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arts

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European Art: Nineteenth Century  
 
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The PRB, as it became known, did not last many years, but by the late 1860s, their attempts to celebrate this part-Gothic, part-Renaissance mindset was revitalized with new subjects, themes, and artists. It became known as the Aesthetic Movement, and included the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Simeon Solomon.

Aestheticism reflected a trend popular among the rising middle class to enhance their lives with beautiful works of art and to refine themselves culturally. Many of the Aesthetic works were commissions by middle-class industrial barons who had earned their wealth from the Industrial Revolution. They requested images of languorous, beautiful women to enhance the decorative appeal of their homes.

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Some of these female-dominated works, such as Rossetti's The Beloved (1865-1866) and Burne-Jones's The Golden Stairs (1872-1880), could be seen as lesbian-based with their mirrored female sensuality, though none were as clearly sexual as those of Courbet and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The also became a popular image among the Aesthetes. In their depictions, the figurative merging of the two sexes in the androgyne may be a statement on homosexuality, the "intermediate sex" or "third sex" as theorized by such writers as John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter.

Simeon Solomon

Among the Aesthetes, only Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) converted the subject of languorous women into that of languorous men. Solomon, born into a middle-class Jewish family of artists, found popularity among his colleagues with his Greco-Roman images. He ultimately used the god Eros as his symbol for same-sex desire. He often depicted the youthful Eros nude, as in his painting Dawn (1871).

Solomon was also one of the few British artists to depict the lesbian poet Sappho in visual art. In the painting Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytelene (1864), Sappho's passion for her lover is quite apparent. In 1873 Solomon was arrested and charged with homosexual crimes and his public career as an artist ended.

Frederic Leighton

The Aesthetic Movement also produced the artist Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). Leighton was educated in continental art schools and returned to England with a new interpretation of Hellenism for the Aesthetes. His paintings are erotic, if not homoerotic, in both the choice of mythological subjects and presentation of the nude. His work gave rise to the concept of "supersensuality," spiritual eroticism that surpasses physical sensuality.

His numerous nude Venuses and women bathing are highly erotic. His painting Daedalus and Icarus (1869) reveals a soft, if not androgynous, nude Icarus waiting to fly to the heavens. His bronze sculpture An Athlete Wresting with a Python (1874-1877) is a life-sized study of the idealized nude male form.

Leighton never married and kept his personal life very private, even from those who were his close friends. He kept company with known homosexuals of the day. His home in London, much of it decorated and designed by Leighton himself, is a museum, a shrine to Aestheticism.

Pater, Wilde, and Symonds

Three art critics are important equally for their contributions to nineteenth-century European art and to the history of homosexuality.

Walter Pater (1839-1894), the doyen of Aestheticism, taught classical studies at Oxford and wrote extensively on art appreciation. His conclusion to the first edition of The Renaissance (1877) became a gay manifesto for his followers.

Oscar Wilde (1856-1900), a master of publicity, was the most successful popularizer of Aestheticism in the 1880s. Wilde's conviction of gross indecency in 1895 did more to make homosexuality visible in the nineteenth century than any other single event.

Like Wilde, John Addington Symonds (1840-1894) was an active homosexual despite being married. Symonds wrote numerous works on artists such as Michelangelo and Cellini, often commenting on their homosexual liaisons, and published in 1883 a pamphlet on Greek homosexuality.

Symbolism and the Fin-de-siècle

By the late 1860s, Paris had begun to surpass London as an art center, and artists flocked to Paris either for inspiration or camaraderie. The French capital gave birth to modernism with the Impressionists and exerted a profound influence on art throughout Europe and North America.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century there emerged one of the great art movements, Symbolism. The movement had its origins in France, starting in many ways as a literary movement by the poets and lovers Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Symbolism, however, was not limited to France, and many of its greatest adherents and practitioners were non-French Europeans.

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