Before he was known for his clever plays and essays, Oscar Wilde was known for his personality. Personality is indeed the word that Wilde chose to talk about how individuals present themselves in the world. In his 1889 story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” Wilde writes, “all Art [is] to some degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realize one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life.” And craft his personality, he did. Wilde performed his life, helping to craft the Aesthetic movement. In the late nineteenth century, artists and critics were spreading the gospel of art without meaning, art for the sake of beauty: art for art’s sake.
The Aesthetic movement of the late nineteen century followed on the heels of the Pre-Raphaelite painters from the mid-nineteenth century, who created work that harked back to classical and renaissance themes. The work of painters, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was lush and colorful. Models appeared in gowns draped on skin like marble folds on Greek statuary. Attention was paid to the smallest details of nature, with the figures displayed in landscapes of rich colors, floral beds and intricate architectures.
The writing of critics John Ruskin and Walter Pater picked up the ideas incubated by the Pre-Raphaelites and articulated a new way of approaching art. Ruskin was taken with the naturalism found in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and called for art to reflect the natural world surrounding the artist. Pater’s influential book on art history took a different path, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, elevated art as the product of passions and provided a basis for the Aesthetics. The impact of this movement lies in its ability to view artists as those who can transcend the world, to create beauty that is impossible in nature. These romantic ideals were appealing to Oscar Wilde, who as an undergraduate at Oxford drank in the teachings of these two lecturers. The work of Pater, who spoke of “The House Beautiful,” those who treated their life, persona and surroundings in the spirit of art, especially sank in.
Wilde embodied “The House Beautiful” by making his personality his art. He was known early in his career for wearing velvet breeches and coat, keeping his hair long and carrying a sunflower around as an aesthetic accessory. The satirist playwright W.S. Gilbert, along with his artistic partner Arthur Sullivan, created a character modeled after Wilde in their 1881 hit Patience. The operetta opens with a poet wearing the characteristic aesthetic uniform surrounded by fawning women. When the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta hit New York the producers saw the need to let Americans in on the inside joke. Thus, Oscar Wilde’s tour of America was arranged. From coast to coast Wilde lectured astonished Americans on art and life. His words painted an image of a country drenched in art and beauty. His words exalted the Aesthetic way of life: “We spend our days, each one of us, in looking for the secret of life” he shared, “Well, the secret of life is in art.”
The art that Wilde described picked up where the Pre-Raphaelites left off. Though it continued to glorify the body and nature, art in the “High Aestheticism” period at the end of the century grew less naturalistic. The preeminent artists of the movement, Aubrey Beardsley and James McNeill Whistler, were inspired by east Asia. Beardsley’s work, for example, clearly shows his inspiration of Japanese block prints in its bold graphic outlines and patterned details. Whistler’s Peacock Room, on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, showcases his eastern influences, as he covered the room with deep colors, golden peacocks and Chinese porcelain. Wilde referred to the homage artists were paying to the Far East in his Socratic essay “The Decay of Lying” (1891). There he comments on what he saw as the embracing of Art before the imitation of life. He thought the Japanese, in particular, were able to create an aesthetic world that did not represent the world that was but rather the world that could be. The “lying” referred to in the title is the preferred way of making art. Instead of representing the world, art should “lie” and represent a more beautiful world. As he saw it, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” If this is the case, art displays what we may become not what we are.
Not long after his trip to the States, Wilde visited France. Spending his time with artists in Paris he took the opportunity to change his well-known style. As his own work of art, Wilde was continuing to evolve his own personality. His new look tossed aside the colorful velvet. Instead he dressed in black silk, complete with top hat, and cut his locks to a short, Roman-inspired cut. “The Oscar of the first period is dead,” he wrote, “we are now concerned with the Oscar Wilde of the second period.” Wilde’s art of personality and desire of beauty remained the central point of Wilde’s life, and his art. Nowhere is that more clear than in The Importance of Being Earnest, the play is built around the beauty of words, fashion and pretense. With his last play, as he was unknowingly on the brink of the final period of his life, Wilde embraced the elevation of aesthetics transcending the world around him and touching audiences for generations to come.
Hannah Hessel Ratner, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her third season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.