SUZANNE FAGENCE COOPER is Research Curator for 'Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud', York Art Gallery, Spring 2019. She is a writer, curator and lecturer. Her new book, 'To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters' is published by Quercus, Feb 2019. She is also the author of 'Effie Gray' (Duckworth)
Effie: the Passionate lives of Effie Gray, Ruskin and Millais
The Flowering of Aestheticism: Lily, Sunflower and Azalea
Albert Moore, Azaleas, 1868
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.
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.
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
My love is as fair as the lily
(‘The Peacock blue has a sacred
Oh bright are the blooms in her
(‘Sing Hey! Sing Ho! For the sweet
[quoted by Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, 2007, p.45]
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.
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.
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
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,
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’
a long afterlife. It became a mantra of modern British art from the 1860s, and
one which was very susceptible to satire.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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]
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
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.
Rossetti, the poet and critic Algernon Swinburne
also saw this picture as the trigger for his own exposition of the essence of
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]
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]
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
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.