The Aesthetic Movement


The Aesthetic Movement—spanning both the fine and decorative arts—rose in England and the United States in the 1870s and 1880s. Adopting theories from authors Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, Aesthetic artists like James Abbot MacNeil Whistler valued “art for art’s sake,” favoring an artwork’s pure beauty over its social or political meaning. Whistler titled his paintings as Harmonies and Symphonies, using the language of music to deemphasize the importance of the specific subjects depicted and instead focus on the image’s holistic mood, color, surface and composition. Japonisme—the late 19th century European craze for Japanese art and aesthetics—was a major influence not only on Whistler’s paintings, but also in the decorative arts. Designers from this movement such as Christopher Dresser and E.W. Godwin revolutionized the applied arts, creating artful furnishings and interior decorations that brought immersive aesthetic experiences into the home. This legacy in the decorative arts continued on in The Arts and Crafts Movement and later Art Nouveau.

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