Style Guide: Aestheticism
Aestheticism was an approach to life based on the philosophy of 'art for art's sake'. It emphasised the importance of art above everything else and the pleasure to be found in beautiful things. Aetheticism was a complex mixture of a number of styles. Classical and Japanese art were particular inspirations. It was fashionable from 1870 to 1900.
The peacock feather, previously thought to be a symbol of bad luck, became an icon of the Aesthetic style. Its use as a motif confirmed Aestheticism's reputation for decadence.
Sunflowers were the most popular Aesthetic motif. With its bold colour and simple flat shape the flower had great appeal for Aesthetes.
Blue and white ceramics
Human figures shown in Classical Greek and Roman art provided 18th century artists and designers with sources of both subject matter and style. The cameo format, where the figure is shown in profile, was particularly popular.
The Aesthetic style favoured strong, simple colours. Bright blues, greens and especially yellows were very popular. Such colours were used in domestic interiors, often in combination with black furniture. Black was also a dominant colour of Aesthetic-style graphic arts
Female followers of the Aesthetic Movement dressed in distinctive loose, flowing garments in subtle colours, which were modelled on medieval styles. Fashionable men favoured velvet suits with knee breeches.
Lewis Foreman Day
Ebonised birch wood case, with porcelain face
Musuem no. CIRC.662-1972
Edward William Godwin
Ebonised wood, probably mahogany, with brass feet
Museum no. W.54-1980
The Yellow Book
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley
Line-block and letterpress, dark blue ink on yellow paper
Museum no. E.1377-1931
Portrait of the Epps family
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (designer)
Laura Epps (painter)
Oil on canvas on wood frame, with wallpaper and découpage (unfinished)
Museum no. W.20-1981
James McNeill Whistler (1834 - 1903)
American-born artist James McNeill Whistler was an important figure in the Aesthetic movement. In his paintings Whistler aimed to express mood and atmosphere through simple shapes, fluid brushstrokes and subtle colours. Whistler and his fellow Aesthetes believed that art was an end in itself, with no wider moral or social implications. This attitude angered John Ruskin and those in the Arts and Crafts Movement who thought that art and morality were fundamentally connected. In 1877 Ruskin reviewed one of Whistler's paintings, accusing the artist of 'flinging a pot of paint in the public's face'. Whistler sued for libel and won.
Aubrey Beardsley (1872 - 1898)
Aubrey Beardsley was one of the most original artists of the late 19th century. Principally a book-illustrator, Beardsley created striking black and white drawings in pen and ink. His expressive use of line and lack of shading showed the influence of Japanese prints. In 1894 Beardsley illustrated Oscar Wilde's play Salomé and became the art editor of The Yellow Book. These publications, which were sexually and socially provocative, shocked the public and added to Aestheticism's decadent reputation.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
The poet and writer Oscar Wilde was the leading personality of the Aesthetic Movement. He promoted the philosophy of 'art for art's sake' in a series of lectures in America and Britain. Wilde was a famous dandy and wit. He is best known for plays such as Lady Windermere's Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was later turned into a novel. In 1895, at the height of his success, Wilde was tried and imprisoned for homosexuality. With his downfall the Aesthetic Movement lost its popularity.
Frederick Henry Evans (photpgrapher)
Museum no. 29X-1972
Print from the H Beard Print Collection
Carlo 'Ape' Pellegrini
Museum no. S.4016-2009
Buildings and Interiors
The Peacock Room
The Peacock Room was designed in 1876 -1877 for the London home of F.R. Leyland. Architect and designer Thomas Jeckyll adapted a dining room in the house to accommodate Leyland's collection of blue and white porcelain and a painting by James McNeill Whistler. Whistler felt that the décor of the room did not suit his painting and without his patron's knowledge he painted the entire room deep blue and gold and covered the window shutters and one of the walls with glorious peacocks. Whistler's audacity, and a dispute over payment, caused a breach between artist and patron. However, despite his anger, Leyland kept the room as Whistler had left it.
The Grove, Harborne
The Grove was designed by J. H. Chamberlain in 1877-1878 for William Kendrick, a prominent Birmingham businessman. The ante-room of the house, which was acquired by the V&A just before the house was demolished, reflects the Classical and Gothic elements of the Aesthetic style. It is richly decorated with inlaid, painted and gilded wood. The room was used to display Kendrick's collection of blue and white ceramics.
Influence of Japan 1850 - 1900
Japanese art had a great influence on Aestheticism. Aesthetic interiors were often decorated with Japanese prints, screens, fans and other objects. An appreciation of the art of Japan is seen in the work of many Aesthetic artists and designers such as James McNeill Whistler and E.W. Godwin. Arthur Lasenby Liberty, who sold Japanese art at his famous London store, was a great promoter of Aestheticism.