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A Note on Aestheticism

One cannot read An Ideal Husband without reference to the Aesthetic Movement of the "Yellow Nineties," a movement with its roots in dandyism and decadence. The figure of the Dandy dates back to the early nineteenth century and the fashionable English playboy Beau Brummel. Celebrated in several essays by the French poet Baudelaire in the 1860s, the Dandy, a consummate man of fashion, evolved into a figure of exaggeration, moral liberty, and the art of pretense.

Decadence grew out of English imitations of French visions of artistic autonomy. Modeled especially on the ideas of Baudelaire, Decadence emerged in England in the 1860s with the writing of Algernon Swinburne. It flaunted the pursuit of forbidden experiences—from homosexuality to hashish—while asserting the superiority of artifice over nature. One was expected to be irresponsible, witty, artificial, and languorous, while always exhibiting astonishing superiority in style and dress.

As articulated by Wilde, Aestheticism was a rebellion against the somber respectability of Victorian ideals and moral strictures. Art must be loved for its own sake, judged by the beauty of artifice rather than that of morality. As with dandyism and decadence, the Aestheticist movement venerated individual freedom, modernity, and social theatricality.

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