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  1. A doctrine which holds aesthetics or beauty as the highest ideal or most basic standard.

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Extensive Definition

This article is about aestheticism, a term with a root meaning of sensuous; Not to be confused with the religious practice of asceticism: an abstinence from the sensual.
The Aesthetic Movement is a loosely defined movement in literature, fine art, the decorative arts, and interior design in later nineteenth-century Britain. Generally speaking, it represents the same tendencies that Symbolism or Decadence stood for in France, or Decadentismo stood for in Italy, and may be considered the British branch of the same movement. It belongs to the anti-Victorian reaction and had post-Romantic roots, and as such anticipates Modernism. It took place in the late Victorian period from around 1868 to 1901, and is generally considered to have ended with the trial of Oscar Wilde.

Aesthetic Movement literature

The British decadent writers were deeply influenced by the Oxford don Walter Pater and his essays published in 186768, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) became a sacred text for art-centric young men of the Victorian era. Decadent writers used the slogan "Art for Art's Sake" (L'art pour l'art), coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin and promoted by Théophile Gautier in France, and asserted that there was no connection between art and morality.
The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement tended to hold that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. As a consequence, they did not accept John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful. Instead, they believed that Art did not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed the cult of beauty, which they considered the basic factor in art. Life should copy Art, they asserted. They considered nature as crude and lacking in design when compared to art. The main characteristics of the movement were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, massive use of symbols, and synaesthetic effects—that is, correspondence between words, colours and music.
Aestheticism had its forerunners in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among the Pre-Raphaelites. In Britain the best representatives were Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, both influenced by the French Symbolists, and James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The movement and these poets were satirised in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience and other works, such as F. C. Burnand's The Colonel, and in comic magazines, such as Punch.
Compton Mackenzie's novel Sinister Street makes use of the type as a phase through which the protagonist passes under the influence of older, decadent individuals. The novels of Evelyn Waugh, who was a young participant in aesthete society at Oxford, portray the aesthete mostly from a satirical point of view, but also from that of an insider. Some names associated with this loose assemblage are Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Acton, Nancy Mitford, A.E. Housman and Anthony Powell.

Aesthetic Movement visual arts

Artists associated with the Aesthetic movement include James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Aubrey Vincent Beardsley.

Aesthetic Movement decorative arts

Aesthetic furniture was limited to approximately late nineteenth-century. Furniture typically originated in Britain/Ireland (usually referred to as simply "Aesthetic") or in the United States (usually referred to as "American Aesthetic").
Aesthetic movement furniture is characterized by the several common themes:
  • Ebonized wood with gilt highlights
  • Japanese influence
  • Prominent use of nature, especially flowers, birds, ginko leaves, and peacock feathers.
  • Blue and white on porcelain and china.
Ebonized furniture means that the wood is painted or stained to a black ebony finish. The furniture is sometimes completely ebony-colored. More often however, there is gilding added to the carved surfaces of the feathers or stylized flowers that adorn the furniture.
Japan was a relatively newly contacted culture in terms of influence, and looking at aesthetic furniture, there are commonalities especially in the overall rectangular shape with columns, and the intricate woodcarvings, this influence can be seen in a concurrent movement known as the Anglo-Japanese style, especially in the work of E.W. Godwin and Christopher Dresser.
As aesthetic movement was similar to the writing in that it was about sensuality and nature, nature themes often appear on the furniture. A typical aesthetic feature is the gilded carved flower, or the stylized peacock feather. Colored paintings of birds or flowers are often seen. Non-ebonized aesthetic movement furniture may have realistic 3D renditions of birds or flowers carved into the wood.
Contrasting with the ebonized-gilt furniture is use of blue and white in porcelain and china. Similar themes of peacock feathers and nature would be used in blue and white tones on dinnerware and other crockery. The blue and white design was also popular on square porcelain tiles. It is reported that Oscar Wilde used aesthetic decorations during his youth. This aspect of the movement was also satirised in Punch magazine and in Patience.


  • Halin, Widar. Christopher Dresser, a Pioneer of Modern Design. Phaidon: 1990. ISBN 0-7148-2952-8.
  • Lambourne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement. Phaidon Press: 1996. ISBN 0-7148-3000-3.
  • Snodin, Michael and John Styles. Design & The Decorative Arts, Britain 1500–1900. V&A Publications: 2001. ISBN 1-85177-338-X.
aestheticism in German: Ästhetizismus
aestheticism in Modern Greek (1453-): Αισθητισμός
aestheticism in Spanish: Esteticismo
aestheticism in French: Esthétisme
aestheticism in Italian: Estetismo
aestheticism in Dutch: Estheticisme
aestheticism in Japanese: 耽美主義
aestheticism in Chinese: 唯美主义
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