Oscar Wilde's Wild West

Tomorrow The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860–1900 (February 18–June 17) opens at the Legion of Honor! Exactly 130 years ago, the tenets of the Aesthetic Movement were introduced to San Francisco by none other than Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde Reclining
In 1882, the British theater impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte sent a charming Oxford graduate named Oscar Wilde to tour the United States on a lecture circuit. This publicity stunt primed audiences for the staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, which satirized aesthetes like Wilde and their flourishing zeal for all things beautiful. Realizing that the subtler jokes in Gilbert’s libretto might be lost on American audiences with limited exposure to Aestheticism’s principles and personalities, D’Oyly Carte engaged Wilde and billed the young man as the expert on all things Aesthetic.

Oscar Wilde in a Cape

During his tour, Wilde effectively carried out the role of an erudite Aesthetic prophet while simultaneously crafting his public image as a savvy art connoisseur and an authority on design reform. At this time, he adopted features that have come to be associated both with Wilde himself and with the archetypal aesthete—flowing hair, cropped velvet knee breeches and boutonnieres of lily, sunflower and carnation.

Oscar Wilde in Aesthetic Suit

Prior to Wilde’s arrival in San Francisco in March of 1882, the San Francisco Examiner heralded the visit with this welcoming praise:

Hail! brother hail! from o’er the seas,
How glad I am to greet you!
Although your pants but cap your knees,
I’m highly pleased to meet you.
Although your locks to some give shocks,
To you I now extend
A hearty hand of fellowship,
My brother, poet, friend.

The anticipation was well rewarded, and Wilde’s visit proved nothing less than sensational. His lectures were so popular that an extra speaking engagement was added because of intense public demand. Wilde lectured four times at San Francisco’s Platt’s Hall on the topics of The English Renaissance, Art Decoration, The House Beautiful and Art Decoration and Irish Poets of the Nineteenth Century.

Platt's Hall

Platt's Hall, San Francisco

Platt's Program

Reviews of these lectures were colorful, and opinions ranged from fawning to vitriolic; but for the most part, Wilde fascinated audiences and critics alike, and massive crowds thronged to catch a glimpse as he toured the city.

As Wilde had come to expect, his physical appearance generated intense interest. The San Francisco Chronicle described:

“His long hair was brushed back over his ears… His coat was of black velvet, with lace cuffs. He wore a full lace necktie… His waistcoat was of the orthodox full-dress pattern, but his lower garment was an uncompromising knee-breeches of black velvet, beneath which the not too muscular legs were cased in patent leather shoes with silver buckles; his gloves were white.”

Oscar Wilde in a Tux

Although he had frequently appeared in this attire since his initial lectures in New York, Wilde embraced the American West as an ideal setting to perfect his Aesthetic self-fashioning. In an interview with the Chronicle, he revealed: “I find the eastern states… too much of a reflex of English manners and customs… What I like best is the civilization which the people of the West have formed for themselves.”

Wilde’s visit left an indelible impression on San Francisco’s cultural fabric, and San Francisco made a strong impact on Wilde. Perhaps unexpectedly, the “Apostle of the beautiful” encountered America’s superb zenith of good taste in the farthest reaches of the Wild West.

Are you wild for Oscar Wilde? This Saturday, February 18 Art for Art’s Sake presents a variety of public programs exploring the Aesthetic Movement, including an afternoon of lively talks, featuring a lecture on the “Apostle of the beautiful” himself!