I first came across the idea of aestheticism in one of my early visits to the Smithsonian’s Sackler and Freer Galleries. Although the Sackler and Freer are technically separate museums founded under separate bequests, they coexist- literally one atop the other and function much like a single museum.
The Smithsonian rightly claims that The Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery contain some of the most important holdings of Asian art in the world.
And while both Museums contain stunning collections of Asian Art, the Freer also contains late-nineteenth-century works of American landscape and portraiture by James McNeil Whistler and his contemporaries, including an entire and intact strange and beautiful and largely inexplicable Peacock dining room– done in deep green and gold leaf- as designed by Whistler for an ultimately unappreciative client.
Also interesting are the collections of other works by Whistler. As one may learn from the Freer website, Freer founder, Charles Freer, met Whistler in 1890 when, on Freer’s first trip to London, when he paid a call at the artist’s Chelsea studio and initiated a long and fruitful friendship. With Whistler’s encouragement and cooperation, Freer built the most important collection of his works in the world, including the famed Peacock dining room.
Whistler the man was a constant traveler- he painted around the world after leaving America at 21, never to return. He met many of the great painters of the day including Monet and also befriended Oscar Wilde. Like Wilde he believed in living the good life and was often in debt or painting his way out of debt. His art, however, was not wild, it was refined, subtle, and often peaceful.
“Whistler’s art is in many respects the opposite to his often aggressive personality, being discreet and subtle, but the creed that lay behind it was radical. He believed that painting should exist for its own sake, not to convey literary or moral ideas, and he often gave his pictures musical titles to suggest an analogy with the abstract art of music: `Art should be independent of all claptrap– should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies”.’
Or, in short, Whistler believed that art’s inherent beauty, was in and of itself, sufficient justification for its existence. That is, he was a proponent of Aestheticism or, “art for art’s sake, a school of thought which first surfaced in French literary circles in the early 19th century. In part it was a reflex of the Romantic movement’s desire to detach art from the period’s increasing stress on rationalism. These forces, it was believed, threatened to make art subject to demands for its utility – for usefulness of one kind or another. The phrase was taken up by writer Theophile Gautier and subsequently attracted the support of figures such as Gustave Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire. When the phrase reached Britain it became popular in the Aesthetic Movement, which encompassed painters such as James McNeill Whistler and Lord Leighton, and writers such as Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.”
Having been raised in an unduly didactic and conservative society, these thoughts took root in my soul and have continued to influence my photography to a greater extent with each passing year.
I was recently fortunate to spend a night at Murphin Ridge– an incomparable Lodge and Restaurant in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio. I spent a late summer evening in the gardens shooting at dusk. I only recently have had time to work on the photos.
Having finished them, I was reminded of my Love for some of Whistler’s work and his dedication to beauty for beauty’s sake. Not because I believe the works to be stunning, though I’m happy with them, but because that evening in the gardent helped me to remember that beauty, in and of itself is enough, That in today’s America, not everything must be judged solely on it’s potential commercial value. I hope you enjoy the photos. And I also hope that if you’ve never made it to the Sackler and Freer, that you get there soon.