Aspiring to the Condition of Music

The modern, industrialized society of Victorian England presented new challenges to artists, musicians, and writers. The growth of cities and the collapse of the traditional social order were matched by rapid changes in technology (such as the spreading of the railway network). The British Empire had become a dominant force in global politics, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London seemed to epitomize the age—brash, confident, and materialistic. 

Around 1850 there was a strong tendency toward realism in the arts: paintings of modern-life subjects were prominent at exhibitions, and the novels of Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, drawing attention to social problems, gained a wide readership. During the 1860s, however, a vanguard group of artists had begun to reject realism and to promote the role of the arts in offering an alternative vision of pure beauty. The new Aesthetic mantra, drawing on the ideas of French thinkers such as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, was “l’art pour l’art” or “art for art’s sake.” Aestheticism drew upon many sources, often from pre- or non-industrial cultures, including Medieval and Renaissance art, as in the case of Edward Burne-Jones’s masterpiece Chant d’Amour. Japanese ceramics, paintings, and textiles became fashionable accoutrements for the Aesthetic interior, an enthusiasm celebrated in John Lavery’s Woman in a Japanese Dress. 

Aestheticism embraced the idea of synaesthesia: the production, from a sense-impression of one kind, of an associated mental image of another kind. Thus, seeing a particular color might suggest the sounds of a certain musical tone. This theory brought art and music ever closer together. James McNeill Whistler called his paintings “symphonies” and “nocturnes” (after Chopin’s piano music), suggesting that the harmonies of tone and color in his work paralleled those in musical forms. Music was considered the purest and most abstract of the arts, one that could affect the viewer in a direct, unmediated fashion, without needing to describe the world or offer narratives or morals. In the famous dictum of the Aesthete Walter Pater, “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” 

The Aesthetic Movement and its leaders, such as Whistler, the dramatist and celebrity Oscar Wilde, and the poet Algernon Swinburne, were the target of Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire in the operetta Patience, and Aesthetic Japonisme may have suggested the subject of The Mikado.