The Cult of Beauty

The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900

by Flora Armetta

Frederic Leighton, Pavonia“The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900,” which was on view through June 17, 2012, at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, chronicled the fascinatingly diverse group of artists and writers associated with the Aesthetic Movement. Through a large and thoughtful selection of works of art and a lavishly illustrated catalogue full of scholarly essays, the exhibition presented Aestheticism (as it eventually came to be called definitively in the 1880s1) less as a movement and more as a set of divergent and sometimes conflicting ideas about beauty and the place of art in society. As Lynn Federle Orr writes in the catalogue, the Aesthetic Movement linked the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the late 1840s and early 1850s to fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau, as well as spawning the Arts and Crafts Movement.2 Appropriately, given such broad parameters, the show was conceived and executed on a grand scale, with nine rooms of paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, tapestries, books, furniture, housewares and even clothing. It was so well laid out and annotated, however, that it was continually engaging rather than exhausting, and placed such acknowledged masters as Frederic Leighton, George Frederic Watts, Albert Moore, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John William Waterhouse, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, to name a few, in the broad context of a culture they helped to create. A sustained look at “The Cult of Beauty” ultimately suggests that this was the moment when much of our own modern discourse about art first took its current form.

A number of important events served to shape the beginnings of Aestheticism. First and foremost, the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in the spectacular Crystal Palace Joseph Paxton designed for it, brought vast displays of goods from around the world to over six million visitors in only six months.3 Though one point of the Exhibition was to instill British pride in British work, it in fact brought about the realization, on the part of many British designers and manufacturers, that English household objects were embarrassingly ugly next to their French and German counterparts. Calls for reform quickly arose, and by 1862, when the new International Exhibition was held in South Kensington, William Morris had formed his collective of “Art Workmen” (with Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown, among others) and had its wares on display.4 Wildly successful, Morris helped to create a taste for what he styled “artistic furnishings” and sparked the public’s interest in beautiful things. The Great Exhibition and its successors also helped to highlight Turkish carpets, Japanese vases and other exotic objects, making them suddenly familiar and desirable, and, along with the fact that the interior of the Crystal Palace itself, designed by Owen Jones, was heavily influenced by a lengthy study of Islamic design,5 the end result was that patterns and imagery once foreign to the masses became attractive and popular.

During this same period, the Pre-Raphaelite circle pushed their work even further away from the kind of tradition they had already rejected in the late 1840s. At that point, they had embraced what they saw as a medieval love of “truth to nature” (an idea from John Ruskin) and flouted the Royal Academy by offering distasteful new takes on conventional history and genre painting. Works like Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849), for example, outraged viewers and critics who found it too realistic in its rendering of dirt, homely lower-class faces and other unholy-seeming details. Still, like many nineteenth-century genre painters, they tended to use very clear symbolism to facilitate narrative, such as in William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1852), in which every object in the meticulously rendered room speaks to the situation of the fallen girl. Now, in the late 1850s and 1860s, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris, along with friends and associates, such as Whistler and Moore, found that their growing interests in other cultures and eras—among them classical Greece, sixteenth-century Venice and modern Japan—focused on the formal qualities of art from these periods, and had little to do with the works’ origins or intended content. This was in strong contrast to the prevailing ethos of the times. Ruskin had declared in 1854 that classical art was morally corrupt, because its physical perfection was based on the uncomprehending, impersonal work of Greek slaves.6 In the following decade, Matthew Arnold seized on classical Greece (what he termed “Hellenism”) as an age to aspire to, arguing that its value for culture could save people by teaching them “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”7 But the artists inclining toward Aestheticism turned their backs on all of this, finding it suddenly possible to ignore what art “said” or represented in order to better focus on what it looked like. When the young poet and close Rossetti friend Algernon Swinburne became enamored of Baudelaire and his appropriation of the radical French phrase “L’art pour l’art” (“art for art’s sake”),8 it served as a useful peg for the idea that one could be devoted to “pure” beauty: sensuous and beautiful form, color, shape and pattern.

This devotion eventually extended beyond art-making: following upon the revolution in domestic design, painters realized that the home could be a reflection, and even an extension, of the artist. Rossetti and Morris had created bohemian havens for themselves in Chelsea. Burne-Jones, Leighton and Alma-Tadema all commissioned or designed what came to be known as “Palaces of Art,”9 grand residences that unmistakably made beautiful objects and beautiful living a primary goal, and drew attention and imitation from the public. It was in this context that the young Oscar Wilde, often now the main, if not only, figure associated with the term Aestheticism (the exhibition is full of him, with good reason), could joke that he found it hard to live up to his blue china. That the personality and personal tastes of the artist became so attractive in this period is related to one final important element of the Aesthetic sensibility: Walter Pater’s insistence on having a personal, emotional response to art. In the Conclusion to his 1873 book Studies in the History of the Renaissance, Pater argued that one should ask not what a work of art meant or why it mattered historically or socially, but only “what is this song or picture [...] to me.”10 Here again, the long-held idea that viewers should respond to the universally understood meaning of a work of art was being supplanted by an interest in its formal, surface qualities, and how those made one feel.

To see what “beauty” actually looked like, it makes sense to begin with Leighton’s Pavonia, which is featured on the cover of the catalogue. Completed in 1858–59, when Leighton was already famous for his Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna (1853–55), Pavonia shows his virtuosic technical skill and classical training. This is evident in the convincing three-dimensional space, perfectly executed repeating folds of drapery and composition featuring several strong diagonals: the seam of the sleeve, edge of the shirt collar, hairline from crown of head to nape of neck, and edge of the fan against the clouds in the background echo each other, to great harmonic effect. But the painting also departs from tradition in several ways, all attributable to Aestheticism.

In the first place, the title, rather than directing the viewer’s thoughts to a particular idea about the subject, leaves the painting’s meaning open to interpretation. Usually translated as the Italian word for “peacock” (though the feminine noun for a peahen is pavona, and pavonia is the Italian word for an emperor moth, so that the inserted ‘i’ is either a misspelling or, more intriguingly, might have been meant to suggest “peacockiness” or something similarly nebulous11), it seems to refer to the dark-haired woman we see, as well as to the peacock fan she is holding, but it does not explain her. The subject is easily recognizable as Nanna Risi, whom Leighton also painted in A Roman Lady (La Nanna) the following year, but here there is no determining her name, social rank (so often clearly indicated in large portraits of this type) or even action—she may be in the process of turning toward or away from the viewer, may be before a landscape painting or an open window, and is confusingly dressed for some unknown event, with a sumptuous pearl-adorned headpiece, but only a peasant-style blouse and simple ribbon necklace. Her stunning face is not idealized; there is a little bump on her Roman nose, and her features are not, as Stephen Calloway puts it succinctly, “conformed to stereotypical [English] notions of genteel good looks.”12 Her presence is thus just as foreign as the Indian peacock feathers in her fan, but even this very explicit comparison is offered by the painter without further commentary. A peacock might be considered symbolic of vanity, yet here there is little apparent negative judgment about such an association—there are no classical allusions to mirrors or long Magdalene-style locks, for example. If anything, the allusion is to other Aesthetic images of peacocks, which shimmered in wallpaper and furniture coverings, dishes and the endpapers of books throughout the period (eventually reaching their apotheosis in Whistler’s notorious “Peacock Room” of 1876). Given this lack of moral or narrative guidance, we are left to simply enjoy the painting’s shapes and textures, and the languid feeling it evokes. Like a peacock’s tail, it is designed for admiration and seduction—not in the simple sexual sense (although there is room for that), but more generally, as the Aesthetic seduction of the senses.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in Gray and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, Tate GalleryThe end result of looking at a work like this is that the viewer is turned back in on his or her own resources, and lulled, consciously or not, into ask- ing Pater’s question: “What is this to me?” In light of this, it is interestingthat a great deal of the work in “The Cult of Beauty” depicts that same state of interiority, both literally and figu- ratively. Again, in direct opposition to the classi- cal appeal to universal truths, there is a repeated emphasis on individual experience and private, personal thoughts. In addition to the many architectural plans and room designs featured in the show (illustrating Aestheticism’s emphasis on “the house beauti- ful”), a disproportionate number of the drawings and paintings feature indoor spaces and, more important, interior states of mind, with people often shown dreaming or sleeping, musing or otherwise thinking impenetrable thoughts. In Whistler’s Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872–74), an eight-year-old girl, somber and sage-like, stares through or past the viewer, rather than seem- ing to make eye contact. Her clothing and surroundings, all apparently com- missioned by Whistler expressly for this portrait,13 are so important within the picture in terms of color and shape as to make her face simply another element within the soothing “harmony.” On one side of her are some butterflies—often used by Whistler in his signature, here they are distinctly part of the scene,and, because they appear unexpectedly indoors, they demonstrate Whistler’s prioritizing of Japanese-influenced asymmetrical composition and ornament over conventional narrative. The butterflies, together with some daisies spring- ing upward from an unseen vase on our right, draw the eye in an oval sweep around the girl, effectively placing her alone with her thoughts in her own little grey-green world.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Day Dream, Victoria and Albert Museum

Similarly, in Millais’s 1880 portrait Kate Perugini, of Charles Dickens’s painter daughter, the subject’s back is fully turned on the viewer, and her facepartly so, in near-profile; her pose leaves no room for anyone else, and carries no mood or feeling to get caught up in. Here, the three main colors—black, raw sienna and small bits of red—are not harmonic in the way Whistler’s are. Instead, their essential blandness serves to make a wonderful variety of textures the real focus of the work. Perugini’s light silk-and-tulle dress, with its broad ribbons and voluminous bustle, and the feathery bits of her hair escaping an updo, draw attention to the paint itself, applied with near-messy brio and evident delight. The longer one looks at this painting, the more there is to see. Though Kate Perugini herself was likely never considered “a beauty,” and though there is nothing on the canvas that seems calculatedly appealing, the painting is gorgeous.

This fact helps underscore the way “The Cult of Beauty” suggests that “beauty” ultimately refers not so much to a particular visual look or style as to what we might call “artfulness”—a focus on the artistic possibilities in every experience, however positive or negative, however banal or monu- mental. One of the most iconic paintings in the exhibition, Rossetti’s The Day Dream (1880), invokes artfulness in several ways. A woman (the model was Rossetti’s muse Jane Morris) is seated in a sycamore tree and surrounded by a tapestry-like profusion of leaves and flowers, staring outward—again (like Cicely Alexander) looking past the viewer, meditating on something unseen and unknown. A poem, written by Rossetti after the painting’s completion and inscribed in its frame, places additional focus on her dreamy state, to the exclu- sion of everything else: “Lo! Tow’rd deep skies, not deeper than her look, / She dreams; till now on her forgotten book / Drops the forgotten blossom from her hand.” Through this “double work of art”14 Rossetti argues that the woman’s daydream is of far greater importance than the lush natural world around her (her look is deeper than the skies, the flower wilts in her hand as she dreams on). Also implicit in the pairing is a sense that the two works of art, which bring that daydream into view, are the best—perhaps even the only—means of apprehending it.

Rossetti evidently acted on this idea—placing the apprehension of art above all else—in everything he did, and one of the strengths of this exhibition is that it manages to show the astonishing breadth and depth of his influence, and the many ways he encapsulated Aesthetic thought and practice from the beginning of his career to the end of his life. A gouache painting by his assis- tant Henry Treffry Dunn, technically unaccomplished but fascinating for the glimpse it affords of Rossetti’s private world, shows Rossetti at home with a friend, reading aloud (apparently he is reading his own sonnets; his left hand is raised to help him measure out poetic meter). The two figures seem tiny within a huge sitting room, which is painted and furnished in colors that mirror those in The Day Dream: deep blue-greens, rich reds and burnished red-browns. Rossetti’s personal treasures surround them from floor to ceiling—an oriental carpet, Dutch tiles in the fireplace, a blue-and-white Japanese vase or plate, amedieval painting (recognizable by its distinctive frame shape and the gold- leafed background behind the saint or angel it depicts), leafy-patterned silk cushions on the couch. The artist at work on his art, surrounded by art—this is the Aesthetic dream.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a sketch by Rossetti for wallpaper he planned to hang in his home shows a series of simple, almost abstracted fruit trees, which were intended to extend from floor to ceiling.15 What is significant is that, for Rossetti, as for so many in the Aesthetic Movement, nature and the natural world became yet another means of expressing the value of individual experience. The wallpaper trees, the forest-like colors in Rossetti’s sitting room, and the flowers and sky in The Day Dream and its poem function as a sort of inverse Romanticism. Where Caspar David Friedrich’s lone man faces the majesty of the sea, or Wordsworth’s poetic heart dances with a host of daffodils, figures in Aesthetic art—and those who lived the Aesthetic life—turned the natural world to their own purposes, allowing it to become pattern and orna- ment, a backdrop or subtext for small human moments. Like Whistler, Moore, drastically different from Rossetti stylistically, achieved a similar effect to Rossetti’s in his use of flowers and leaves by placing them in Japanese-inspired patterns. They enhance the stillness and flatness of his enormous, overtly clas- sical figures, who appear in painting after painting dressed in ancient Greek drapery and posed as though in a Greek frieze. Yet, for all their seeming grandiosity, these are not gods or heroes, expressing outsized achievements or ideals; they act like Victorian men and women enjoying daily life, listening to music, quietly letting a book fall from a hand, picking a small, single flower from an azalea tree.

It is this joining of two formerly antithetical modes of expression that makes the work in “The Cult of Beauty” resonate so strongly with current artistic thought and practice. Arguably, the best contemporary representational artists today are making beautiful, meaningful images partly because they are working within the paradigm first shaped and articulated by the Aesthetic Movement—the use of long-cherished forms to communicate individualized, personal, particular ideas. This is neither pure classicism nor pure “self- expression,” but rather a vital joining of the two, and, as demonstrated by the attendance records for “The Cult of Beauty,” it is drawing people in record numbers.16 As the exhibition has shifted from its original venue at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where it was called “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement, 1860–1900,” it has gained new subtitles. In Paris, the focus was on the “voluptuousness” of Oscar Wilde, and in San Francisco the stress was on the avant-garde. It seems likely, though, that these marketing techniques were not entirely necessary. What is most important to those who made the show such as success is the very same beauty that the artists of the Aesthetic Movement first taught us to see.


  1. “Aestheticism,” Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 23.
  2. Lynn Federle Orr, “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde in Context,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 24.
  3. Joss Marsh, “Spectacle,” A Companion to Victorian Literature & Culture, ed., Herbert F. Tucker (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1999), p. 284.
  4. Stephen Calloway, “The Search for a New Beauty,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 12.
  5. Esmé Whittaker, “Owen Jones,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 264.
  6. John Ruskin, “The Nature of the Gothic,” The Stones of Venice (New York: Merrill and Baker, 1851), p. 160. Ruskin juxtaposed the terrible perfection of classical art to the beautiful, very human imperfection of workmen’s carvings on Gothic cathedrals.
  7. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 86–96.
  8. Calloway, “The Search for a New Beauty,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 15.
  9. Ibid., p. 12.
  10. Ibid., p. 17.
  11. “Peahen” and “pavone,” Oxford Paravia Italian Dictionary (Oxford and Trento: Oxford
    University Press and Paravia Bruno Mondadori Editori, 2001), pp. 856 and 2,156.
  12. Calloway, “The Search for a New Beauty,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 12.
  13. “Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander,” Tate summary,, 24 May 2012.
  14. Rossetti made many such; they were meant not to illustrate each other but to be
    differing meditations on similar themes. See Susan Owens, “Literature and the Aesthetic Movement,”
    The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 43.
  15. Calloway, “‘The Palace of Art’: Artists, Collectors and Their Houses,” The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860–1900, ed., Lynn Federle Orr and Stephen Calloway, assisted by Esmé Whittaker (London: V & A Publishing, 2011), p. 103.
  16. Martin Bailey, “Coming to a City Near You ...What happened when 200 paintings from Paris, and ‘The Cult of Beauty’ from London, went on tour,” The Art Newspaper (No. 234, April 2012), p. 14. 


American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3