alter Pater's "Preface" to The Renaissance advocates an introspective, viewer-centered theory of aesthetics, shedding the abstract philosophical analysis of his contemporaries. He provides a clear contrast with ancients like Plato, whose concept of Art and Beauty as higher ideals has no role for the viewer, and contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, who advocates analyzing art objectively and only in comparison to other works. In doing so, he tethers the value of a work directly to its impact on the viewer, making the judgment of aesthetics less a philosophical question than an emotional one:

To see the object as in itself it really is," has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly. The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals--music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life--are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence? The answers to these questions are the original facts with which the aesthetic critic has to do; and, as in the study of light, of morals, of number, one must realise such primary data for one's self, or not at all. And he who experiences these impressions strongly, and drives directly at the discrimination and analysis of them, has no need to trouble himself with the abstract question what beauty is in itself, or what its exact relation to truth or [viii/ix] experience--metaphysical questions, as unprofitable as metaphysical questions elsewhere. He may pass them all by as being, answerable or not, of no interest to him.

By asking these questions in the first-person point of view, Pater alters the thought processes involved with viewing art. Aesthetic judgment is shifted so that works are no longer weighed in abstract terms, isolated from the real world — instead, artistic worth is redefined in terms of its relationship with the viewer. The aesthetic framework is transposed from "how do I see the object as in itself it really is?" to "What does this object do for me?" and his viewer-centric philosophy displaces the original object-centric one.


1. In the above passage, Pater shifts from third person "...the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is, is to know one's one impression as it really is..." to first person "What effect does it really produce on me?" to third person again "He may pass them all by as being, answerable or not, of no interest to him." Why does Pater shift points of view, going from "one" to "me" to "he" within the span of a single passage? Is he assuming different voices, or is retaining his own identity as the narrator?

2. Although Pater seems to favor the concrete over the metaphysical, he still regards an introspective attitude as "the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is." Is Pater trying to abandon metaphysical analysis of art, or reconcile it with his own emphasis on emotional evaluation?

3. Ruskin thought that art was inextricable from the values of society, both its reflection and its modifier. Pater also applies this to other areas of intellectual thought, although he says that "Art and poetry, philosophy and the religious life, and that other life of refined pleasure and action in the conspicuous places of the world, are each of them confined to its own circle of ideas, and those who prosecute either of them are generally little [xiii/xiv] curious of the thoughts of others." How does Pater interweave Ruskin's theories of art with his own ideas about the development of the Renaissance?

4. While Johnson wrote very generalized prose with little in the way of examples, Pater uses them quite liberally ("To him, the picture, the landscape, the engaging personality in life or in a book, La Gioconda, the hills of Carrara, Pico of Mirandola, are valuable for their virtues..."). How does this serve as a bridge towards the more modern styles of the 20th century, and how does the use of examples fit in when Pater is writing about some of the more abstract concepts of aesthetic theory?

Victorian Web Overview Walter Pater

Last modified 7 March 2011