Artistic and literary movement, circa 1880-1890, England and America. Best examples: The Peacock Room, Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C., The Chelsea Hotel, Room of Whistlers, Frick Collection, NY, NY.

    In mid-century Victorian England, the Industrial Revolution was firmly in place. What had been engineers and craftsmen of the previous era, were now proud owners of factories, mills, and all their suppliers and subsidiaries. In 1851, The Crystal Palace Exhibition showcased the very best that Britain could offer to the world.

    The academic world was...ah, polite, but not interested. Mostly, the exhibits were overdesigned and stupifyingly ugly, appealing to the lowest common denominator, if they weren't proving over and over again that it was now possible to make X many of a thing with the time and expense it used to take to make one.

    Their students, mostly the children of these same industrialists, were quick to take up the idea: modern and/or machine-made, bad, old, better. Home or handcrafted, best. From their parents, they retained the beliefs that achievement beats pedigree, and scholarship beats money (though it's certainly useful).

    The result was a phenomenon close to the BoBo's, Park Slopers, and Yuppies of today: well-read, well-bred professionals, mostly in publishing and advertising, whose ancestral portraits might have come from the rummage sale, but whose tastes and patronage of the arts put those to the manner born to shame.     If they read, it was Kant or Marx, Rousseau, Later Latin, old ballads, or Greek, as well as their own productions, if they listened to music, it was Bach or before, although Beethoven was high on their playlist as well. (Original instruments please.) If they looked at paintings....well...

    They lived differently. While High Victorian magnates aspired, like their landed rivals, towards a city mansion and a country estate with formal gardens, the Aesthetes lived modestly in townhouses and apartments in newly-built developments facing interior parks and quads that eschewed all marble facing and veneers in favor of honestly laid red brick with terra-cotta embellishments, or small, older cottages in the suburbs, either renovated Tudor, or at least Tudor-style, with unruly "perennial borders".  Inside, Craftsman furniture with strong, simple lines prevailed, and mass-produced or fake anything was shunned in favor of handicrafts, antiques, Asian curios, and plenty of Nature, either as cut flowers (sunflowers a specialty), potted tropical plants, ostrich and/or peacock feathers, or painted decorations of the same.

    They dressed differently. Their children, far from being little adults confined to the nursery, wore little Empire dresses and overalls that allowed for plenty of movement, and were encouraged to play outside in the quad, singing, dancing or playing ball. Ma'man wore her hair loose, and long, 'medieval' gowns around the house, and sometimes even for a day (shopping at Liberty's) or evening out, and was always busy with some craft or hobby, such as painting on porcelain, embroidering, or putting down preserves. Father's finery was confined to week-ends, but looked quite dashing, with his cape and plumed broad hat, or meticulously tailored suit, like a Regency dandy, when he went off to his job.  As a matter of fact, one of the most striking things about them was that they were firmly middle, or upper-middle class, but lived in a manner and with an air of an unspoken aristocracy--very strange!

    They were just ....different. Aesthetic adults were more direct, and embarrassingly emotional, and often spoke about how they wished to "burn with a hard, gemlike flame". Aesthetes stuck together in little groups, mostly, and caused a stir whenever they were sighted. Talking to just one of them was like dealing with someone from another planet.  Other people might discuss news or politics -- they'd describe things in terms of colors and textures and feelings, since, as they would be quick to explain, there was no reality, save what a person could experience in the present moment....whatever that meant. When they weren't talking about themselves, or remaining maddeningly aloof, they were wont to use words like "vatic" and "lacrymose". Instead of sitting upright and with dignity, both sexes draped themselves over chairs, couches and even pillows on the floor, endlessly nattering on about how they acquired that lovely scrap of old Gobelin tapestry or how fiendishly difficult it was to get just the right effect painting a bunch of grapes on the sugarbowl, to go with the Majolica plates they'd gotten in Italy.

    The biggest, most heated discussion in their world was over paintings. Well, not paintings as such, but artistic style and philosophy. The question boiled down to, what was painting for? For the defense, we had John Ruskin, growing a trifle long in the tooth, whose philosophies were embodied in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: art can and should be firmly in the service, if not of religion, than morality and social justice. To this end, paintings and sculptures should be realistic depictions of life, symbolizing moral values or preferably illustrating some kind of moral fable. In this way, Medieval art and the Italian Primitives (Italian painters before 1500) were much better than the overrated Mannerist and Baroque painters that followed them: while medieval painters and sculptors worked out of a sense of conviction for their subjects, Mannerist painters were simply interested in interesting effects, showy, elegant compositions, or flattering their patrons. Impressionist art is even worse, since it often depicts sordid and amoral subjects like prostitutes and city streets, and can in no way be considered realistic.
     Opposing him was Walter Pater and James McNeill Whistler: yes, it's true that you can tell stories with painting, but not all great paintings are religious or realistic. The Mona Lisa is neither, many still life paintings, although rendered more-or-less realistically, depict spring flowers with fall fruit (or some other  combination thereof), and don't point any morals, either. Even more damningly, Joseph M. W. Turner's later paintings were not at all realistic nor did they tell any kind of story, resembling the 'wicked' French Impressionists more than anything else and Ruskin had gone out of his way to champion them. Art was, well a thing unto itself, and obeyed its own laws, having no use other than its own attractiveness.

    The whole situation came to a head when Whistler exhibited one of his most Impressionist works, a study of a sky full of fireworks. Ruskin, reviewing this painting, wondered at who would simply "fling a pot of paint into the public's face" and charge them fifty guineas. Whistler, seizing a chance to publicize the work, sued  him for defamation of character. The resulting trial underlined the seriousness of the debate, and Whistler won...barely, being granted damages of one quarter of a penny, a coin he had made into jewelry. Adding insult to injury, Ruskin had to split court costs with Whistler, and went into decline, both socially and physically, a blow from which he was never to recover.

    It was from all this, that there arose some suspicion about what they were really about: Aesthetic women, for all their languidity and long, loose hair, were just a little too ready to turn their little handicrafts into a business, and their men were just a little effeminate...or maybe a little more than a little. The idea that art ought to exist for its own sake, rather than to promote a moral or social message was an uncomfortable one...did they mean there was no right or wrong?

    Punch Magazine had a field day, with staff cartoonist George du Maurier creating a whole cast of Aesthetes (the Swinburne/Wilde-like poet Posthelwaite, Maudle, a painter very much like Whistler, and the Cimabue Browns, an aesthetic family) who were treated much like walking punch lines in themselves. The Brown children (who carried sunflowers while on walks, dressed identically and spoke in unison) shocked their Great-Uncle by wanting to go to hear "Bach's Divine Passionsmusik" or the art gallery rather than the zoo or the circus, another elderly relative declared she was moving to a cheaper neighborhood, where peacock feathers were only a penny apiece. Posthelwaite was shown at a restaurant, staring at a flower in place of a noon meal, Maudle was asked by his mother why he didn't get out more, try to mingle with a better class of people -- to which he replied he couldn't find any.  The best of these cartoons shows Mrs. Brown, draped over a chair like a piece of wet seaweed, buttonholing a somewhat stodgy-looking older man with the line "Are you intense?"

    A not-so-great playwright rewrote Tartuffe into a play called "The Colonel", casting a pair of Aesthetes as con men --the public laughed, then besieged the set designer for hints on how to replicate the look in their own homes. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a great operetta, "Patience", which still bemuses audiences today, who wonder exactly what all the fuss is about. At the height of the hubbub, Oscar Wilde was invited to go on a lecture tour of America, speaking on art and household design. His extravagant wardrobe and mannerisms amused the Boston and New York press, he charmed and amazed countless audiences in the Western states with his warmth, practical ideas, and common touch, and returning to London, regaled audiences with his impressions of the Wild West, a move that relaunched his career from OK poet and Ladies' Magazine columnist to scintillating playwright.

    In the years to follow, the Aesthetes were to become the Decadents of the 1890's, Oscar Wilde was to get arrested, and Art Nouveau was to bring strong design to the people...but that's another story.

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