The Aestheticism Movement

Instructor: Holly Hunt

Holly has master's degrees in history and writing, as well as an extensive background in art history.

The Aesthetic Movement of the nineteenth century united a wide range of artists, designers, and writers who were critical of the new society produced by Britain's Industrial Revolution. Its proponents were united by a belief that the creation of beauty had its own value.

Introduction: The Cult of Beauty

The Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century was a rebellion against two different aspects of Victorian life: the proliferation of mass-produced stuff, often of poor design, and the belief that the purpose of the arts was to teach morality and virtue. In the field of design, reformers sought to raise the aesthetic standard of daily life. In the field of art, theorists and painters alike embraced the idea of 'art for art's sake,' of beauty as an end in itself.

Rice dish designed by Willliam de Morgan and decorated by Charles Passenger, c1898-1907.
William de Morgan, rice dish

The movement, which emerged in England around 1860 and continued in different forms into the early twentieth century, included a wide range of artists, designers, craftspeople, and writers. Some had their roots in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, with its medieval aesthetic, or in the social program of William Morris, who believed that a return to handmade goods would restore the dignity of labor.

Meanwhile, design professionals such as Owen Jones and Christopher Dresser worked to raise the aesthetic quality of manufactured goods. Painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler looked to the French Impressionists and to Japanese art for inspiration, while art critic Walter Pater encouraged readers to escape the mundane via dreamlike contemplation of the art of the past.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Grey and Green, Cicely Alexander


Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, Victorians had access to more stuff than ever before. Manufacturers could turn out technologically up-to-date-goods imitating virtually any style, from Etruscan to Rococo. Illusionistic motifs could be applied to any surface. The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in the specially constructed Crystal Palace in London in 1851, celebrated this brave new industrialized world. But some observers were dismayed by the ugliness of many of the goods on display. The idea of design reform had first emerged in the 1830s, but it was in the middle decades of the century that it took hold.

In 1856 architect and designer Owen Jones published The Grammar of Ornament, still an influential design text today. This and other books by Jones contained accurate reproductions of design motifs from all over the world and promoted consistent principles for their use. He believed decoration should fit an object's form and function, not the other way round, and two-dimensional design should look two-dimensional, rather than imitating three dimensions. The book encouraged Western designers to look to other cultures for examples of good design, especially the Islamic world, China, and Japan. These ideas would be extended and developed in the next generation by Jones's pupil, Christopher Dresser.

Owen Jones, page from Examples of Chinese Ornament, 1867.
Owen Jones, page from Examples of Chinese Ornament, 1867

Another response to industrialization came from the writer and designer William Morris, who felt that the Industrial Revolution had degraded the lives of workers, but that the revival of individual craftsmanship could help heal the modern world. He felt that even utilitarian objects, such as books and dishes, should be lovingly crafted objects of beauty.

Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones, mirror stand with medieval decorations, 1862.
Philip Webb and Edward Burne- Jones, toilet mirror with medieval figures

Morris looked to the Middle Ages and to the natural world for inspiration. Among the most important of his collaborators was the ceramicist William de Morgan. Medievalist influence was also strong in the world of graphic design, where artist and illustrator Walter Crane and others created what has been called a 'golden age' of illustration.

Walter Crane, limited edition of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, 1893.
Walter Crane Title page of The Tempest

Those who embraced Morris's aesthetic also rejected contemporary fashion. The new aniline dyes let women dress themselves in brilliant purples, magentas, and electric blues, but committed aesthetes rejected these in favor of soft, muted shades, especially green. They rejected corsets and crinolines in favor of flowing garments evoking antique art. Morris's wife, Jane, who modeled for the Pre-Raphaelites, embodied the Aesthetic ideal.

Photograph of Jane Morris by unknown, 1865.
photograph of Jane Morris

Those who adopted Aesthetic dress often filled their houses with Japanese fans and blue-and-white china, demonstrating the movement's fascination with East Asian art and design. By the 1870s, high-end retailers were catering to Aesthetic taste. Liberty's of London sold elegant versions of Aesthetic dress, while Tiffany's of New York sold handcrafted luxury items in the 'Japonesque' style.

Tiffany and Company, silver vase in Japonesque style, c1879.
Tiffany Japonesque vase

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