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British Aestheticism

In Britain a movement known as aestheticism is often seen as part of the wider symbolist movement. From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth century, the artists and writers associated with British aestheticism experimented with the idea that art is a realm separate from the everyday world and the artist's role is to cultivate and express beauty for its own sake. British aestheticists most often used very refined evocations of women from myth and legend as a means for exploring their own highly cultivated sensibilities. They rejected classic approaches to art and literature and disputed the notion that art should educate its audience about moral values. The retreat into the realm of highly refined art and the refusal to address contemporary issues are often regarded as an oblique attack on bourgeois morality and the growing commodity culture of nineteenth-century Britain.

The writers of the aesthetic movement drew on the work of British romantic poets such as William Blake (1757–1827). Some were also influenced by Baudelaire and the French symbolists. One of the precursors to the aesthetic movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which was formed by a group of young painters and writers in the mid-nineteenth century. This movement rejected the classic aesthetic of the British academy and looked to other sources for its inspiration and subject matter. Many of their early works had Christian subjects. Often they tried to re-create the forms and methods of Gothic art and looked back to stories of knights and ladies. Pre-Raphaelite journals such as The Germ combined literary endeavors with explorations of the visual arts. Initially, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic involved taking a detailed approach and for this reason it is often linked to realism. Nevertheless, many of the poems and paintings of artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are rather vague and suggestive and these are commonly seen as part of the aesthetic movement. Writers associated with the aesthetic movement include John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde. Many participants in British aestheticism embraced the notion of synesthesia and looked for correspondences between poetry, painting, and music. Dante Rossetti often based his paintings on his own poems, especially those evoking stories from the writings of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), author of the Divine Comedy. Claude Debussy set Dante Rossetti's poem "The Blessed Damozel" (1850) to music in 1887-1888. Rossetti had completed his own painting of this poem in 1881, and the painting, which had the poem inscribed on the frame, is thought to have inspired Debussy's composition. James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was a close friend of Mallarmé and symbolist critics described him as a "painter-poet." Whistler embraced the connection between art and music by giving his works musical titles such as "symphony" or "nocturne," with subtitles designating colors or subject matter.

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