Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 6

The Artist's Studio

The Artist's Studio is a place of seduction and transformative power in Oscar Wilde's work. The Picture of Dorian Gray opens in a studio: here Dorian is first seduced by Lord Henry Wotton's decadent pronouncements and here the picture that leads Dorian to ruin is created. The dual images of creation and decay represented by the studio draw Wilde's reader into the very public battle waging over Aestheticism, the movement that adopted Wilde as its most prominent emblem and most notorious sinner.

The Aesthetic Movement encompassed the visual arts, the decorative arts, and literature. At Oxford, Wilde studied under the two great art critics of the Victorian age, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. Pater's injunction "to know one's impression as it really is" underlies Aestheticism's guiding principle: the sole function of art is to inspire an emotion or create a mood. Pater's influence on Wilde's art criticism is strong; "All art is quite useless," Wilde asserts in the Preface to Dorian Gray. The Aesthetic Movement sought an art that exists for beauty alone. Arguments raged for and against the amorality of art, with every major thinker and artist of the day jumping into the fray. The highly publicized court battle between James McNeill Whistler and John Ruskin over Whistler's aesthetic art set an early precedent in the battle over the function of art in society. Later, for a time, Whistler and Wilde were interchangeable figures to the public. They battled in the newspapers and lecture halls for prominence, and Wilde won. He became the most visible symbol of Aestheticism in the 1880s; he would become the scapegoat for its excesses, both real and imagined, in the 1890s.

Wilde's own insistence on the amorality of art was not uncomplicated, however, as shown in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The studio represents both the perils and promises of the Aesthetic Movement: artistic and sexual freedom from moral concerns--a space for homosexuality and decadence. So long as these freedoms remained buried in the subtext or locked in the studio, the outside world could enjoy the risque titillation of forbidden life. But when the doors to the studio where flung open in the press and in the courts, Wilde's life and art were shattered.

-- Lisa Golmitz

Walter Pater, (1843-1894}
Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873.

W. B. Yeats, in his Autobiography, quotes Wilde as saying of this book, "It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written." This is Walter Pater's famous book of essays, in which he attempts to capture the spirit of the Renaissance through highly personal, impressionistic sketches of artists and works of art. The Preface boldly gives direction to Aestheticism, arguing against Matthew Arnold's injunction that one must "see the object as in itself it really is." Pater modifies this to knowing "one's impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly." The aesthetic critic filters all art through the lens of himself, through the temperament he cultivates. The Conclusion to the Renaissance became the touchstone of the Art for Art s Sake Movement, with Pater's passionate injunction "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life."

Photograph of Aubrey Beardsley


Serialized from January through June, 1894, the exploits of Trilby, Svengali and the three British expatriate artists in Paris were closely followed by an adoring public. In this illustration by Du Maurier, a caricature of James McNeill Whistler as Joe Sibley is easily identifiable in the right corner against the wall. If the text's description of Sibley was unmistakable to an irate Whistler, this illustration was unmistakable to the public at large. Whistler threatened to sue if the character was not removed..

George Du Maurier, (1834-1896)

Trilby. New York: Harper's, 1894.

Here is the same illustration from Trilby in the first hardcover edition of the novel. Du Maurier removed the offensive references to Whistler from the text, and comically added a rough beard to the caricature, seen here..


Wilde v. Whistler: An Acrimonious Correspondence on Art. London:Privately Printer, 1906.

This leaflet features many of the letters published in the Pall Mall Gazette from both Wilde and Whistler in which they argue over the provenance of Aesthetic theory. Whistler began in his attacks in his series of lectures called "Mr. Whistler's Ten o'Clock." Whistler liked to believe that Wilde was his disciple, and so Wilde's increasing popularity galled him. He attacked Wilde for his conceit, and for stealing his best ideas.. Wilde countered in the press and in his essay "The Decay of Lying," which while borrowing much of Whistler's tone, is a more coherent and interesting spin on Aesthetic criticism than Whistler could admit.

Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics. London: Chatto and Windus, 1878.

In 1887, Whistler displayed several paintings at the opening of Grosvenor Gallery. John Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford and the leading art critic of his day, attacked Whistler's The Nocturne in Black and Gold [The Falling Rocket] in a review of the show. Ruskin wrote, "I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now, but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler was incensed, and sued Ruskin for libel. Although Whistler argued that the issue of the case was not the merit of his art but Ruskin's personal attack, the art itself was at the center of the trial. Whistler won his case, but was awarded only a farthing in damages. Ruskin resigned his professorship, arguing that a critic who cannot criticize is useless. Whistler may have been morally vindicated bythe trial, but he was financially devastated. This pamphlet was his failedattempt to recoup his losses. It was not well-received by the art world, who sympathized with the fallen Ruskin..


Joris Karl Huysmans, (1848-1907)
Against the Grain. Paris: Groves & Michaux, 1926.

This is a beautifully illustrated French edition of J.-K. Huysmans' infamous novel, A Rebours. Huysmans hero, Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, is the prototypical Decadent. Wilde, at his trial, admitted that des Esseintes was one of the models for Dorian Gray, and that A Rebours is the book he refers to in the novel that leads Dorian to a life of aesthetic and criminal excess. Huysman's aesthete creates a completely artistic environment in which to live, a studio where even artificial scents are introduced to create a mood. This is an interior space where all manner of decadent behaviors can be indulged, a space that, as the title implies, relies on nature for nothing. Des Esseintes moves from one unsatisfying passion to another, never finding satiety for his appetites.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act. Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde: Pictured by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Mallarmé called it "fine and sombre like a chapter of the Apocalypse," but Wilde had a difficult time finding anyone willing to stage this Decadent retelling of the Biblical tale. Written first in French, Wilde threatened to adopt French citizenship if the British censors refused to allow an English staging. It was refused by the Lord Chamberlain, but Wilde went ahead with plans to publish the play in French. Elkin Mathews & John Lane bought copies printed in France from Wilde for distribution in Britain. Aubrey Beardsley was hired to illustrate the first English-language edition of the play after Wilde saw an earlier drawing he had done of Salomé for the Studio, and the results are these maniacal, sensuous drawings.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
"The Critic as Artist" in Intentions. London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Company,1891.

This dialogue between "Ernest" and "Gilbert" is a witty slap in the face to Whistler, who felt that Wilde could not speak on the visual arts because he was not a visual artist himself. This essay proposes that "to know the principles of the highest art is to know the principles of all the arts," and the highest art, Wilde argues, is Criticism. "It works with materials, and puts them into a form that is at once new and delightful.What more can one say of poetry?" Playing with Arnold and Pater's rhetoric, Wilde asserts that the object of art is to "see the object as in itself it is not." Moreover, he states that "Aesthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive." In this essay, Wilde praises Pater outright, obliquely criticizes Whistler, and takes on every late Victorian argument about the purpose and function of art.

The Yellow Book. Volume I, April, 1894.

The Yellow Book was the brain-child of Beardsley even down to its title. Novels by the French decadent writer were often issued in yellow wrappers; the most important of the novels was J.K. Huysmans' A Rebours, 1883. Beardsley proposed a new illustrated quarterly dedicated to modern literature and art because "many brilliant story painters and picture writers cannot get their best stuff accepted in the conventional magazines, either because they are not topical, or perhaps a little risquÇ." John Lane agreed to publish the quarterly with Henry Harland as the literary editor and Beardsley as the art editor. The Yellow Book published some of the best authors and artists of the Nineties, often causing scandals to the conservative public.
The first issue of The Yellow Book provoked outrage. The Times referred to the "repulsiveness and insolence" of the cover; The Westminster Gazette remarked about the "Portrait of Mrs. Patrick Campbell" it would take "a short act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal." Beardsley's notoriety blossomed and the magazine sold briskly..


Geoffrey Chaucer, (ca. 1343-1400)
The Works of Geoffry Chaucer Newly Imprinted. Hammersmith: TheKelmscott Press, 1890.

Following his socialist leanings and his interest in medievalism, William Morris began the Kelmscott Press to bring the joy of work back into the production of beautiful books. Based on close study of the early printers, Morris developed typefaces and designed page layouts that sparked the revival of printing. The influence of his designs can be seen in all of Wilde's books, especially the first edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Sphinx.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Sphinx. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894. Illustrated by Charles Ricketts.

Perhaps the most beatiful book designed in the 1890s, The Sphinx, is a tour de force of decadent style, Wilde's elaborate poem inspired Charles Ricketts type design, use of three muted colors of ink - cinnamon, forest, and black - and his exquisite woodcut illustrations. Ricketts and his lover, Charles Shannon were members of Wilde's circle and Wilde was a frequent visitor to their studio, The Vale. Basil Hallward's studio in the opening scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray is modeled after their studio.


George Du Maurier, (1834-1896)
In Harper s New Monthly Magazine January-August, 1894.

George Du Maurier's Trilby became a huge sensation when it was serialized in Harper's magazine in 1894. Du Maurier had been an artstudent in Paris with Whistler, and while Whistler became the leading artist of his day, Du Maurier became an illustrator for Punch. Du Maurier's caricatures of Wilde and the Aesthetic Cult were enormously popular, and Trilby also features Du Maurier's illustrations. Trilby is the story of three young artists in Paris who discover a brassy artist's model and proceed to fall in love with her. Trilby, though tone-deaf, is transformed through mesmerism into a diva through the evil powers of the musician Svengali. Along the way, Du Maurier illustrates the life in the studio of young, struggling artists. Trilby became an overnight sensation, with the Trilby hat the most memorable remnant of this fame. The Trilby Scrapbook in the Fales collection represents a collector's excerpts from Harper's, Life, and other sources concerning Trilby and Whistler's threatened lawsuit over Du Maurier's caricature of him as the lazy Joe Sibley.


Prospectus for The Savoy

After being ejected from The Yellow Book, Beardsley found financial support from two men, André Raffalovich and Leonard Smithers. Smithers became Beardsley's new publisher, starting The Savoy with Arthur Symons as literary editor and Beardsley as art editor. The magazine took its name from The Savoy hotel in which Wilde and Douglas entertained the young men they met through Alfred Taylor. Beardsley developed his baroque style in illustrations for The Savoy. Most important, his illustrations for The Rape of the Lock and The Ballad of the Barber appeared in subsequent issues. By 1896, shop-owners and newsstands refused to sell The Savoy. It was a private act of censorship aimed at Beardsley. It worked. The Savoy ceased publication after the December 1896 issue. Shown is the suppressed state of the prospectus, which was rejected because of the figure appears to have an erection.



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