Aestheticism in Literature | Movement

A response against the Victorian era’s reliance on moral and social ideals gave rise to aesthetics in the late 19th century. It was a reaction to what was considered as the stifling decorum, ethics, and social conformity of Victorian society, which was seen as being too constrictive and repressive.

How aestheticism emerged:

Aesthetic movement began as a manner to embrace beauty and art for their own sake, unfettered by the demands of moral or societal utility. Aesthetes regarded beauty and the arts as ends in and of themselves rather than as means to some other goal. They did not want to convey any specific moral or political agenda; instead, they aimed to produce works of art that would pleasure the senses and ignite the imagination.

The growth of industrialization and mass production, which brought a fall in the standard of ornamental arts and workmanship, also had an impact on aestheticism. The aesthetic movement promoted decoration and beauty in all facets of life in an attempt to counter this trend, including furniture, fashion, and interior design.

Aestheticism, then, was a reaction to the shifting cultural and social circumstances of the late 19th century, and it stood for a desire to oppose Victorian society’s oppressive conventions and value the aesthetic and delight of life.

Characteristics of aestheticism:

Importance of beauty and sensory experience:

The importance of beauty and the sensory experience was a major concern of the aesthetic movement. Aesthetes considered the quest of beauty and the sensory pleasures it offered to be fundamental to human life and admired art and literature for their capacity to offer these experiences. For the Aesthetes, beauty was not just a superficial or decorative part of art, but rather a crucial component that could enlighten, inspire, and elevate the human spirit. They felt that beauty had the ability to take the observer or reader beyond the confines of their normal experience and establish a connection with a deeper spiritual reality.

Aesthetes appreciated all types of sensory experience, whether it was the splendor of the natural world, the sensuality of music or art, or the delights of taste and scent. They held that sensory perception was the doorway to the soul and that direct contact with the spiritual world could be had through sensory experiences.

Ultimately, the Aesthetic movement’s reliance on beauty and sensory perception was a renunciation of the moralistic and utilitarian ideals of Victorian society and a celebration of the importance of pleasure and beauty for their own sake.

Art for art’s sake:

“Art for art’s sake” was a defining aspect of Aestheticism. Aesthetes held that art should be produced solely for aesthetic reasons, without regard for its moral, political, or societal significance. They disagreed with the notion that art should have a didactic or instructive purpose and thought it should only be regarded for its aesthetic, beautiful, and elegant aspects.

The essence of art, according to Aestheticism, is in its capacity to arouse the senses and stimulate the mind rather than in any pragmatic or functional role it might have. Aesthetes held that art had the ability to elevate the human spirit and enrich the soul and appreciated art for its own sake, as an end in itself.

In the late 19th century, when the prevalent understanding of art was that it should have a moral or instructive purpose, the concept of “art for art’s sake” was groundbreaking. Aestheticism opposed this idea and aimed to exalt art as a pure manifestation of human imagination and creativity, freed from the limitations of morality and societal utility.

Symbolism and allegory:

The Aesthetes favored the use of metaphor, imagery, and symbolic language in literature and thought that these devices might produce a richer, more nuanced understanding of human experience.

Aesthetes were driven to the cryptic and mysterious, and they frequently employed allegory and symbols to imply hidden meanings and more profound truths that were not instantly evident. They held that symbols and allegory may enrich and enhance the viewing or reading experience for the audience and that art should be evocative rather than explicit.

The visual arts, where artists tried to employ form, color, and harmony to produce a symbolic language that could express complex emotions and ideas, placed a special emphasis on symbolism. In literature, authors like Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater employed allegory and symbolic language to produce a heightened, lyrical style intended to arouse strong emotions and imagination.


Decadence was a crucial aspect of aestheticism, especially, throughout the later half of the 19th century. Decadence was frequently connected to excess and indulgence, and Aesthetes were not averse to satisfying their cravings for food, drink and sensual pleasures. They frequently adopted unusual lifestyles and disregarded the standard Victorian ideals of self-control and restraint.

They were drawn to the exotic, the enigmatic, and the sensuous, and frequently praised these characteristics in their writing and art. They rejected the notion that literature and the arts should have a didactic or moral purpose instead viewing them as places for exploring and celebrating the whole breadth of human experience.

Notable aesthetic writers:

Oscar Wilde, one of the movement’s core founders, is credited as saying that “all art is quite useless” and advocating the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Other noteworthy Aesthetes included Aubrey Beardsley, whose black-and-white illustrations were renowned for their sensuality and decadence, and James McNeill Whistler, whose portraits and landscapes were portrayed in an expressionistic and ornamental manner.

John Keats is frequently regarded as a forerunner of Aestheticism even though he lived well before the Aesthetic movement. He is renowned for emphasizing the value of imagination and originality in his poetry, which honored beauty and the senses. The poems “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Endymion” are among his most well-known compositions.

From the decadent and sensual to the intellectually challenging and emotionally deep, these artists show the wide spectrum of styles and themes that typified the Aesthetic movement.


The decorative arts, fashion, and interior design were all significantly influenced by the aesthetic movement, with many designers and artists producing furniture, textiles, and other items that prioritized ornamental beauty over practical purpose.

The Aesthetic movement was criticized for being superficial and decadent and for not dealing with the societal and political challenges of the day, despite its focus on pleasure and beauty. Yet, many fields of art and design are still influenced by it today.

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