The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 beautifies Victoria & Albert Museum

By Alice Neal | 04 April 2011
a phto of a gallery interior with green walls, furniture, stayues and paintings
© V&A Images
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until July 17 2011


“Art as important for its own sake, beauty to be valued for itself alone - the ideas proposed by the Aesthetic Movement are current again today,”  says Sir Mark Jones, Director of the V&A.

At a time when arts funding is being slashed, it is refreshing to visit an exhibition that celebrates the need for art and the pleasure of beauty.

Packed with a range of diverse objects by a varied collection of characters from the Aesthetic Movement, this first major British showcase of Aestheticism takes on the mammoth task of chronicling not only an art movement but a way of life. It succeeds brilliantly.

a painitng of a woman with black hair holding a peacock feather fan
Frederic, Lord Leighton, Pavonia (1858-59)© Private Collection c/o Christie’s
To make sense of the vast haul of paintings, sculptures, textiles, interiors, furniture, books and ceramics that came from the movement, the V&A have elected to organise the space into four chronological areas.

The story begins with The Search for a New Beauty in the 1860s, and the beginnings of Aestheticism in the work of Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the later classicist Lord Frederick Leighton, who both showcased a new type of feminine beauty.

Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata model, Fanny Cornforth, has Cupid’s bow lips and flowing red hair while Leighton’s Pavonia muse Nanna Riski is stern and sultry. Both signal a new aesthetic and a new type of female beauty that was to dominate British art until the turn of the century and the advent of Modernism. 

The paintings in this section introduce the rich Aesthetic colour palate of olive green, turquoise and terracotta, accompanied by key Victorian motifs including peacock feathers and symbolic flowers such as the lily and the sunflower.

By the late 1860s and 1870s the movement had grown into something approaching a cultural phenomenon. Art for Art’s Sake focuses on beauty above everything else.

The leading Aesthetic artists of the period, including Lord Leighton and Edward Burne-Jones, developed a style which emphasised colour and beauty with stunning females in flowing dresses, reclining languidly before medieval tapestries. The themes of Authurian and classical legends very much to the fore.

a painting of a room full of women in Medieval garb before tapestries
Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris (1873-78)© LaingArtGallery, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
Others artists who dallied with the Aesthetic movement - like the American born James McNeil Whistler - became more interested in tonal harmony and colour, often at the expense of subject.

But it wasn’t just about painting. The Aesthetic Movement also spread into design, furniture and homeware as artists and designers collaborated. Whistler and the architect EW Godwin worked together to create some of the most innovative furniture of the period, although Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s lavish chair is almost too fussy to sit on.

However, the exhibition is not entirely about self-conscious ideas of beauty. Set aside in a narrow corridor are a series of black and white etchings by Whistler. In contrast to the other objects on display, these etchings of London, Amsterdam and Venice are demure, and focus on place rather than beauty.

Aesthetic painting soon became fashionable among an elite circle of wealthy intellectuals, and Beautiful People and Aesthetic Houses examines the relationship between the Aesthetic Movement and certain members of the public in the 1870s and 1880s.

The success of the Grosvenor Gallery, which championed and showcased Aesthetic talent, made the movement fashionable. Many from the intellectual classes became keen to act as patrons and commission work.

a photo of peacock feathers
Arthur Silver for Liberty and Co, Peacock Feathers’ furnishing fabric (1887)© V&A Images
It was also very glamorous, influencing jewellery and adornment as illustrated by the Fan of Lady X, who collected artwork by leading Aesthetic figures on each of its 20 wooden panels.

The period also saw the start of public interest in the decoration of houses and the notion of The House Beautiful was born.

Firms specialising in furniture, textiles and ceramics were quick to capitalise on the popularity of Aestheticism. William Morris wallpaper and rugs designed by Edaward Burne Jones started popping up in well to do homes across the country.

Such collaborations between artists and professional designers meant middle-class homes could buy a slice of the Aesthetic lifestyle.

By the late 1880s and 1890s the movement was firmly lodged in the middle class consciousness as figures like Oscar Wilde began to embody the movement with their writings, utterances and lifestyle.

The late flowering of decadence lent itself to parody and the satire stretched from the pages of Punch to the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

But it was also a time of refinement of the Aesthetic ideal and a return to the decadence of the early movement with the emphasis shifted back towards visual art. Late-flowering Beauty, 1880s-1890s, looks at the final refinement of this ideal by focussing on sculpture and painting.

Rossetti’s sumptuous final picture The Daydream, featuring his muse Jane Morris in magnificent shimmering green among the blossoming green leaves, provides a coda that brings us back to the beginning. Art and beauty valued for itself alone.

Perhaps there is something in the aestheticism of the late Victorians that we should try and hang on to and revive.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Friday). Admission £7-£13.80 (family ticket £19-£34.20). Book online.
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