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    Follow the Stories | Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (2004)

    Aesthetic Movement: A Break with the Past


    Posted: 02.16.04






    The decorative arts often seem to be overflowing with so many specialized schools, styles and movements — Gothic, Federalist, Queen Anne, Rococo, Art Deco — it can be hard for the non-expert to stay afloat. Some are well known, many confusing, and others fairly obscure.

    During ROADSHOW's 2003 visit to Chicago, veteran appraiser Wendell Garrett of Sotheby's, an expert in Americana, had the chance to cast some light on one of the lesser-known styles: the Aesthetic Movement, which flourished in the United States and England during the latter third of the 19th century.

    Make Room for Contradiction
    The name itself suggests some measure of ambiguity, since "aesthetic" is a common term that means simply "artistic" or "beautiful." So was the Aesthetic Movement just a style in which artists sought to be ... artsy? Reliably, the answer is both yes and no. Wendell cautions that any understanding of the Aesthetic Movement must make plenty of room for contradiction.

    Like most transitional periods in art, the Aesthetic Movement was frenetic and short-lived — but important.

    He says that in a broad sense the Aesthetic Movement "was mainly a reaction against the high Victorian period." In architecture and the decorative arts, this sub-style formed a transition between historical revivalism of the late Victorian era — Renaissance Revival, Greco-Roman Revival, Elizabethan Revival, etc. — and Arts & Crafts. The latter, taking shape from the writings of William Morris and John Ruskin, became a more pervasive and lasting opposition movement that championed a return to the simple, honest pleasures of traditional hand-crafting.

    Transitional periods in the arts are usually complex, largely because their spirit is usually one of rebellion against what came before. So it was with the Aesthetic Movement. For Aesthetic artists, such as the writers Algernon Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, or the painter James Whistler, the motto "art for art's sake" was their animating spirit. These men rejected the ingrained Victorian notion that art should serve a moral purpose by representing and reinforcing social values. They sought instead to create and celebrate art solely for the pleasure to be derived from its beauty — often doing so with a pronounced elitist air.

    Whistler's masterpiece, Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, painted in the early 1870s, did not aspire to rigid realism; while the subject of the work is clearly a bridge at night, the artist preferred to experiment with light and color, creating a picture whose overall effect is harmony more than exactitude. Several years later, Wilde wrote in the preface to his famously hedonistic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless."

    Experimenting with Style
    Unsurprisingly, these ideals did not manifest themselves in quite the same way when the movement reached American decorative arts. Utility is always important in furniture, no matter how much style figures in to the design. After all, if an exceptionally beautiful chair cannot accommodate a sitter, arguably it is not a chair.

    By the late 19th century, Wendell says, the increasing use of machines in furniture making by Victorian craftsmen had resulted in more and more elaborate ornamentation. The goal of the rebellious Aesthetics was to strip all that away. In its place, Wendell explains, they wanted to impart to their furniture "a very dry, almost acerbic style. While there was surface decoration, there was not rich carving; while there were formalized patterns, they didn't have the heavy, rich, florid aspect of the Victorian period." These designers favored authenticity, rather than artifice and pretense, in materials and decoration.

    But that doesn't mean that the Aesthetic style was exclusively original. The Chicago table, for instance, contains several historical elements, including geometric parquetry, Jacobean-style spindles, a Japanese-influenced bird, and a rustic-looking exposed tenon. Indeed a characteristic of the Aesthetic Movement in furniture was a fondness for borrowing and adapting styles from other periods as well as other cultures. The concern was not so much with historical correctness as it was with creating a pleasurable visual experience. The sundry visual qualities of a piece would make up an attractive, free-spirited whole — and a striking rebuttal to high-Victorian Beauty.

    Another example that shows the wide variety of influences on Aesthetic furniture is an 1872 table brought in to the Oklahoma City ROADSHOW in 2003. Its base is a striking melange of decorative elements, bespeaking the fascination with the Orient shared by artists and craftsmen of the Aesthetic Movement. While the existing wooden top is not original — appraiser J. Michael Flanigan believes it was probably once marble — it rests upon four cast-iron elephant heads, whose curled trunks serve as table legs. On each side, an iron plate cast with flowers and butterflies add to the table's exotic motif. Comparing this table to its Aesthetic cousin, which Wendell Garrett appraised in Chicago, illustrates vividly the difficulty of tying together all the loose stylistic ends of the Aesthetic Movement.

    A Middle-Class Movement?
    Amid the endless experimentation with styles and methods, as well as the burgeoning of formal artistic theory, it may seem ironic that one of the enduring visions to emerge from the Aesthetic Movement in America was all but egalitarian. That is, the idea that everyone should be able to enjoy beautiful, well-made homes and furnishings — not just the very wealthy. "In many ways it was a very middle-class movement," Wendell says.

    Innovations in manufacturing were making stylish, well-made goods accessible to the general public. Other modern developments heightened the effect. "This period also saw the beginning of the sales catalogue," Wendell says. "You could buy your furniture and your house mail-order." He notes too that the Aesthetics had misgivings about how the machine seemed to be taking over so many aspects of life. But influential designers such as Clarence Cook and Charles Eastlake were also inspired by the idea that through skilled and artful use of machines, beautiful homes with tasteful furnishings could be available to practically everyone. Cook's collection of essays, The House Beautiful, published in 1877, was an early comprehensive handbook on the principles of interior decorating — one of the truly lasting effects of the Aesthetic Movement.

    Still, Wendell says, the Aesthetic Movement was a fairly minor phenomenon in the history of decorative arts. Lasting only about 25 or 30 years, it served mainly as a bridge between the high Victorian sensibility and the radical shift of Arts & Crafts, as well as other modern movements. A mere turning away, in artistic terms, just ahead of what Wendell calls "total revolution."

    See the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (2005) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    For more on this subject, see:
    The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Lambourne
    The House Beautiful by Clarence Cook
    The Aesthetic Movement Prelude to Art Nouveau by Elizabeth Aslin

    Luke Crafton is the senior interactive producer for ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.