the Renaissance, but by that time his ideas had reached a generation of young artists already rebelling against the constraints of Victorian society.

What Pater stated explicitly as a theory had been the practice of several of his predecessors and contemporaries. The world of the visual arts had always had its iconoclasts, and several painters, most notably the Pre-Raphaelites, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] had been, since midcentury, creating art and living according to the principles promoted by Pater. Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites broke with convention in choosing their subjects and establishing their lifestyles before Pater identified the principal tenets of the aesthetic movement. The “aesthetic” works and lives of painters and designers such as Albert Joseph Moore Moore, Albert Joseph , Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley , and E. W. Godwin Godwin, E. W. led to their being associated with the movement.

The visual artist who achieved perhaps the greatest notoriety as a practitioner of aestheticism was American painter James McNeill Whistler Whistler, James McNeill [p]Whistler, James McNeill;and aesthetic movement[Aesthetic movement] , who had emigrated to Europe in 1855. Whistler publicly promoted the idea that painting was concerned principally with composition, color, and form, a principle conveyed in his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871), which is often erroneously called “Whistler’s Mother.” Whistler also cultivated an eccentric lifestyle that flouted convention and brought criticism from established art critics who were as scandalized by his behavior as they were chagrined by his artistic practices. Whistler sued Ruskin for libel when the critic wrote an unflattering review of one of his paintings.

Pater’s impact on the rising generation of writers and artists in the last three decades of the nineteenth century was notable. Numbered among those who openly professed an affinity for aestheticism were the artist Aubrey Beardsley Beardsley, Aubrey and poets Ernest Dowson Dowson, Ernest and Lionel Johnson Johnson, Lionel . During these decades, however, the aesthetic movement came to be associated with a lifestyle that promoted eroticism and even homosexuality. In that context, the most important figures were Arthur Symons Symons, Arthur and Oscar Wilde Wilde, Oscar . Symons’s essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (1893) and his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature Symbolist movement (1899) not only provided a rationale for aestheticism but also developed a vocabulary for judging works produced according to the principles set forth by Pater and his disciples.

Wilde emerged as the most celebrated symbol of what became known as the Decadent movement of the last decades of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century in England. His outrageous dress and habits, as well as his rapier wit, earned him a worldwide reputation. He went out of his way to poke fun at Victorian conventions, writing a number of plays and essays that challenged Victorian values. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), modeled on Huysmans’s Huysmans, Joris-Karl novel Á Rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), offers a seductive portrait of a man named Des Esseintes who lives for sensual experiences. Wilde’s homosexuality eventually led to public disgrace; in 1895 he was arrested for an affair with the son of a nobleman, was tried, convicted, and then sentenced to two years in jail for his crime. Those who had remained unconvinced in the value of aestheticism either as a critical principle or as a lifestyle frequently pointed to Wilde’s eccentric rebellion as an object lesson in the bankruptcy of the concept.


The effects of the aesthetic movement, although waning after Oscar Wilde’s Wilde, Oscar arrest, were nevertheless lasting and significant. Writers and critics adopted the concept put forth by Henry James in The Art of Fiction (1884) that the reader must grant artists the right to choose any subject, judging a work only by how well artists achieve the ends they set for themselves.

Aesthetic principles inspired the members of the Rhymers’ Club, a group of poets organized in the 1890’s by William Butler Yeats. The twentieth century modernists, especially members of the Bloomsbury Group Bloomsbury Group , promoted ideas about art that derived from Pater’s writings. The idea that perfection of form, not suitability of content, was the principal criterion for achieving greatness of art became one of the foundational tenets of New Criticism, a literary movement stressing form and technique over subject matter. The New Critics influenced academic study for nearly two-thirds of the twentieth century, making Pater’s legacy as a literary critic exceptionally lasting.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell-Villada, Gene. Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. Analyzes the development of aestheticism as a philosophical and literary movement from its origins in the eighteenth century to its persistence in the postmodern theory of the late twentieth century. Includes chapters on the diffusion of the doctrine in England, the United States, and continental Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chai, Leon. Aestheticism: The Religion of Art in Post-Romantic Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. Traces the development of the aesthetic movement from its roots in France through English proponents such as Pater and Wilde. Demonstrates aestheticism’s persistence in twentieth century literature and literary studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Court, Franklin E. Pater and His Early Critics. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria Press, 1980. Examines the reaction of important mainstream Victorian critics to Pater’s work and provides a sense of the British public’s understanding of the aesthetic movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donoghue, Denis. Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. A critical biography of Pater outlining the development of his ideas about art. Places his work in the context of nineteenth century literary and cultural criticism and traces his relationship with artists of his own and succeeding generations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, Ruth. Pater to Forster, 1873-1924. Houndsmill, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Examines the importance of Pater’s work in undermining Victorian ideas about morality and certitude. Also explores the work of disciples such as Symons and Wilde in reshaping attitudes about art and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaffer, Talia. The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Later Victorian England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Traces the contributions of women to the development of the aesthetic movement and discusses a number of their works. Highlights differences in the reception given by the public to women and men practicing aestheticism.

American Renaissance in Literature

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Morris Founds Design Firm

Naturalist Movement Begins

New Guilds Promote the Arts and Crafts Movement

Decadent Movement Flourishes

Rise of the Symbolist Movement

Dreiser Publishes Sister Carrie

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Matthew Arnold; Honoré de Balzac; Charles Baudelaire; Aubrey Beardsley; Samuel Butler; Charles Dickens; Gustave Flaubert; John Keats; William Morris; Walter Pater; Edgar Allan Poe; John Ruskin; Percy Bysshe Shelley; James McNeill Whistler; Oscar Wilde; Émile Zola. Aesthetic movement England;aesthetic movement Art;English Literature;English Philosophy;aesthetic movement Pater, Walter

Categories: History