Pavonia' Frederic Leighton London 1858-9 Oil on canvas Private collection © Christie's

From the 2nd of April to the 17th of July 2011 – Victoria and Albert Museum

In the 1860s the new and exciting ‘Cult of Beauty’ united, for a while at least, romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and his younger Pre-Raphaelite followers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones), maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler, then fresh from Paris and full of ‘dangerous’ French ideas about modern painting, and the ‘Olympians’ – the painters of grand classical subjects who belonged to the circle of  Frederic Leighton and G.F.Watts. Choosing unconventional models, such as Rossetti’s muse Lizzie Siddal or Leighton’s sultry favourite ‘La Nanna’, these painters created entirely new types of female beauty.

Rossetti and his friends were also the first to attempt to realise their imaginative world in the creation of ‘artistic’ furniture and the decoration of rooms. In this period, artists’ houses and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination and sparked a revolution in the architecture and interior decoration of houses that led to a widespread recognition of the need for beauty in everyday life.

In the 1870s, the leading Aesthetic artists, Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Albert Moore and Burne-Jones evolved a new kind of self-consciously exquisite painting in which mood, colour harmony and beauty of form were all, and subject played little or no part. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery (with its famous ‘greenery-yallery’ walls) in 1877 at last gave the Aesthetic painters a fashionable and glamorous showcase for their much-discussed art. But the decade closed with intense controversy exemplified by the critic John Ruskin’s savage attack on Whistler, which prompted the painter’s spirited defence of the ideals of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ in his writings and by the staging of his own exhibitions.

The rise of Aestheticism in painting was paralleled in the decorative arts by a new and increasingly widespread interest in the decoration of houses. Many of the key avant-garde architects and designers interested themselves not only in working for wealthy clients but also in the reform of design for the middle-class home. The notion of ‘The House Beautiful’ became a touchstone of cultured life.

In the last decade of  Queen Victoria’s reign the Aesthetic Movement entered its final, fascinating Decadent phase, characterised by the extraordinary black-and-white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in The Yellow Book and masterpieces such as Leighton’s Bath of Psyche, Moore’s Midsummer and Rossetti’s final picture The Daydream, shown alongside the sensuous nude figures sculpted in bronze and precious materials by Alfred Gilbert and other brilliant younger exponents of ‘The New Sculpture’.

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