Aestheticism describes the European art movement of the late 19th century. It is centred on the doctrine that art exists alone for the sake of its beauty and that it does not have to serve any political, didactic or another purpose.

Aestheticism is diametrically opposite to the moralist belief, the belief that moralism (and everything else) should be the handmaiden of art instead of art (and everything else) being the handmaiden of morality.

In the second half of the 19th century, Aesethecism was centred in Great Britain. It was never officially organised into a movement, however. In favour of freer speech in the fine and decorative arts, its exponents tried to rid themselves of the rigidity of Victorian architecture. Some have identified it as ‘proto-modern’ and included it in the William Morris-led Arts and Crafts Movement.

Examples from Google Arts and Culture

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid – Edward Coley Sir, Burne-Jones

The African king Cophetua sits at the feet of a beggar woman. He had disdained women until he met her and fell in love at first sight, vowing to make her his queen. This is the moment when love transcends class and reason. Edward Burne Jones was partly inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Beggar Maid.

The Bath of Psyche – Frederic Lord, Leighton

The story of Psyche comes from a tale by the Roman poet Lucius Apuleius. Psyche was the daughter of a king. Cupid, Venus’s son, fell in love with her, but she angered him, and he left her. Psyche wandered over the earth in search of Cupid until Jupiter took pity on her, made her immortal, and re-united the lovers.

The Princess from the Land of Porcelain (La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine) – James McNeill Whistler

To see the Princess mounted in Whistler’s Peacock room, visit A Brief History of the Peacock Room…

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