Beauty, Morals and Voluptuousness in the England of Oscar Wilde

ARCHIVE
2011

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In Search of a New Ideal of Beauty, 1860–1870

Thomas ArmstrongThe Hay Field© V&A Images
In Britain, in the mid-19th century, a cacophony of styles and theories shook the art world and the applied arts. However from this turmoil there emerged one clear and revolutionary idea: the search for a new ideal of beauty. The artists of the Aesthetic Movement, as it came to be known, sought nothing less than to create an art form freed from the established precepts of the Royal Academy, liberated from social conventions.

This was the arrival of "Art for Art's sake", an art that existed only in order to be beautiful. The images painted by the Aesthetes did not tell stories or preach sermons; their sculptures were visual, tactile delights, hinting at sensual pleasures; their poetry aimed to be "pure".

Edward William GodwinSideboard© V&A Images
The same spirit extended to engraving, bookbinding, fashion and photography, and above all influenced all forms of the decorative arts. The aim was to transform the banal and pretentious furnishings of middle-class Victorian homes by introducing furnishings worthy of the name "Art Furniture", by producing, ceramics, textiles, wallpapers and other objects of a quality that would grace the homes of the Aesthetes.

The Early Aesthetic Circles

The Movement was initially formed from two small, relatively homogenous groups who were intricately linked. The first, the Holland Park set, was focused around Little Holland House, the home of the Prinsep family, then one of the centres of artistic, literary and intellectual life in Victorian London. This was where Frederic Leighton and George Frederic Watts, its principle stars, encountered Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron and other famous figures.

Frederic LeightonPavonia© Christie's Images
The second group was focused, for a time at least, around romantic bohemians like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite followers, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, rebellious figures like James McNeill Whistler, then just back from Paris and full of dangerous French ideas about modern painting, and the "Olympians", painters of grand classical subjects, who were part of the circle of Leighton and Watts.

Choosing models such as Lizzie Siddal, Pre-Raphaelites' and Rossetti's red-headed muse, or Nanna Risi, Leighton's proud Italian beauty, neither of whom conformed to the genteel femininity favoured by the Victorians, the Aesthetic painters put forward a new vision of female beauty that embraced sensuality.

Finally, writers and critics, like Rossetti's brother William Michael and the young Algernon Swinburne, also gravitated towards this circle. Both attempted to describe the literary and artistic principles of Aestheticism, and sought to demonstrate the links between seemingly disparate works.

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