The relationship between the classical movement and the aesthetic movement is an ambiguous one. “Definition at times seems highly elusive, as some artists seem to have affinities with several groups at once — with the classical movement, the aesthetic movement, and the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism” (Olympian Dreamers 23). It seems that a tidy way to put it would be to say that the classical movement was a component in the aesthetic movement along with late Pre-Raphaelitism. Indeed, many painters shuttle between classical subjects and Pre-Raphaelite ideals, such as Albert Joseph Moore.

As Christopher Wood writes, “the Classical and Aesthetic Movements meet” in Moore (Victorian Painting 62). Moore's classical influence remains an ideal of beauty rather than of subject matter. Pomegranates for example, depicts three girls in classical costume standing next to a cabinet decorated with geometric designs. The only subject that can be extracted is the bowl of pomegranates, the namesake of the painting. Since Pomegranates is just one of many works to take seemingly trivial names that reflect color schemes or small objects in the paintings, it emerges that Moore is not interested in imposing narrative content on his art. Moore certainly developed decorative type of painting in which we find “everything from a Greek robe to a Chinese vase to a modern violin” (Victorian Painting 156).

Moore’s Apples shows his tendency towards the abstractly aesthetic painting. Despite the sleeping women and the classical setting, Moore simply names the painting Apples after the two tiny pieces of fruit in the bottom left corner of the painting. This seemingly random naming, and indeed the randomness of the apples’ presence, indicates that there is no story as work, the painting only exists for its transient beauty. Moore directs his devotion only to aspects of painting such as the balance of composition and color. The poses of the two sleeping women compliment each other in facing inwards from opposite ends of a couch; although the balance of their robes is thrown off by the greater block of light blue on the left, the blue vases compensate, bringing the distribution of color back to symmetry; even the frieze-like composition and even distribution of flowers and shapes on the wall behind the figures contributes the visual harmonies. Moore’s Apples can in fact almost be confused with Waterhouse’s Dolce far Niente. This painting is has the same flattened composition with the couch and screen-like background, and echoes the decorative strategy of Moore in the placement of various aesthetic objects across the canvas. The shape of the peacock feathers echoes that of the plants in the background, and the rich color and texture of the feathers further interacts with that of the leopard skin to appeal to the viewers senses and the luxurious quality of the scene.

In Diogenes we again see the force of the aesthetic ideal on Waterhouse. Diogenes, an ancient ascetic philosopher dressed in dull rags, contrasts heavily with the richly decorated, colorful, frivolous looking young ladies on the steps. Yet, amidst the accurate classical architecture and symbolically constructed costumes, Waterhouse places strangely Japanese parasols. Indeed, it appears as though Waterhouse may have chosen this round sun shade to echo and contrast with the circular tub in which Diogenes sits. The seemingly eclectic mix of influences here — the classical and the Japanese — are in keeping with the emergence of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1860s; here we can trace the aesthetic trajectory that grew in the years after the P.R.B. disbanded.

The sometimes bizarre associations of decorative objects an elements in paintings of the aesthetic movement indicates the departure from truth in painting that was so integral to the Pre-Raphaelites’ early desires. Treuherz notes that “Aestheticism rejected both the mimetic and the didactic roles of art and placed supreme emphasis on the intrinsic worth of formal values such a colour, line, tone and pattern. It thus discarded the genre, humour, narrative and anecdote of the early Victorians, and also ran counter to Ruskin’s interpretation of art as an imitator of nature and a means to convey moral and spiritual truths” (131). Looking back Rossetti, an original Pre-Raphaelite, we see that many of his portraits aspire to aesthetic designs. His ladies are often decked in jewels and other decorative accessories, and the gilt frames inscribed with his poetry heighten the appearance of these portraits as decorative, artistic objects. Bocca Bacciata, for example, showcases fine jewelry, hair accessories, and Rossetti also places an apple on the table in front of the lady for no apparent reason. His portrait named “Veronica Verones” is equally striking in its appeal to the senses: the woman’s clothes have a rich velvet texture, and Rossetti includes another of the senses — sound — through placing both a singing bird and a violin in the painting. Perhaps, then, we can look at Rossetti’s later portraits as prototypes for the subjectless, aesthetic portrait of the genre produced by Moore, with Moore taking the idea to a classical extreme.

Yet, another difference between Rossetti’s pictures of women and those of Moore comes through in the fact that Rossetti tended to paint the femme fatale figure whereas Moore paints sweet-faced, anonymous classical beauties. Edward Burne-Jones, another champion of the aesthetic movement, also painted such anonymously beautiful women. For example, in “The Golden Stairs” the each lady is a slight variation of the same pale skinned girl with reddish hair. This painting is subjectless, a dream, which places it firmly in the aesthetic trajectory. Burne Jones’s women are strikingly opposite from the strong-features women that the Pre-Raphaelites admired. Indeed, one of the favorite Pre-Raphaelite models was Jane Morris (the wife of William Morris) who was “tall in an era that prized small stature. She was dark at a time when the fair prevailed. The firm planes and sharp angles of her face seemed forged in defiance of conventional prettiness” (Mancoff 1). As Rossetti said of his model, “Beauty like hers is genius,” and in such admiration perhaps we see the love of truth and reality, rather than love for the unreal and ethereal beauty as displayed by Burne-Jones.


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Last modified 25 December 2006