Aestheticism -The Cult of Beauty
The search for new beauty: 1860s
In the 1860s the new and exciting 'Cult of Beauty' united, for a while at least, romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and his younger Pre-Raphaelite followers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones), maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler, then fresh from Paris and full of 'dangerous' French ideas about modern painting, and the 'Olympians' - the painters of grand classical subjects who belonged to the circle of Frederic Leighton and G.F.Watts. Choosing unconventional models, such as Rossetti's muse Lizzie Siddal or Leighton's sultry favourite 'La Nanna', these painters created entirely new types of female beauty.
Rossetti and his friends were also the first to attempt to realise their imaginative world in the creation of 'artistic' furniture and the decoration of rooms. In this period, artists' houses and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination and sparked a revolution in the architecture and interior decoration of houses that led to a widespread recognition of the need for beauty in everyday life.
Edward Burne-Jones - ‘Ladies and Animals’ Sideboard
‘Ladies and Animals’ Sideboard Edward Burne-Jones London 1860 Pine, painted in oil paint, with gold and silver leaf Museum no. W.10-1953 Given by Mrs. J.W. Mackail (daughter of the artist)
Edward Burne-Jones - 'Merchant’s Daughter’
'Merchant’s Daughter’, stained glass panel Edward Burne-Jones Made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. London About 1860 Stained and painted glass Museum no. C.323A-1927 Bequeathed by J.R. Holliday
Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!'
'Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!' Julia Margaret Cameron London 1867 Carbon print from copy negative Museum no. 15-1939 Given by Mrs Perrin
Art for Art's Sake: 1860s-1870s
One of the most important examples of the mutual influence between artist and designer was the collaborative works of James McNeill Whistler and the architect E.W.Godwin. Godwin designed the painter's studio, The White House, and created some of the most innovative furniture of the day. Characterised equally by elegance and eccentricity, Whistler and Godwin's work drew upon influences as diverse as ancient Greek art and the Japanese prints and other artifacts just beginning to arrive in Europe.
In the 1870s, the leading Aesthetic artists, Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Albert Moore and Burne-Jones evolved a new kind of self-consciously exquisite painting in which mood, colour harmony and beauty of form were all, and subject played little or no part. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery (with its famous 'greenery-yallery' walls) in 1877 at last gave the Aesthetic painters a fashionable and glamorous showcase for their much-discussed art. But the decade closed with intense controversy exemplified by the critic John Ruskin's savage attack on Whistler, which prompted the painter's spirited defence of the ideals of 'Art for Art's Sake' in his writings and by the staging of his own exhibitions.
William Eden Nesfield - Screen
Screen William Eden Nesfield Made by James Forsyth London 1867 Ebonised wood, with gilded and fretted decoration; painted panels of Japanese silk paper Museum no. W.37-1972
Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Armchair
Armchair Lawrence Alma-Tadema Made by Johnstone, Norman & Co. London 1884-6 Mahogany, with cedar and ebony veneer, inlay of several woods, ivory and abalone shell Museum no. W.25:1-1980
Edward William Godwin - Pair of vases with sgraffito decoration
Pair of vases with sgraffito decoration Edward William Godwin Probably made by William Watt London About 1877 Slipware, sgraffito decoration Museum no. C.1-2008 Purchased with the assistance of The Art Fund
Beautiful people and Aesthetic houses: 1870s-1880s
The immense success of the Grosvenor Gallery signalled the emergence of a new artistic elite whose social prestige offered an unprecedented challenge to the Royal Academy. Aesthetic painting became the fashionable enthusiasm of a circle that was grand, wealthy and intellectual. As well as buying paintings these new patrons were keen to embrace Aesthetic ideals, commissioning portraits and even adopting the styles of 'artistic' dress.
The rise of Aestheticism in painting was paralleled in the decorative arts by a new and increasingly widespread interest in the decoration of houses. Many of the key avant-garde architects and designers interested themselves not only in working for wealthy clients but also in the reform of design for the middle-class home. The notion of 'The House Beautiful' became a touchstone of cultured life.
Attracted by the growing popularity of Aesthetic taste, many of the leading firms making furniture, ceramics, domestic metalwork and textiles courted artists such as Walter Crane and a growing band of professional designers, most notably Christopher Dresser. Co-inciding with a period of unprecedented expansion of domestic markets, the styles favoured by Aesthetic designers were among the very first to be exploited and disseminated widely through commercial enterprise.
Carlo Giuliano - Brooch and hair ornaments
Brooch and hair ornaments Carlo Giuliano London 1875-95, 1912-14 Carved coral and enamelled gold Museum no. Loan: AmericanFriends.448-2007 Lent by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Judith H. Siegel
Albert Moore - Cartoons peacock frieze
Cartoons for the peacock frieze for the front drawing room, 15 Berkeley Square, London Albert Moore London About 1872-3 Charcoal and white chalk on brown paper Museum no. D.260-1905
Bruce James Talbert - Design for 'The Sunflower' wallpaper
Design for 'The Sunflower' wallpaper Bruce James Talbert Made by Jeffrey & Co. London 1878 Watercolour and body colour Museum no. E.37-1945 Given by Mrs Margaret Warner
Christopher Dresser - Teapot
Teapot Christopher Dresser Made by James Dixon & Sons Sheffield, England About 1879 Electroplated nickel silver with ebony handle Museum no. M.4-2006 Purchased with generous support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund, the American Friends of the V&A and an anonymous donor, the Friends of the V&A, the J. Paul Getty Jr. Charitable Trust and a private consortium led by John S.M. Scott
Late-flowering beauty: 1880s-1890s
Oscar Wilde, the first celebrity style-guru, invented a brilliant pose of 'poetic intensity', but initially made his name promoting the idea of 'The House Beautiful'. By the 1880s Britain was in the grip of the 'greenery-yallery' Aesthetic Craze, lovingly satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in their famous comic opera Patience and by the caricaturist George Du Maurier in the pages of Punch.
In the last decade of Queen Victoria's reign the Aesthetic Movement entered its final, fascinating Decadent phase, characterised by the extraordinary black-and-white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in The Yellow Book.
Carte de visite of Oscar Wilde. Photographed by W & D Downey London Late 1880s Museum no. PH.889-1956
Alfred Concanen - Sheet-music cover for 'Quite too Utterly Utter'
Sheet-music cover for 'Quite too Utterly Utter' Alfred Concanen Published by Hopwood & Crew Printed by Stannard & Sons London About 1881 Colour lithograph Museum no. S.34-1993
Aubrey Beardsley - 'Siegfried'
'Siegfried' Aubrey Beardsley London 1892-3 Pen, ink and wash Museum no. E.578-1932
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'The Cult of Beauty - The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 2 April - 17 July 2011.