3.12 / Review

The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900

By Larissa Archer March 29, 2012

Thumbnail: John William Waterhouse. Saint Cecilia, 1895; oil on canvas; 48.5 x 79 in. Courtesy of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

The temptation to sigh and swoon through The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 18601900, at the Legion of Honor, is strong. The mostly male artists gathered here have borrowed the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s concept of “Art for art’s sake,” producing art whose primary aim was formal beauty. It’s equally tempting to dismiss the Aesthetic Movement in England, of which they were a part, as a moment of escapism before the cultural and political tumults Britain endured throughout the twentieth century. But it’s hard to bemoan the absence of moral, religious, and ethical themes in the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Aubrey Beardsley. Their veneration of beauty as the primary, or even exclusive, concern of art is surprisingly seductive.

The Cult of Beauty focuses on the movement’s contributions to both the decorative arts and the “fine” ones (not that these champions of the aesthetic would have necessarily differentiated between the two categories). By applying their blinkered obsession to every facet of their lives, these artists created the first incarnation of what we might describe today as lifestyle porn, designing furniture, wallpaper, ceramics, textiles, and more. Several installation walls are papered in modern reproductions of William Morris or Edward Godwin designs: elaborate patterns involving swans, peacock feathers, and flowers in rich, liberally gilded earth tones. These wallpapers refute the accepted minimalist wisdom that less is more when it comes to interior decor. Though rich with motifs and bold colors, they are not cluttered or noisy, offering proof that a room’s visual harmony can be enhanced, rather than jeopardized, by complicated design elements and patterns. Building on the achievements of the celebrated Victorian gift book binders, the artists of the Aesthetic Movement also experimented with print, emphasizing beauty in the typography, cover design, paper, presswork, and illustrations of their books.1

The edition of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome designed and illustrated by Beardsley is a striking example: at over ten inches in length, presumably to accommodate the illustrations, it is clearly designed to be treated as a work of art in itself rather than as something to carry around and read on the train. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema created some of the remarkable pieces of furniture on view, including a mahogany chair with cedar and ebony veneer and ivory and abalone shell inlay. The artist clearly prioritized its appearance over its comfort or utility.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Day Dream, 1880; oil on canvas; 62.5 x 36.5 in. Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Photo: Ronald Stoops.
Aubrey Beardsley. Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, 1920; book with reproductions of sixteen drawings published by John Lane, The Bodley Head; 10.25 x 8 x.75 in. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

Alma-Tadema was also a revered painter in his time, and it is puzzling why curators chose not to include more of his fine art work and less of Albert Moore’s. The men painted similar subjects: people, especially women of the English Rose variety, in classical settings. But Alma-Tadema was more adept at rendering movement and texture—skin, marble, flower petals—and as a result his paintings bear a vitality that Moore’s pretty but lifeless classical mannequin depictions do not.

The ideological and pictorial apogee of the Aesthetic Movement is arguably found in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the commonly used name for a group of painters working in the second half of the nineteenth century who emulated the style of early Italian artists. Other painters of the movement, such as Frederic Leighton and Whistler, shared the Pre-Raphaelites’ concern with beauty but created work that was more straightforward, situating their attractive subjects in recognizable, realistic settings and scenarios. The Pre-Raphaelites looked to other times, exhibiting a fondness for romanticized stories of medieval and renaissance femme fatales. In an era of catastrophically restrictive clothing, Edward Burne-Jones and John Spencer Stanhope painted women in stylized historical costumes that reveal the natural shape of their bodies, their clothing sensually draping around their bosoms and between their legs.2 With the exception of the titular figure in John William Waterhouse’s Saint Cecilia (1895), none of these women look particularly virginal. Indeed, Rossetti portrays his muse, Jane Morris, with all the languid sexuality of a silent film siren in The Day Dream (1880).

For all these paintings’ lack of message, their effect is powerful. There is a reason why Pre-Raphaelite has become shorthand to describe curly-haired, redheaded women. There is also a reason why a senior curator at the Tate Britain remarked in 2007 that if they don’t show the works of this “Victorian Brotherhood” they get complaints from teenage girls.3 The reference to teenage girls may seem dismissive, but there’s something to it. The art we love when we are young tends to be art that we can lose ourselves in and that fires our imagination. The Waterhouse monograph I bought at fifteen is dog-eared from my frequent adolescent perusals because I wanted to live in it; I wanted to believe that the world could look like that; I imagined myself in those paintings, draped in rich fabrics, flowers in my hair, pensively thumbing a book of poetry.

While art from other movements may provoke and challenge or overtly engage with the issues of its time and place, the question Aestheticism asks is a closed one: is beauty alone really a worthy object of veneration? Beauty is Aestheticism’s raison d’être, and escapism is its unavoidable byproduct. It’s not difficult to trace a line from Wilde's principle of the “House Beautiful” to the aspirational fantasies fueled and reflected by Etsy, Pinterest, and Martha Stewart’s Living.4 And as the Tate curator’s comment reveals, the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites also hold a fascination for young daydreamers as well as their adult counterparts—but not without good reason.

Spending an afternoon amidst so much work concerned with neither ideology nor morals but beauty writ large feels like an unusual opportunity to reconnect with the impulses toward romance and fantasy that perhaps governed our tastes at an earlier point in our lives. But The Cult of Beauty also reminds us that the fashion for art that sidestepped the more difficult aspects of human existence was just that—a fashion. Regardless of the wonders they might see and seek out, not all cults survive. The Aesthetes offered a vision of the world as they wished it were, but it is from other artists that we must seek how to live in the world as it is.


The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 18601900 is currently on view at the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco, though June 17, 2012.


  1. Their preoccupation with all aspects of “the Book Beautiful” (in Aestheticism, the adjective always seems to follow the noun) is echoed today in the fetishization of physical books that has developed in tandem with the virtual publishing industry. See Tess Thackara, "Beauty and the Book," Art Practical 50 (2012).
  2. Incidentally, many of the wives and girlfriends of the Aesthetics went corset-less a half century before Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel introduced the notion in their fashions.
  3. Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, “We can't escape the pre-Raphaelites,” March 20, 2012.
  4. “The House Beautiful” was the title of a lecture Wilde gave in Woodstock, Ontario in 1882, which covered the early Aesthetic Movement's influence on interior design. The phrase, much like Wilde himself, became synonymous with the Movement.

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