4 Victorian Era Artists Who Made “Art for Art’s Sake”

In Victorian era Britain, these four painters of the Aesthetic Movement subverted mainstream culture to create “art for art’s sake.”

Jan 24, 2021By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
flaming june day dream dante gabriel rossetti
Details from Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, 1895; and The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1880


The phrase “art for art’s sake” may sound simple—but these four words ushered in a brand-new art movement in Victorian era London. “Art for art’s sake” originated as an English translation of the French slogan l’art pour l’art. In the 1860s, the concept was popularized by Walter Pater, an influential British art critic. His work helped lay the foundation for the Aesthetic Movement, which united a diverse group of avant-garde Victorian era artists, craftspeople, and poets under the motto “art for art’s sake.”


Art For Art’s Sake: A Background


Walter Pater was famous for using flowery prose in his art history essays and critical reviews of Victorian era art and literature. His work often focused on “the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake,” and he frequently preached that the best art “comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” These philosophies directly contradicted the centuries-old traditions of the prestigious Royal Academy of Art and Victorian era social norms. 


symphony in white james whistler
Symphony in White, No.III by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1865-67, via Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham


In nineteenth-century Britain, mainstream culture dictated strict morals. Art was primarily used to express ethical, political, social, or religious messages. Meanwhile, the Royal Academy still taught a hierarchy of art that favored Classical and High Italian Renaissance subjects and styles. Built upon the concept of “art for art’s sake,” the Aesthetic Movement aimed to topple all of this, insisting that artists should not have to justify their work beyond its intrinsic value.


It was within this cultural context that creators in various disciplines adopted “art for art’s sake” as their creed, including the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Aesthetic Movement painters led by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, interior designers of the Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris, and the Fleshly School poets led by Algernon Charles Swinburne. They all believed that their chosen medium should be allowed to exist apart from any didactic or utilitarian function. In the realm of painting, subject matter and narrative were no longer relevant—an approach that was revolutionary for the time—and “art for art’s sake” birthed an exciting new genre of art that included contributions by these four notable Victorian era artists.

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1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler: “Poetry of Sight”

arrangement grey black james abbott mcneill whistler
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Whistler was an American-born artist who became one of the leaders of the Aesthetic Movement. Although he never particularly excelled in an academic setting, Whistler studied in Paris alongside the Impressionists and then settled in London, where he associated with the artists of the Victorian era avant-garde. From these influences, Whistler helped pave the way for “art for art’s sake” to really catch on.


Walter Pater claimed that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Whistler, too, was drawn to the idea that music is the most exemplary form of “art for art’s sake.” This is because a piece of music without lyrics—and thus no definitive narrative or subject—can be appreciated only for its beauty. Whistler indeed aspired to achieve this effect in visual art, going so far as to name his paintings not after their subjects, but with musical terms like Harmony, Arrangement, Nocturne, and Symphony. Regarding his unconventional naming style, Whistler explained, “As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject-matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or colour.”


Even the infamous portrait of Whistler’s mother is foremost an aesthetic arrangement of colors and shapes. It is only colloquially known as a “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” while its official title—Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1—suggests the painting is nothing more than an aesthetic composition of muted colors.


nocturne old battersea bridge james abbott mcneill whistler
Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, ca. 1872-75, via Tate, London


Similarly, Whistler frequently painted scenes of the foggy River Thames at night in a series he called Nocturnes. Each Nocturne features a remarkably flat and simple composition, a monotonous color palette, and wide, translucent brushstrokes. The end result is a dreamy visual effect of light and color rather than a conventional landscape painting of a familiar place. Victorian era viewers were shocked by these paintings’ seemingly unfinished appearance and indefinite subject matter—so much so that a lawsuit ensued.


2. Albert Moore: Leisurely Luxury   

dreamers albert moore painting
Dreamers by Albert Moore, 1882, via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham


As a young artist, Moore was fascinated by antique sculpture. He spent hours studying and sketching the Elgin Marbles, a collection of ancient Greek sculptures from the Parthenon at the British Museum in London. His academic prowess and Neoclassical style granted him exhibition space at the Royal Academy of Art—but his fierce artistic independence ultimately prevented him from participating fully alongside the more traditional academicians.


Moore is well-known for his decadent compositions of female figures in various states of rest and relaxation, typically posed within an imagined, and highly decorative, classical setting. Unlike the type of art promoted by the Royal Academy, Moore’s paintings do not contain any historical narratives or discernable messages. The female figures do not exist as subject matter, but rather as one of many elements of an aesthetic composition. Their identities and even their facial expressions are purposefully vague—but the artfully rendered bodies, fabrics, textures, and harmonious color palettes demonstrate Moore’s knack for combining a plethora of decorative details to achieve a luxurious, yet leisurely, effect.


pomegranates albert moore
Pomegranates by Albert Moore, ca. 1875, in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, via Art UK


In fact, most of his paintings, such as Pomegranates, are named after beautiful things like flowers and fruit, or times of day and seasons. These titles do not describe narrative or subject matter, nor do they even call out the most notable objects in the paintings. Instead, they emphasize the overall decorative effect the painting intends to achieve. While every part of Moore’s paintings represents a recognizable form, all the objects and figures are so abstracted from any identifying characteristics so that they exist only to complete an aesthetic composition that is enjoyed for its beauty—a prime example of “art for art’s sake.”


3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Sensuous Portraiture

the day dream dante gabriel rossetti
The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1880, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Both a painter and a poet, Rossetti is remembered for his highly decorative portraits of women—many of which have poetry inscribed on the frames or included in the composition. Rossetti was a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and as such was drawn to medieval sources of inspiration that predated Raphael, the Royal Academy’s favorite Old Master Renaissance painter. Rossetti was also interested in experimenting with what Walter Pater referred to as “pictorial poetry,” or works of art that achieve “complete expression by drawing and colour,” instead of by telling a story. 


Rossetti did not often exhibit work publicly during his lifetime, but his reputation grew nonetheless as visitors to his studio spread the word of his bold innovations. He was also notorious for keeping the company of various female muses. Rossetti was specifically drawn to women who had strong, angular features, voluminous hairstyles, and a seductive presence—much in contrast to the Victorian era ideal of delicate and prudish womanhood.


bocca baciata dante gabriel rossetti
Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1859, via  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 


Bocca Baciata was the very first of Rossetti’s signature single figure portraits. Inspired by an Italian proverb of the same name, an excerpt of which is actually inscribed on the back of the canvas, Bocca Baciata depicts Rossetti’s muse, model, and sometimes mistress, Fanny Cornforth. In this painting, Cornforth and her surroundings blend together to create an aesthetic effect—her striking orange hair, velvety green clothing, and golden accessories merge with the floral arrangement in the background and the ornate textile in the foreground, both of which are unnaturally flattened to further emphasize the importance of the composition as a whole. There is no recognizable place, story, person, or time period in Bocca Baciata—it is simply an object of beauty.


4. Frederic Leighton: Victorian Era Classicism

mother and child frederic leighton
Mother and Child (Cherries) by Frederic Leighton, 1865, via Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery


Leighton was commercially successful during his lifetime due to his classically inspired and academically trained style. He studied painting and sculpture in Florence and Paris, then settled in London, where he associated with various Victorian era artists and designed an opulent residence for himself. Unlike other Aesthetic Movement artists, who kept to the fringes of the London art scene, Leighton became a full member of the Royal Academy of Art and even served as its president. There, he was able to promote the concept of “art for art’s sake” from within the establishment.


flaming june sir frederic leighton
Flaming June by Sir Frederic Leighton, 1895, in Museo de Arte de Ponce, via Google Arts & Culture


Considered the greatest painting of Leighton’s career, the illustrious Flaming June was rediscovered in the 1960s after having disappeared from public view after the artist’s death. While Flaming June does showcase Leighton’s academic training in human anatomy, he subtly bends the rules of representation to utilize the woman’s figure and the rest of the scene as decorative tools rather than convincing illusions. The monumentality of the woman’s figure is emphasized by elongating her legs to overfill the furniture and exaggerating the fiery hue and dynamic movement of her drapery, which is almost indistinguishable from her splayed hair. 


Like Albert Moore’s leisurely women, Flaming June’s repose makes her a passive, perhaps even inanimate part of a dreamlike decorative scene—although, if attempted in real life, her pose likely would not be a restful one. Although Leighton would have been able to perfectly paint a human figure receding in three-dimensional space, Flaming June demonstrates how his interest in “art for art’s sake” could inspire an understanding of classicism not as an academic technique or historical reference, but as a malleable aesthetic.


Legacy Of “Art For Art’s Sake”


According to James Whistler, “art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear.” By practicing their shared belief in “art for art’s sake”—and daring to venture beyond the confines of traditional didactic art—these four Victorian era painters helped set the stage for twentieth-century modernists to push the limits of art even further for decades to come.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.