The Aestheticism

(by Richard Altick)
The Influence of 
D.G. Rossetti
Walter Pater
Oscar Wilde 
The Decadent
The Influence of D.G. Rossetti
"The Aesthetic vogue of the later seventies and the eighties [in the 19th century] was an outgrowth of Pre-Raphaelitism, with a different cast of characters.  The connecting link was Rossetti, whose poetry and painting inspired the Aesthetes.  . . . Rightly or wrongly, . . . the Aesthetes interpreted his artistic aim as the pursuit of beauty, divorced from social meaning.  More justifiably, they recognized in him their own strong inclination to look into their soul's as they wrote or painted.  In Rossetti's poetry the Victorian bias in favor of objectivity was reversed, and the romantic mode of introspection and confession resumed.

Walter Pater
Pater was the exponent of a carpe diem philosophy suited to an age when the old certainties were crumbling.  . . .Live "intensely"..., abandon your delicately responsive sensibility to the constant play of sensations and impressions--sight, sound, odor, touch, taste.
    This is, intentionally, a gross over-simplification, though not necessarily a falsification, of Pater's "new Cyrenaicism," or hedonism.  It has the advantage of suggesting the way he was read and explaining the kind of influence he had.
    [Pater's aesthetic philosophy] resulted in the apotheosis of beauty as the supreme experience of life, and of art as the superior reality, atoning for the deficiencies of nature and totally unlike any other kind of human activity . . . .  Aestheticism offered the mode of experience farthest removed from anything else available in an industrial world. . . .
    It followed that life itself was viewed as an art. The Aesthetes replaced the brassy hedonism of the pleasure-pain calculus with the ethereal hedonism of pure beauty, however captured and savored.

Oscar Wilde
To Pater's disciples, the only reality worth seeking was not material goods but an intangible--the individual human experience.  . . . "Life," said Wilde in A Woman of No Importance, "is a mauvais quart d'heure made up of exquisite moments."
    And so Aestheticism involved a complete revulsion against received standards of values.   . . .
    Nothing better symbolized this spirit of revolt against the contemporary bourgeois spirit than the flamboyant costumes of the publicity-conscious Wilde set adopted as an outward sign of their defiance.  It was most fitting that an age which had been ushered in by the Regency dandy should be ushered out by his grandchildren in velvet knee breeches.  Dandyism framed the Victorian period.   But these men and their willowy, Rossetti-inspired women postured, as their forebears decidedly had not done, in the cause of Beauty.  

The Decadent
As a token of their contempt for respectability, the Decadents extended the Aesthetes' cultivation of the senses tothe realm of the abnormal and perverse (according to the prevailing moral standards): sexual aberration, drug-taking, absinthe-drinking--an array of viced sufficient to rend the whole massive monolith of Victorian morality.

Richard Altick.  Victorian People and Ideas.  NY: Norton, 1977: 291-97.