The Aesthetic Movement in England was a counter-cultural movement in Victorian art and literature taking place primarily between 1860 and 1900. The seeds of the movement were planted by the artist and critical theorist John Ruskin. His disciples – artists such as William Holman Hunt, D.G. Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and James Abbot Whistler – created a kind of aesthetic prototype when they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1849 (Landow). The tenets of the PRB were primarily a reaction against the dehumanizing industrialization of the Victorian Age, displayed most prominently at the Great Exposition of 1851 (Monet). Their feelings towards the Industrial Revolution can best be seen in their art and clothing styles, both of which harken back to the simplistic styles of Medieval England (i.e. Pre-Raphael). The figures of the PRB and those in the paintings of they created are characterized by their long hair, muted or earth-colored dress tones, subtle floral accents, and Eastern-inspired jewelry (Monet).
This obsession with Medieval fashions had a twofold purpose: it allowed for the freedom of movement and expression precluded by traditional Victorian dress and, as it relied on natural dyes and homespun linens, went well with the Pre-Raphaelite focus on cottage industries and hand-crafted goods (Monet). These sensibilities would eventually turn into those we currently consider "aesthetic," but at this point, the well-known dictum “art for art’s sake” had not yet been adopted, and most Pre-Raphaelites still considered art a means to achieve social and moral revolution. Many even shied away from the term “aestheticism” as it was then considered to refer to things without artistic merit (Swafford).
It wasn’t until 1858 that unabashed aestheticism in art took off fully as a movement. By this point, the Trade Treaty passed between England and Japan had allowed an influx of Eastern art and influences to pour into and redefine the English art scene and the Grosvenor Gallery had been opened as a safe-haven for the display and promotion of aesthetic art (Brookes). The major turn came in 1873 when Walter Pater published his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Landow). Referred to by Wilde as a “golden book” (Swafford), the “Conclusion” tacked onto the end of Renaissance laid the foundations for Aestheticism in its most recognizable form. In his “Conclusion,” Pater argued that life is fleeting and that moments of undeniable joy in life are more temporary still. Pater therefore says that the only chance we have of feeling fully satisfied in life “lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time” (Pater). His best idea as to how one might achieve this feat was through art: “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake” (Pater). Pater taught at Oxford for much of his career and in that time became a mentor to several students who would go on to become prominent figures in the Aesthetic Movement, including Oscar Wilde (Landow).
Wilde carried the torch of Aestheticism into the public eye, becoming one of its most popular and controversial figures. He would become such an essential part of this period in art and literature that many use his1900 death to mark the end of the Aesthetic movement (Brookes). In literature, Aestheticism manifested itself in the depiction of ennui, nostalgia, and a recurring sense of loss. There was also a focus on the particularly ornate or perverse and on the notion of living life as art. References to Rome and Egypt also abound in Aesthetic literature, but unlike in previous artistic movements, these allusions were used entirely for artistic effect (Landow). In one form another, each of these defining characteristics pops up in The Picture of Dorian Gray, making it one of the best examples we have of the beliefs and feelings of aesthetes like Wilde.
On June 30, 1883, Wilde delivered a lecture on Aestheticism to art students of the Royal Academy. Here are some of the highlights: