Art Movements Throughout History: The Aesthetic Movement

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A painting by James McNeill Whistler.

Definition and Origins

The aesthetic movement took place from the mid to late nineteenth century in Britain. The art movement was provocative, emphasized sensuality, and rejected the view that art should serve social, practical, narrative, or moral purposes according to Tate Gallery. According to The Art Story, the aesthetic movement threatened to dismantle Britain’s rigid and conservative Victorian traditions. By expressing freedom for creative self-expression, aestheticism began to penetrate all facets of life including music, ceramics, furniture, metalwork, literature, interior design, and fashion. Although its adherents were elated, the movement was mocked by many conservative Victorians.

Aesthetic Movement Inspiration

During the aesthetic movement, artists were inspired to counter what they previously saw as insipid and cheap designs of consumer products which were mass produced with machines. Some artists even revived pre-industrialized artistic techniques in their creative processes. There was a major emphasis that art should focus on excellent craftsmanship. In pursuit of beauty, aesthetic artists explored color, form, and composition. Colors were subdued and geometrical designs and simplified linear forms were implemented.

Initial Aesthetic Movement Artists

In its early beginnings, painters like James McNeill Whistler, Albert Moore, Edward Burne Jones, and Frederic Lord Leighton were its first proponents. They were influenced by the Japanese art and culture. The aesthetic movement also had its roots from the 1860 Pre-Raphaelites English painters, who sought to reform art by shunning classical influences of Raphael Urbino, and returning to a medieval approach to art. Pre-Raphaelite paintings were characterized by flame red haired beauties, medieval geometric designs, and Japanese motifs and aesthetics traits.

Aesthetic Movement in Applied Arts

In applied arts, the aesthetic movement was initiated by English artist and designer William Morris, who founded Morris & Co in 1862 and made furnishings like stained glass windows, textiles, arts, and pricy decorative arts pieces like the Lothair cross, according to Tate Gallery. His company also treasured hand craftsmanship which made designers start to revive their pre-industrial artistic techniques, and depart from machine made products according to The Art Story.

Aesthetic Movement Mainstream

From 1875, the Liberty Store in London began commercializing aesthetic art in all forms. Two years later in 1877 when the Grosvenor Gallery opened in London, aesthetic artists got an opportunity to exhibit their works. Famed Irish writer Oscar Wilde was vital in aesthetic art popularity; he adopted it in his public persona and fashion to much ridicule and criticism. Wilde attended the opening of Grosvenor Gallery wearing a suit designed like a cello, according to The Art Story.

Gallery Appearance of Aesthetic Art Movement

Grosvenor Gallery also began a new way to display aesthetic paintings. The paintings were hung with enough space to allow visitors to “take in” the works of art according to The Art Story. The exhibition space was also surrounded by aesthetically decorated rooms. The space was also adorned with ionic pilasters and green and yellow damask covered walls which drew in mockery from aestheticism critics. Still, the movement got another publicity boost in 1882 when Walter Hamilton became the first writer to identify and cover the Aesthetic Movement in England. Hamilton wrote about the movement’s key proponents and the contemporary critique to it, according to Tate Gallery.

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