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Aestheticism was a late-nineteenth-century art movement that emphasized aesthetic value and effects above socio-political topics and stances in literature, fine art, music, and other media. This meant that the movement’s art was created first and foremost to be beautiful, rather than to have a moral, allegorical, theological, or other similar goal ” “art for art’s sake.”

It began in the 1860s in the studios and homes of a radical group of artists and designers, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, reformers who explored new ways of living in defiance of the design standards of the time, as revealed in the 1851 Great Exhibition at Hyde Park, London, and was supported by notable writers such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. It grew in popularity in the late 19th century in England, with notable writers such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde supporting it. Walter Hamilton, a critic who flourished in the 1870s and 1880s, was the first to identify the trend, releasing The Aesthetic Movement in England in 1882.

Many Victorians felt that literature and art played essential ethical roles, therefore Aestheticism questioned the ideals of mainstream Victorian society. “The aesthetic movement stood in striking and occasionally stunning contrast to Britain’s crass materialism in the nineteenth century,” Fiona McCarthy writes in The Guardian. By the 1890s, decadence, a term that has roots with aestheticism, was widely used throughout Europe.

The Oxford professor Walter Pater and his writings published between 1867 and 1868, in which he claimed that life had to be lived fully, with an ideal of beauty, inspired the British decadent authors greatly. Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was highly valued among late-nineteenth-century art-loving young men. The Decadent movement’s writers popularized the phrase “Art for Art’s Sake” (L’art pour l’art), whose origin is disputed.


Some say it was coined by philosopher Victor Cousin, however Angela Leighton writes in her book On Form: Poetry, Aestheticism, and the Legacy of a Word (2007) that Benjamin Constant used the word as early as 1804. It is widely assumed that it was popularized in France by Théophile Gautier, who took the term to mean that there was no genuine connection between art and morality.

The Aesthetic artists and writers tended to believe that art should give refined sensual pleasure rather than communicate moral or emotional themes. As a result, they rejected John Ruskin’s, Matthew Arnold’s, and George MacDonald’s idea of art as moral or beneficial, “Art for the sake of truth.” Instead, they felt that art was solely meant to be beautiful and had no instructional value. The Aesthetes established a worship of beauty, which they saw as the most fundamental element of art. They claimed that life should imitate art.

When compared to art, they saw nature as rough and lacking in design. Suggestion rather than declaration, sensuality, a heavy use of symbols, and synaesthetic/ideasthetic effects”that is, connection between words, colors, and music”were all prominent features of the style. Music was utilized to set the tone.

The Aesthetes were preceded by John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as several of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were themselves heirs to the Romantic spirit. There are a few notable parallels between the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthete philosophies: Dedication to the concept of “Art for the Sake of Art”; love for, and continual strive for, beauty; escapism via the visual and literary arts; meticulous and self-conscious workmanship; and a shared interest in combining the arts of many mediums. This last notion is emphas
ized in Théophile Gautier’s poem L’Art, in which the poet is likened to the sculptor and painter. Aestheticism is most closely connected with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

Their approach to Aestheticism, however, was not based on the belief in “Art for the Sake of Art,” but rather on “a vigorous reassertion of those ideals of color, beauty, love, and cleanliness that the dreary, restless, discouraging world of the mid-nineteenth century so much required.” This statement of beauty in a miserable world is linked to Pre-Raphaelite escape via art and poetry.

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