Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Flowering of Aestheticism: Lily, Sunflower and Azalea

Albert Moore, Azaleas, 1868

Art historians at the University of York are looking ahead enthusiastically to the Albert Moore exhibition, opening at York Art Gallery in April 2017.  So, in response to the abundance of flowers in Moore’s work, we have been discussing the theme of floral imagery in Victorian art.

This has given me the perfect opportunity to return to an idea I have been considering for a while.  What is the archetypal Aesthetic flower?  Does it have to be the lily or sunflower?  Or should we be looking more closely instead at the azalea?  After all, this flower seems to have its moment in the sun at precisely the same time as the flourishing of the Aesthetic movement in Britain.

The Lily

Some might point to the lily as the most obvious symbol of Victorian Aestheticism.  Certainly it becomes one of the attributes of the decadent dandy, the caricatured embodiment of the new movement. In a Punch parody of the Rossettian or Wildean school of poetry, it is linked with that other essential Aesthetic object – the peacock feather:

              My love is as fair as the lily flower

              (‘The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen’)

              Oh bright are the blooms in her maiden bower:

              (‘Sing Hey! Sing Ho! For the sweet Sage Green’)

[quoted by Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, 2007, p.45]


Max Beerbohm, in his imaginative reconstruction of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of America, places a lily at the heart of the cartoon.  Wilde holds it before him as an emblem of beauty and purity. 

Max Beerbohm, The name of Dante Gabriel Rossetti is heard for the first time in the Western states of America, 1882, 1916, ‘Rossetti and his circle’, pubd. 1922

And the lily also took centre-stage in advertising posters for the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Patience, which made gentle mockery of the excesses of Aesthetes.


Poster for Patience, c.1890, first staged in 1881

But this flower has a deeper history, one may almost say baggage, which Rossetti and Wilde and their circles would have been unable to shake off.  The lily is the flower of the Virgin Mary, and D. G. Rossetti made that explicit in his depictions of Mary early in his career.  In The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1849, a child-angel tends a Madonna Lily, which has been placed rather precariously on a pile of books.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1849


For mid-19th century artists and writers, it was also impossible to extricate the lily from more recent associations.  John Ruskin’s declaration in The Stones of Venice, (1851-3) that we should

‘Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance’

had a long afterlife. It became a mantra of modern British art from the 1860s, and one which was very susceptible to satire.

The Sunflower

The sunflower appeared rather later in the Aesthetic canon of beauty, but by the time that Wilde undertook his tour of America in 1882, he and the sunflower seemed almost inseperable. In some cartoons, like Punch’s Fancy Portrait, Wilde wears the sunflower as a kind of ruff, and his body is reduced to a stem.

In others, the association is more muted.  We see Wilde in his distinctive velvet suit and stockings, with sunflowers poking their heads around his portrait, like coy admirers. But the connection with both the lily and the sunflower is reinforced in the popular song titles that were composed to cash in on his notoriety.  These included ‘The Sunflower Polka’, & ‘Dream of the Lily Waltz’.

Sheet music celebrating Oscar Wilde’s tour of the USA, 1882-3


So it is clear that these two flowers – the lily and the sunflower – were closely linked with the ideas of Aestheticism in the public imagination.  They become part of the vocabulary of extravagance and unstable sexuality that seemed to characterise the movement. 


The Azalea

The azalea, on the other hand, was not adopted as a shorthand for ‘Aestheticism’ or ‘Decadence’ by Punch.  But that makes it all the more interesting.  It was fresh, it had no back-story in art-history, and it was adopted by many key players in the Aesthetic movement as a kind of talisman, or gesture of affinity with avant-garde circles.  It seems to be a quiet signal of intent, one that passed under the radar of the popular press.  As we shall see, the artists themselves spotted it, and so did the sympathetic critics.

Aestheticism became visible to the art-loving public in the RA’s exhibition of 1868, when experimental works by artists like Watts, Rossetti, Millais and Moore revealed a decisive shift in style and subject – replacing external anecdote and morality with self-sufficient beauty, or as it became known ‘Art for Art’s sake’. This was a movement that was concerned mood and sensory delight, rather than narrative, realism or conventional symbolism. 

In their Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1868, William Michael Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne singled out Azaleas by Albert Moore as an ideal example of the emerging movement in British art. For W M Rossetti, Moore had created ‘a sense of beauty in the disposition of form, and double-distilled refinement in colour’.  Even in the manner of writing about this painting, both Rossetti and Swinburne demonstrate the ambiguities and allusivesness that were an essential element in this new style.  Rossetti’s roundabout phrases emphasise the inability to pin down Moore’s subject in time or space:

Moore ‘unites with singular subtlety of grace a phase of the evanescent to a phase of the permanent: colour and handling which withdraw themselves from the eye with a suggestion (or as one might say, with a whisper) to statuesque languor or repose of form’. [W. M. Rossetti, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, part 1, pp.23 & 24]

For W M Rossetti, the choice of Azaleas for this avant-garde work was an essential part of its success. Azaleas were an imported hot-house shrub, found originally in both Asia and North America. Rossetti knew that the flowers would never have been seen in Ancient Greece.  And so did the artist, but ‘whether or not they came from America’ is a question of ‘sublime indifference to Mr Moore’.  He had picked this plant partly because it is ‘delicate and lovely’.  But mostly because it undermined any attempt by the Victorian viewer to read this picture as a study in archaeology.  The azalea is deliberately out of place.  Moore insists that his audience should leave aside their preconceptions of realism or historical accuracy, and instead consider this work as a construct, made possible in the artist’s studio – a coming-together of ‘delicate and lovely’ things, in a restrained colour-palette. 

It is perhaps worth noting that the azalea is not strongly scented.  It would be convenient to think that the flowers were included to add another sensory experience to the picture – the suggestion of a heady fragrance that fills the scene.  Unfortunately, unlike the lily, this is not the case.  It can please the eye and the finger-tips, but it does not smell particularly sweet.

Like Rossetti,  the poet and critic Algernon Swinburne also saw this picture as the trigger for his own exposition of the essence of Aestheticism.  Azaleas, he suggested, was the perfect example of the new manner of painting, which was more akin to poetry or music, than to history or religion.  Swinburne drew attention to this intertwining of the arts, which was a strong thread running through many Aesthetic works, by referring in his review to the avant-garde French poet Théophile Gautier.  Both Gautier and Moore are concerned, he writes, with ‘an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful’. [Algernon Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, part 1, p32]

Now Gautier was well known in advanced artistic circles for his synaesthetic writings, which included ‘Symphonie en blanc majeur’ (1st published in Emaux and Camées, 1852) and his works became a touchstone for artists and writers on both side of the Channel. Swinburne was an early fan. He was attuned to looking beyond the surface of a painting and found in Moore’s work an affinity with modern French poetry.  However, according to Swinburne, this painting of Azaleas could also be enjoyed as one might enjoy a piece of music.  It was intended to stimulate the contemplation of the rhythmic forms of arms and drapery, the harmonious arrangements of pale marble and matting, and the softly falling petals.  Swinburne translates this painting into musical terms, suggesting an equivalence between the arts and opening up a space for experimentation:

‘The melody of colour, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be’. [Algernon Swinburne, Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868, part 1, p32]

This is a startling statement.  It disengages Moore’s painting from the conventions of morality, anecdote or accuracy.  Moore’s Azaleas represents a quiet revolution, a turning-away from Ruskin’s insistence on ‘truth to nature’ and moral truths. 

But Moore was not the only artist in the Royal Academy of 1868 to use the azalea as the backdrop to his avant-garde painting.   W M Rossetti reads the flowers behind Watt’s Wife of Pygmalion as azaleas too.  Again, it would have been impossible for Galatea really to enjoy these ‘delicate and lovely’ blooms.  But then, it is also hardly possible that she had been transformed from marble to flesh, so the inclusion of this anachronism reinforces the oddness of the tale.  The flowers, with their open petals draw attention also to the curving forms of her hair, the fine pleats of her drapery and her exposed breast.  This is a tactile picture that encourages us to imagine tracing all these curves with our fingers – the fragile blooms, the crisping hair, the marble/flesh – will it be warm or cool to the touch?  

G F Watts, The Wife of Pygmalion, 1868

Watts was side-stepping the need for historical precision of the sort that was often adopted by Alma-Tadema or Edwin Long.  Instead, he created a self-contained image filled with beauty, and abstracted from its classical source. 

Azaleas were brought completely up to date in another picture of feminine beauty painted in 1868. 

John Everett Millais, Sisters, 1868

John Everett Millais completed a triple portrait of his daughters in that year.  The three little girls stand in front of azalea bushes, with the pattern of petals and leaves creating a complex counterpoint to the ruffles of their matching white dresses. The colours of the flowers shade from purest white to rich pink and finally flaming orange-red above the head of Mary on the far left.  They seem to suggest the different temperaments of the girls – with Mary placed in profile against the bolder tones, singled out as the unconventional one, the traveller, the independent spirit.

The choice of azaleas to fill the background also raises questions about where these girls are meant to be posed – inside or out?  This particular flower is usually found in the in-between space of a conservatory.  We cannot see the light source in this painting.  The girls in their flimsy frocks are dressed for a party, perhaps, but Carrie holds a small hoop and sticks – suggesting that she would rather be playing outside. Girls and flowers, muslin frills, petals and hair, these may be conventional subjects for a painter to offer his audience.  But yet again, the profusion of azaleas creates uncertainties.  It opens up the picture for contemplation, rather than closing down our imaginative exploration by being clear-cut.  And in each of these Aesthetic pictures, the azaleas are growing. As living plants they defy the usual associations of transience or fading beauty attached to flowers that have been plucked.  So they are ideally suited to images of young women, who are still maturing and have not yet faced their own mortality.  They may be pot-bound, or confined to a conservatory but they are alive.

Millais was always supremely aware of cutting-edge developments in the art world.  Throughout his career he was always able to ride the new waves of style, from the taut, highly-wrought Pre-Raphaelitism of his early years, to the adoption of a more painterly manner in the late 1860s.  Like Watts and Whistler, his handling of paint opened out, partly in response to a new appreciation of the 18th century British portrait tradition, and partly as a way of offering softer, more suggestive paintings.  This change in painting technique was an essential part of the emerging Aesthetic movement – a Venetian love of colour, and a rejection of hard-edged realism. 

James Whistler, Symphony in White no.2: the Little White Girl, 1864

Millais was responding to works by fellow experimental artists like James Whistler in his portrait of his daughters.  If Whistler could paint one Little White Girl (1864), Millais could picture three – all with distinct personalities.  And if Whistler included a potted azalea in the corner of his painting, Millais would fill Sisters with exquisitely observed flowers.  Always competitive, Millais was prepared to beat Whistler in his creation of an Aesthetic masterpiece.   

Whistler used the azalea in his Little White Girl to reinforce the fashionable Japonisme of his interior.  The soft pink flowers are juxtaposed with a painted fan, and a piece of imported blue-and-white porcelain on the mantelpiece.  Yet this is clearly set in a London drawing room, with the fireplace and looking glass, which reflects another of Whistler’s works hung on the far wall.  He was an early adopter of the azalea as a signifier of a new Aesthetic approach – this seems to be one of the first examples of the flower in a British painting.  I would interested to hear of others.  (Whistler was also a pioneer of the synaesthetic approach to art, exploring the connections between music and painting that were being put forward by Swinburne in his reviews.  Whistler’s Little White Girl was retitled A Symphony in White No.2 in 1867, as a response to Gautier’s poem, and as a way of signalling his intention to side-step the expectations of the art-public who expected to be able to read a painting like a novel.) 

John Everett Millais, Hearts are Trumps, 1872

The azalea persists as an emblem of Aesthetic engagement to the end of the century.  It appears again, for example, in Millais’s scintillating triple portrait of the Armstrong girls, Elizabeth, Diana and Mary, entitled Hearts are Trumps, (1872).  Although this has been read as one example of Millais’s ‘selling out’ to conventional taste, to my mind, this portrait is experimental and unconventional.  Yes, it seems effortless, but this synthesis of the 18th century Grand Manner, with the Orientalist elements of the lacquer screen and the inlaid table, is a glorious example of Aesthetic eclecticism in action.  And, beyond this, Millais provides insights into the girls’ characters with a lightness of touch that reinforces the air of naturalism and ease, despite their fancy dress.  The azaleas are a tour-de-force of flower painting, again linking the outside – light and air and colour – with the inside, represented by the dark screen that blocks our view on the right-hand side.  In this work, Millais seems to be competing with himself.  This is painted only four years after Sisters, but it is a supremely confident work, created by an artist who knows how to present the latest Aesthetic ideas to a wider public.

Frederic Leighton, The Garden of the Hesperides, 1892

Like Millais, Frederic Leighton was an adaptable and highly successful painter, who combined Classicism, Aetheticism and sophisticated portrait practice over the course of his career.  We catch a final glimpse of the Aesthetic azalea in The Garden of the Hesperides, Leighton’s dreamy, sensual work of 1892.  The flower is placed on the lower edge of the picture, and is one of the closest things to the spectator.  We can almost reach into the enclosed world of the circular canvas, to touch the leaves – but then we would disturb the white egrets that are sheltering within the plant. The arch of their necks balances the bending head of the serpent, as the azalea balances the golden fruit to the top right, above the reclining girls.

Why does Leighton include an azalea in the no-man’s-land of the myth? Is it a knowing nod to the other artists in his circle? Does the flower represent non-specific exoticism?  The azalea cannot be pinned down to a particular location – it could be found in the Himalayas, or Japan, or America, or an English garden-room. It seems deliberately to point to the artificiality of the scene, a place beyond the real world, where the girls are held perpetually in suspense in their painted bubble.  It is a scene beyond parody, a self-sufficient idyll. It seems that all the other Aesthetic azaleas have been building up to this point – a space for the arts to come together, where colour and line, music and myth and femininity can be contemplated, where Whistler and Watts and Millais are acknowledged as part of the same project – the creation of a new modern school of British art.  Lily, sunflower or azalea? The language of flowers in Victorian painting was far more subtle than we have acknowledged.

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

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Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.