The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 focuses on a period in the 19th century when a group of artists, architects, and designers found themselves united in the search for a new Beauty. The Aesthetic Movement, as it came to be known, sought nothing less than the creation of a new kind of art, an art freed from outworn establishment ideas and Victorian notions of morality. This was to be “Art for Art’s sake”—art that did not tell stories or make moral points, art that dared simply to offer visual delight and hint at sensuous pleasure.
This new and exciting “Cult of Beauty” encompassed romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones, along with maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler and painters of grand classical subjects who belonged to the circle of Frederic Leighton. The Cult of Beauty brings together the finest pictures, furniture, and decorative arts of this extraordinary era, setting them in the context of this glittering cast of characters. The book also reveals how artists’ houses, their collections of beautiful things, and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination. The influence of the “Palaces of Art” created by Rossetti and Morris, Lord Leighton, and others led to a widespread revolution in architecture and interior decoration. Oscar Wilde made his name promoting the idea of “The House Beautiful,” and the styles favored by Aesthetic designers were among the very first to be widely exploited commercially in Britain.
The Cult of Beauty examines the Aesthetic Movement through the work and ideas of its key figures who devoted their lives to the pursuit of Beauty, charting the development of this daring experiment in art and lifestyle from the romantic bohemianism of the 1860s to its final, fascinating Decadent phase in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign.