The Cult of Beauty

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900: George Frederic Watts, Albert Moore, Frederick Sandys, James McNeill Whistler, Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones
That period in British cultural history that is sometimes called the “Gilded Age”, corresponding to the “Belle Époque”, or the “beautiful era” in France, and similar movements in America and elsewhere that we associate with the grace and style of Art Nouveau, the exquisite paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the drama of the romantic painters and the exaltation of beauty in craft, design, literature and art during that era, actually had its roots in ugliness.

The first wave of this shift in art, design and literature began in the 1860’s and was dubbed the “Aesthetic Movement”. It was a response to the sooty, clanking, oil soaked and steam shrouded ugliness of the industrial revolution.

Notable artists in this movement included Frederic Leighton, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler, GF Watts, Edward Byrne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The latter two were core members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Their motto was “Art for Art’s sake”, in its original usage meaning art that was in pursuit of beauty itself and not burdened with requirements to convey social or religious morals. This is in contrast to the mid 20th Century Modernists’ later abuse of the term to insist art must be devoid of any literary or storytelling component.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the movement with an exhibition titled The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, that is on display until 17 July, 2011.

The museum’s website has a display of a few of the pieces from the show. There is an article and slideshow of additional images on The Guardian, and another review with a smaller selection of images on The Independent.

In addition, the Telegraph has an article and a video interview with the curator that includes a bit of a walk-through of the exhibition space.

The V&A Museum also has an article on designing and staging the exhibition, Creating the Cult Of Beauty.

For more, see my related posts below, which contain links to additional images and resources.

(Images above: George Frederic Watts, Albert Moore, Frederick Sandys, James McNeill Whistler, Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones)

13 Replies to “The Cult of Beauty”

  1. You mention the Pre-Raphs- but your timeline here is wrong- they were formalized a decade before this- and the “art for arts sake” school of thought is what ended up dismantling the brotherhood- as it was founded on “idea” based art.

    Also, quit picking on the vague “20th Century Modern” art. This bias is always too apparent in your writing.

    (the exhibit looks cool though! thanks for pointing it out)

    1. Thanks. I’ve removed the future tense from the statement about the Pre-Raphaelites. I write these things in a hurry sometimes.

      I’m not likely to let up on the Modernists, you’ll just have to accept that when you get my take on things. It runs pretty deep with me, for reasons that I’ll lay out more clearly some time in the future. I did revise that phrase to be more accurate, however, and say “mid” 20th Century Modernists (i.e. post-war, American). I actually like what I consider to be the “genuine” (i.e per-war, European) Modernists.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. Pictorial art is dissociated from decorative art.
    Art for art’s sake may apply to pictorial art but surely not to decorative art?
    Decorative art has function. Use and beauty.
    Victorians knew this – even if the V&A has not realised this is so.

  3. Fantastic post with fantastic links. I have a friend who loves this art and I’m going to forward this to him as well as save all of it for my “personal” art gallery. I wrote a post on Adolph Gottlieb earlier this week and when I was researching the Ab Ex movement, I realized what a shame it was that art (and artists) separated themselves out from also making beauty. Now, that’s rather a one-size- fits all statement but there isn’t room here to be more elaborate. Still, the kind of art in every part of life that the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement espoused has gone by the way side.

  4. Minor peeve – “Gilded Age” not the “Guilded Age”…

    That middle drawing is beautiful and the work on the hair is superb. But the sexay is laid on a bit thick?

  5. Charley-

    I guess what really sticks out on this forum is the generalizations. As in -who?- Specifics. Because “Mid Century Modernists” don’t really exist in art history as some sort of unified group- so statements like this tend to implicate people who may not be involved in some kind of misstep. There are significant artists who worked in the “Mid 20th Century Modernist” group that made work in a narrative mode, so- a generalization otherwise suggests un-informed bias.

    (Please, I don’t want to bogart the comments into a discussion if you don’t want to, and I would actually be happy to talk via email, because this stuff interests me)

    “Still, the kind of art in every part of life that the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement espoused has gone by the way side.”

    No I don’t think so, it just looks different. Aesthetics change, but they are still aesthetics.

    You would enjoy this book.

    1. Clark,

      Thanks for your response. Unfortunately, my ability to address this here is limited (I haven’t even been able to update for the last three days).

      When I speak of the mid-20th Century Modernists, I actually refer less to specific artists and more to the Modernist establishment (as it had become by that time, though it still pretended to be avant garde) – in particular critics like Greenberg and Rosenberg, and an elite circle of other critics, New York galleries and museums, who decided that “truth” was in, “illusionism” was out and images with literary content, or any function other than the search for pictorial “truth” (“flatness”), were not art. A very different use of the concept of “Art for Art’s sake”. As I mentioned, I intend to try and address my attitude about this period in a future post when I have more time.

      I’ll look into the book, thanks.

  6. Thanks for the response!

    It’s just this conspiracy theory attitude towards one decade of a few critics influence. Same could be said of Baudelaire, Zola, Gautier, and Durand-Ruel. Critics and dealers will push their thoughts, and try to see some success from it. Sometimes this means working together. Greenberg did every thing he could do to push his ideas, and for a period he had influence. And just as it did to his forerunners, the avant garde moved ahead of him, and he fell out of taste- making way for Pop and Conceptualism. Every contemporary art scene since the mid 19th century- without fail- has functioned this way. Artists, dealers, critics, institutions, collectors, and the public. People paint the Bergs as the arbiters of their scene because their influence seemed more pronounced in all of these areas than before (Save Ruskin). This is not the outcome of some secret cabal meeting in the dungeon underneath Yale, it is because their thoughts were really really illuminating. Sometimes, success is determined by quality. Greenberg in particular, at the time, was right where he needed to to be- he had his success and was then moved on from.

    Art for Art’s Sake has no dogma, it’s just a compelling thought. Different people will talk about it differently- no one interpretation is better or worse, just different.

    And come on, Tom Wolfe is no cultural wizard- and the ARC rocks a Fox News banner. Reading Greenberg on Monet and Cezanne would do a great deal to dismantle this prejudice, some wonder how much respect he has for those dusty old figurative artists 🙂

    I look forward to a future post on this!

  7. First wave of beauty Art is began in 1960’and this beautiful painting shows how much beauties is spread on the air at that time.The cult of beauty really a suitable title for this panting, it was so beautiful,all paintings are very beautiful but especially middle painting is very beautiful especially the work on hair is ultimate. colors,themas all are perfect.

  8. I am pleased to see people still interested about REALITY and BEAUTY by year 2011, when all last century till today, the elite (big money) promote UGLLY and NONSENSE. Just look around it is pathetic… ugliness, nonsense, immorality, crime, violence, lie, hypocrisy, kitsch, dilettantism, etc., to replace common sense. Could be called manipulation in art? What art has become? Just a tool?

    ovidiu lebejoara

  9. Your comments seem to confirm you have only noticed the pictorial art – the decorative art is invisible to you despite being displayed in a MUSEUM not an ART GALLERY.
    Surely the origins of the movement are to be found in the decorative arts not the fine arts? and you would think that the V&A would be proud (and the first) to proclaim that fact, as the movement originated from the South Kensington system. The ever present reactionary Ruskin and Marxist Morris ( who together may never be questioned)may be to blame for the tired V&A interpretation-more Morris; more PreRaphaelites; more Whistler. Ignore the captions and form your own opinions as to the choice of exhibits and the story you are being fed and by whom. Scintilatingly yours,Cynthia.

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