Decadent Movement Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Decadents promoted a deliberately provocative, scandalous international movement in art and literature that emphasized a cult of the aesthetic and the artificial, disparaged social and familial commitments and traditions, encouraged wide-ranging sexual practices, promoted drug use, celebrated the cultivation of the Self, and affirmed the right of the genius toward destructive and self-destructive acts.

Summary of Event

The concept of “decadence” originated with the idea that all things, from nations to societies to family units to the arts, inevitably sicken, decay, and die from a natural aging process such as that of the human body. The decline and fall of the Roman and the Byzantine Empires provide striking examples of past decadence and they offered warnings for the future. Secondary influences for the Decadent movement include the gothic novel and the morbid stories of American writer Edgar Allan Poe Poe, Edgar Allan [p]Poe, Edgar Allan;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] (1809-1849). The hyperesthesia (extrasensitivity to physical sensations) of many Decadent protagonists reminds readers of two of Poe’s characters, Roderick Usher and William Wilson. Decadent movement Art;Decadent movement Literature;Decadent movement Philosophy;Decadent movement Flaubert, Gustave [p]Flaubert, Gustave;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] [kw]Decadent Movement Flourishes (c. 1884-1924) [kw]Movement Flourishes, Decadent (c. 1884-1924) [kw]Flourishes, Decadent Movement (c. 1884-1924) Decadent movement Art;Decadent movement Literature;Decadent movement Philosophy;Decadent movement Flaubert, Gustave [p]Flaubert, Gustave;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] [g]Europe;c. 1884-1924: Decadent Movement Flourishes[5360] [c]Literature;c. 1884-1924: Decadent Movement Flourishes[5360] [c]Art;c. 1884-1924: Decadent Movement Flourishes[5360] [c]Philosophy;c. 1884-1924: Decadent Movement Flourishes[5360] [c]Crime and scandals;c. 1884-1924: Decadent Movement Flourishes[5360] Huysmans, Joris-Karl Wilde, Oscar D’Annunzio, Gabriele Schopenhauer, Arthur Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] Rachilde

In France, France;Decadent movement the birthplace of the Decadent movement, intellectuals felt a sense of futility and social decline coming after the loss of Napoleonic grandeur and undisputed supremacy in Europe, after the repeated failure of the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 to establish a lasting democracy, after the country’s rapid and humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] , and after the rise of stultifying middle-class commercial values. From sheer boredom, the Decadents contemplated destructive and self-destructive acts. Charles Baudelaire Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] memorably evoked decadent thinking in“Au lecteur” (“To the Reader”), the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal (1857, 1861, 1868; Flowers of Evil, 1931).

Charles Baudelaire.

(Library of Congress)

After 1830, “frenetic” Romantics such as Pétrus Borel (1809-1859) and Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile (1811-1872), followed by Gustave Flaubert and Baudelaire, foreshadowed the start of the Decadent movement in France and had enormous influence in England, England;Decadent movement Spain, Spain;Decadent movement Russia, Russia;Decadent movement and Italy. Italy;Decadent movement Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836; English translation, 1887) fictionalized the life of a bisexual transvestite from the seventeenth century. The novel’s brilliant preface expounds the aesthetic doctrine of art for art’s sake. Flaubert’s immense, leprous, rotting, lustful general Hannon in Salammbô (1862; English translation, 1886) exemplifies the Decadent character, and the collapse of Carthage in this historical novel illustrates the Decadent historical vision.

The feast of sins in Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895), and the sadistic and macabre scenes in both Gautier’s and Flaubert’s works, inspired a literature of morbidity in several countries. In 1857, the national government indicted both Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal for their alleged offenses against religion and public morals. Seven of Baudelaire’s Baudelaire, Charles [p]Baudelaire, Charles;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] poems with lesbian or sadistic themes, along with sarcastically amoral passages in Flaubert, were suppressed.

Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Huysmans, Joris-Karl novel À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922) became the bible of international Decadence, reinforced by the publication of the pessimistic poems of Jules Laforgue Laforgue, Jules (1860-1887). Other influences include Rachilde Rachilde , Rémy de Gourmont Gourmont, Rémy de (1858-1915), Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917), Oscar Wilde Wilde, Oscar , Gabriele D’Annunzio D’Annunzio, Gabriele , and Robert, comte de Montesquieu Montesquiou-Fezensac (1855-1921), who was the probable model for Huysmans’s Decadent protagonist Des Esseintes and for Marcel Proust’s Proust, Marcel (1871-1922) Charlus in À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981). In his novel Sixtine: Roman de la vie cérébrale (1890; Very Woman: A Cerebral Novel, 1922), Gourmont’s protagonist asserted that physical pleasure is all that matters, regardless how it is obtained, and that his guiding principle for life was to avoid having children.

Wilde issued some of the most compelling theoretical statements of the movement in 1891, including that of the separation of art from life, in “The Decay of Lying” and The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891. In the intimate journal embedded within his novel Il piacere (1889; The Child of Pleasure, 1898), D’Annunzio D’Annunzio, Gabriele spelled out what Huysmans Huysmans, Joris-Karl and Wilde Wilde, Oscar had only suggested: He found an alternate source of inspiration within the Self—the unconscious.

In feminist circles, Marie Bashkirtseff Bashkirtseff, Marie (1858-1884), a brilliant musician and painter who died prematurely from tuberculosis, Tuberculosis helped found a female culte du moi (cult of the Self), free from the imperatives of marriage, reproduction, and nurturance. The unexpurgated version of her journal, published in 1901, caused a scandal. Rachilde’s Rachilde Mercure de France (1890-1965), cofounded with her husband Alfred Vallette, became the dominant journal of the Decadent movement. As a novelist, Rachilde was an innovator who depicted a wide range of sexual behavior, more so than did her male counterparts. She turned fetishism (Monsieur Vénus, 1884), necrophilia (La tour d’amour, 1899), bestiality (L’animale, 1893), and cross-dressing into prominent literary subjects. The renowned Paris literary salon of Natalie Clifford Barney Barney, Natalie Clifford (1876-1972) celebrated lesbian sexuality, while the male writers of the Parisian cabaret and salon Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) celebrated male homosexuality. Barney inspired at least three notorious romans à cléf, including a novel by dancer Liane de Pougy Pougy, Liane de (1869-1950), Idylle sapphique (c. 1901).

During the belle époque, between 1880 and 1914, western Europe and the British Isles enjoyed a magnificent flowering of the arts and unprecedented peace, prosperity, and economic and technological progress. At the same time, the aesthetic movement of the midcentury, which had claimed that artistic creation should be an end in itself, independent of any moral mission and any moral restraint (art for art’s sake), later developed into the international Symbolist Symbolist movement movement, which subordinated life to art. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer, Arthur , well known throughout Europe in the 1880’s, encouraged a philosophy of pessimism, undermining sensitive souls’ will to live and reproduce. The decadent title character of the Symbolist drama Axël (1890) by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Auguste (1838-1889) persuades the woman he loves to join him in a suicide pact, arguing that living is worthy only of underlings.

The Decadents’ protagonists withdrew from society, cultivated their own personalities, and dismissed conventional morality regarding sex and sexuality, respect for the body, and the sanctity of life. They explored bestiality, sadomasochism, and necrophilia (although group sexual experience became an overt topic only in the twentieth century). They treated suicide and gratuitous murder without compunction. Prominent in works by precursors such as Poe Poe, Edgar Allan [p]Poe, Edgar Allan;and Decadent movement[Decadent movement] (“The Black Cat,” 1843; “The Imp of the Perverse,” 1845; “The Telltale Heart,” 1843) and the comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Lucien Ducasse, 1846-1870), gratuitous murder returns in works of high Decadence including Jean Lorrain’s Lorrain, Jean (Paul Duval, 1855-1906) Monsieur de Phocas (1901), Octave Mirbeau’s Mirbeau, Octave Contes Cruels (1885-1899), and Rachilde’s Rachilde La Marquise de Sade (1887).


From its beginning, the Decadent movement contained the seeds of its demise. Its foundational work, Huysmans’s Huysmans, Joris-Karl À rebours, depicts a wealthy aristocratic protagonist who cultivates artificiality in every aspect of his life. Boredom and ill health eventually drive him from his shelter. Sequels with a new protagonist, Durtal, become increasingly autobiographical and trace the author’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Many other Decadent writers also converted, foreshadowing the Catholic Renaissance in France and the Anglican Renaissance in England during the first half of the twentieth century.

The salon of American expatriot Natalie Clifford Barney Barney, Natalie Clifford on the Left Bank of Paris remained intact far longer, exerting a strong international influence on women’s rights movements until at least the 1930’s.

After World War I, High Modernist authors such as T. S. Eliot Eliot, T. S. , James Joyce Joyce, James , and Marcel Proust Proust, Marcel perpetuated the Decadent style, but they increasingly combined it with social critique. Eventually, Thomas Mann’s Mann, Thomas (1875-1955) novella Der Tod in Venedig (1922; Death in Venice, 1925) and Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus, 1948) rejected the exclusive cult of art and of the Self.

Decadence was seen once more in 1920’s Chicago, Illinois, popularized by the Chicago Tribune’s book reviews and led by the crime reporter Ben Hecht Hecht, Ben (1894-1964), a circus acrobat as a child. Hecht later became close friends with Dada artist Georg Grosz in Berlin. Hecht’s flamboyant novels Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (1922), Gargoyles (1922), and The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare (1924) introduced a sensational, satanic form of Decadence to American popular culture. Hecht later became an influential Hollywood producer, with seventy novels and screenplays to his credit.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernheimer, Charles. Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin de Siècle in Europe. Edited by T. Jefferson Kline and Naomi Schor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. A synthesis from the standpoint of poststructuralist criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. A classic philosophical background to Decadence in Germany and Italy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Constable, Liz, et al., eds. Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Treats many major international figures, including writers from Nicaragua, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Laurence M. “Decadence and the Fin-de-Siècle Novel.” In The French Novel from 1800 to the Present, edited by Timothy Unwin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. An overview of the Decadent movement in France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Huysmans’ ’À rebours’: The Psychodynamics of Regression.” American Imago 44, no. 1 (Spring, 1987): 51-65. Discusses how an unconscious drive toward health eventually reintegrates Des Esseintes with society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Literary Structure and the Concept of Decadence: Huysmans, D’Annunzio, and Wilde.” Centennial Review 22, no. 2 (Spring, 1978): 188-200. Discusses how the greatest Decadent writers symbolize and dramatize the role of the unconscious in their protagonists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weir, David. Decadence and the Makings of Modernism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. Examines the aftermath of the Decadent movement in the United States.

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