The Birth of Aestheticism
In his essay, ‘The Poetic Principle’, Edgar Allen Poe writes that poems that are written for simply the poem’s sake are not lacking in nobility or dignity. Théophile Gautier, a French author, picked up Poe’s idea, and coined the slogan, ‘Art for Art’s sake’(the English translation of l'art pour l'art), in defiance of those who advocated that true art had a moral purpose.
Aestheticism is the doctrine of art that holds this belief of ‘art for art’s sake’. It emphasizes form rather than content. Aestheticism says that the value of art lies in its aesthetic appeal, rather than any ulterior motive which may be assigned to it. This doctrine was taken up by the French Symbolists of the mid 19th century, and the English Aesthetic Movement.
The Aesthetic Movement
In England, the Symbolist Movement of France took the form of the Aesthetic Movement. It was a reaction to the Victorian sensibility, and dominated art and literature between 1868 and 1901.
The artists of this movement believed that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake, rather than any moral message it might seem to contain. They emphasized aesthetic pleasure derived from the immediate experience of an art form, over any didactic value attached to it, or inadvertently extricated from it. The works of these aesthetes is characterized by sensuality and the profuse use of symbols and synaesthetic effects. The aim was to wholly engage the senses, and hold the beholder enthralled.
Two major artists associated with aestheticism in England are James McNeil Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
James McNeil Whistler
One of Whistler’s most famous paintings, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother (1871), typified the new interest in art for art’s sake. It was intended as no more than an arrangement of the figure. This enraged the Victorian audience; it considered it a demeaning title for what was ostensibly a portrait.
Whistler’s other works include The White Girl (1862), Grey and Silver Battersea Beach (1863), Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville (1865), An Orange Note (1884)
As is noticeable in the very names of his works, Whistler was simply concerned with color scheme and its appreciation. It is this interest that attracted severe criticism, but that also prompted critics to see his work as a precursor of abstract art
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (link to topic of same name), Rossetti is well-known for his heavy reliance on symbols in his paintings. In Girlhood of Mary, Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini, Mary is portrayed as an emaciated teenager. He also idealized his late wife Elizabeth Siddal; in his paintings, she appears as Beata Beatrix. His mistress Jane Burden was stylized and portrayed as an ethereal goddess.
Some of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous works include Beata Beatrix (1863), Persephona (1873-77) and The Roseleaf (1865).