The Aesthetic movement is a movement in art and literature in later nineteenth century Britain. Generally speaking, it represents the same tendencies that Symbolism or Decadence stood for in France, and may be considered the English branch of the same movement. It belongs to the anti-Victorian reaction and had post-Romantic roots. It took place in the late Victorian period from around 1868 to 1901, and is generally considered to have ended with the trial of Oscar Wilde.
The English decadent writers were deeply influenced by the Oxford don Walter Pater and his essays published in 1867-1868, in which he stated that life had to be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty. His Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) became a sacred text for young men of the Victorian age. Decadent writers used the slogan, coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin and promoted by Théophile Gautier in France, Art for Art’s Sake (L’art pour l’art) and asserted that there was no connection between art and morality.
The artists and writers of the Aesthetic movement asserted that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages. They refused the utilitarian conception of art as something moral or useful and believed that Art does not have any didactic purpose, it need only be beautiful. The Aesthetes developed the cult of beauty which they considered the basic factor in art: Life should copy Art. The main characteristics of the movement were: suggestion rather than statement, sensuality, massive use of symbols, and correspondence between words, colors and music.
Aestheticism had its forerunners in John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and among the Pre-Raphaelites. In Britain the best representatives were Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, both influenced by the French Symbolists. Artists associated with the Aesthetic movement include James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The movement had an influence on interior design. “Aesthetic” interiors were characterised by the use of such things as peacock feathers and blue-and-white china, both of which are commonly said to have been used as decorations by Oscar Wilde during his youth. This aspect of the movement was satirised in Punch magazine and in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta “Patience”.