What we can learn from antiques of the Aesthetic Movement

A landmark San Francisco museum exhibit spanning three continents and 150 years shows us why design remains the backbone of antiques

“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death,” Oscar Wilde said from his death bed, “And one or the other of us has got to go.”

Poet, playwright, bon vivant, social critic Oscar Wilde was a seminal figure in the group of artists at the center of the Aesthetic Movement of Victorian England,1860-1900. The group had a four-fold purpose: bring beauty into everyday life, follow one’s own idiosyncratic way, incorporate into one’s work newly discovered designs from the ancient past or foreign lands and respect the mediums and materials with which one has used to create beauty.

Thomas Jeckyll fireplace andironsFeatured in the exhibit is Thomas Jeckyll’s Aesthetic Movement sunflower fireplace andirons.

The movement was all about beauty –Ars gratia artis – art for art’s sake. Place an nonfunctional ginger jar in blue and white porcelain upon a silk scarf embroidered with tertiary-colored butterflies fringed with long tassels stretched across a highly polished dining room table and voilá, l’art pour l’art. (By the way, if you look closely at the beginning of the next MGM movie you watch, you’ll see that Ars gratia artis appears in the banner encircling that scene-stealing lion.)

The followers of Aestheticism painted pictures. They made furniture. They designed interiors. They created dresses and jewelry for women and unconventional clothing for men. They broke the norm. Household objects, once utilitarian and simple, sprouted sunflowers, daisies and peacock feathers. Tacky imitations of items that populated the banquet rooms of the rich were replaced by attractive and affordable dinnerware, vases, fireplace irons, silver services, tables, sideboards, candlesticks and yes, wallpaper!

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is exhibiting a landmark show on “The Cult of Beauty” through June 17, 2012. It’s installed at the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park with awesome views through the cypress trees of the Pacific Ocean, Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge. This exhibit began as an idea 10 years ago in the mind of museum curator Lynn Federle Orr. It’s the first major exhibition devoted to the entire material output inspired by the Aesthetic Movement and features numerous lectures, workshops, events and a phenomenal catalog.

Lynn Federle Orr

“This small group of artists believed people would be uplifted by beauty.” — Lynn Federle Orr, Curator, Cult of Beauty, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“The Cult of Beauty” opened first at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum from which about 30 percent of the items came, then traveled to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and now San Francisco – the only site in the U.S. Nearly 50 private collectors shared their art with the show.

Opening the exhibition was its lead patron Diane B. Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, whose support for this project was essential to its coming to fruition. Her generosity and commitment to the project’s aim inspired many others to support the thousands of staff hours and complicated logistics it took to make it happen. Also on hand were Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, honorary patrons of the exhibition. The Princess’s enthusiasm was evident from her first breath. “I’ve been a museum person all my life. This show is very well curated. It begins with a look at the times from which this movement sprang: cold, smoke, smog, coal fires. The world was busy, dirty and physically a mess.”

Read more: Aesthetic Movement’s ‘Cult of Beauty’ opens Feb. 18, 2012 in San Francisco

The aesthetic movement grew out of the desire on the part of many to improve their everyday lives. Princess Michael continued, “Art reflects life – what’s going on. The world is very strange today. We are unsure what will happen.” She observed that beauty often comes out of the most unstable and uncertain times. “This is a sensational exhibition.”

Princess Michael of Kent

“The aesthetic movement grew out of the desire on the part of many to improve their everyday lives.” -Princess Michael of Kent

“Whenever I attend a museum show,” Princess Michael confided, “I mentally choose three items I’d like to steal. It helps focus your mind and makes you look at things much harder.” Her top item was the stunning 9-inch by 12-inch wrought iron Four Seasons Gate designed by Thomas Jeckyll which appears at the show’s exit. “I just have to figure out how to get it home without anyone noticing.”

As Lynn Orr guided us through the Legion’s galleries, she noted, “Many factors led to the creation of the Aesthetic Movement. At the famous Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, it became apparent to many that England had fallen behind Germany and France in industrial design. In 1853, Commodore Perry opened Japan.” Exhibitions of Japanese arts and crafts took the West by storm. The silks, the pottery, the fans, the carvings, the prints infatuated the Victorian world. They were so different, so exotic, so unbelievable in the West. Antiquities, such as the Elgin Marbles, went on view at museums throughout Europe. Medieval art reappeared from church vaults and monastery libraries. An educated middle class yearned for even greater access to knowledge and material objects. They wished to make a conscious decision over which tea pot was better designed and they had sufficient money to buy what they chose. “Even a simple peacock feather in a vase on a mantel,” emphasized Orr, “was felt to improve one’s life.”

A major factor in the spread of the Aesthetic Movement was the great advancement in communication. Railroad and ferries moved more people about faster. More readers devoured newspapers and magazines than ever before. Telegraph wires vibrated with dots and dashes delivering historic heralds as well as mundane messages. Books became affordable and ordinary people had homes with well-stocked shelves. Plays, concerts, exhibitions were no longer just for the nobility but were all now open to the general public. Criticism of these events helped inform and guide the public’s decision regarding the content and whether or not they would be worth one’s time, effort and money.

“The Cult of Beauty” put flamboyance in the vanguard. Irreverence was key to the leaders of the movement, as was a keen ability to capture public attention. They knew how to use the printed word and their social connections to promote their works as well as themselves. The shock factor has been used from that time to today to help artists stand out in the crowd. Witness Pablo Picasso, Isadora Duncan, D.H. Lawrence, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Lady Gaga – to name but a very few.

Edward William GodwinEdward William Godwin, Sideboard, 1865-75, ebonized mahogany with silver plated handles.

It was a time of great experimentation. Artists expressed themselves in a variety of mediums. American painter James McNeill Whistler, one of the most gifted members of the “Cult,” painted on canvas, walls and furniture. He etched, drew, lectured, designed interiors and wrote books. The subject matter of his paintings challenged the establishment. Their titles alone drew attention and disbelief. His most famous painting, “Arrangement in Gray and White No. 1,” used his mother as a model. It’s become one of the most iconic paintings in the world, known best by its common name, “Whistler’s Mother.” It had been on display in San Francisco just months ago and is not part of this exhibition, which is a good thing as our familiarity with the work would distract from the show’s purpose.

Whistler is represented by several other great works. His “Symphony in White No. 2: The White Girl” was not meant to be a portrait but was rather a depiction of moods, from the expressionless, uncorseted young woman with the flowing hair standing on a bear rug to the stuffed animal face snarling away at all onlookers at the bottom. His “Nocturne: Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge” inspired Claude Debussy to compose his popular orchestral “Nocturnes.” Again, not following a strict compositional formula but instead a feeling, an impression. His “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2” used philosopher, historian Thomas Carlyle as a model. Carlyle sits in a pose similar to Mrs. Whistler’s, thus encouraging the jest “Whistler’s Father.”

“Many artists used idealized female faces in all their women,” Orr explained and pointed out large paintings by Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Leighton and Albert Moore. Indeed, flowing hair, loose toga-like gowns, idle stares, nature in bloom – cherry branches, lilies, bay leaves – and coordinated color palettes are abundant in the paintings.

The Aesthetic Movement was not without battles bitterly fought. Exclusion of artists from traditional venues because of their nonconforming subject matter, titles and technique caused a furor. The Grosvenor Gallery in London was created as a new home for these aspiring artists. Art historian, critic and writer John Ruskin, however, reviewed Whistler’s paintings at the Grosvenor and published the following statement on “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket”: “For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay (founder of the Grosvenor Gallery) ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Henry Storey Marks, Pilgrim Flasks

Whistler sued and won, largely based on his final answer to the cross examination of Ruskin’s attorney Sir John Holker who had asked Whistler how long it took to paint the picture. “Two days,” replied Whistler. “The labor of two days is that which you ask for two hundred guineas?” Holker questioned and Whistler answered, “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” Court costs were split. Whistler was headed for financial ruin and Ruskin for greatly diminished credibility.

Read more: British ceramic registration marks 

The relevance to today? I once heard someone say that the Goth style popular in the 1990s exactly fit all those “Good Things” Martha Stewart proclaimed … only the colors were different!

We’ve much to learn from the Aesthetic Movement, which is why “The Cult of Beauty” is so significant today. We all make conscious choices over the objects we bring into our lives. We do have options. Antique malls across the country offer an array of items representing numerous styles and with varying degrees of functionality. In our own homes, they can be mixed together or rigidly separated by period or style or use or even color. It is important for each of us to develop an understanding of our own taste and to shop the item, not the price and definitely not the buzz.

A 10-inch clear glass milk bottle from 1920 ($30) filled with daffodils adds a rustic touch to a dining room table. A 10-inch American brilliant period cut glass vase from 1890 ($300) filled with the same flowers adds a formal touch to that same table. The objects serve the same purpose, but the choice is yours. My advice? Avoid internal conflict and buy them both. Use one when the mood suits you.

Because the Aesthetic Movement was largely directed toward the middle class, many of its most characteristic household items were massed produced. There are still fine examples in today’s market. The large paintings only rarely come to auction houses and are beyond most incomes. Original etchings of Whistler, however, are still very much available, and depending on size, quality and condition command four and five-figure sums. Another prominent artist featured in the exhibition is James Jacques Tissot. His etchings range in price from $6,500 to $28,000. Both he and Whistler are among the offerings available at Catherine Burns Gallery, Oakland, California.

Antique Trader produced an excellent review of the ceramic decorative art of the Aesthetic Movement. The piece carefully described the characteristics of the Aesthetic Period and identified many representational items priced under $250.

Flatware, tea pots, ink wells, fireplace grates, broaches, necklaces and books with decorated covers are among the other items commonly available at reasonable prices.
Reproductions of Aesthetic period wallpaper, including most designs by William Morris, can easily be purchased. A partial roll of William Morris “Golden Lily” wallpaper, the real thing not a remake, was listed on eBay for $795.

Comments on art and beauty aside, Wilde pushed hard against the institutions of religion and marriage. His witticisms, always clever, often uproariously funny, were never without a challenge to the staid, overly moralistic Victorian world he inhabited. Paintings in one’s home were meant to instruct viewers and preach a lesson. Wilde and the others wanted people to examine their beliefs and seek a better life, and let objects just be beautiful.

Wilde, however, pushed the limits further than most were prepared to follow, ended up in jail, exiled and dead from the choices he made.

According to Lynn Orr, “The Cult of Beauty exhibition is not just a decorative arts display, but has a legitimate story to tell. This small group of artists believed people would be uplifted by beauty; an idea that everyone can revel in it and create interiors that suited their own taste.” The aesthetic movement eventually splintered into well defined artistic styles including Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Impressionism. Come to San Francisco. Visit the Legion of Honor.

Revel in the beauty.

Joseph Truskot is a collector and freelance writer based in Salinas, Calif.

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