Rachel Teukolsky, “Walter Pater’s Renaissance (1873) and the British Aesthetic Movement”


Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance is known as the “golden book” of the British Aesthetic movement. Though ostensibly focused on Italian Renaissance art, the book speaks obliquely to Pater’s own Victorian moment, challenging conventional codes of religion, morality, sexuality, and scholarship. This essay surveys Pater’s diverse methods of quiet rebellion, including his ironic treatment of critical and scholarly norms. The essay’s second part considers the relation of The Renaissance to the emergence of popular aestheticism in the later 1870s.

I. Studies in the History of the Renaissance

photo of Pater

Figure 1: Photograph of Walter Pater

Walter Pater (Fig. 1) is known as the chief theorist of the Aesthetic movement. His essays laid out the serious and subversive ideas underpinning an art movement whose rebellion was enacted through an embrace of beauty and strangeness. Art historians today are not in the business of proposing to us controversial new ways of living and thinking; yet that is what happened in 1873, when Pater published his collection titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance. He used the art-historical essay as a platform to describe indirectly a lifestyle freed from Victorian conventionalities, especially those surrounding the human body. While many authors before Pater had used art history to meditate more broadly on modern values—most influentially, the art critic John Ruskin, promoting the moral worth of Gothic architecture—Pater puts his own unique spin on the practice. Though Pater has often been assimilated into an apparently normative group of Victorian essay writers that includes Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, this piece will highlight some of his more rebellious tendencies, describing how he critiques and even ironizes the scholarly tradition to which he contributes. His double vision is at once serious and transgressive, using the canon of Renaissance art to offer his own idiosyncratic impressions and to implicitly defend the right of others to experience a similar freedom.

In the 1860s, the Italian Renaissance was emerging as a new subject for Victorian criticism. Cultured Britons since the eighteenth century had been embarking on “Grand Tours” of continental Europe, in which map iconItaly was a prime destination. Pater himself toured Italy in 1865 with his close friend Charles Lancelot Shadwell, taking in the art treasures of Florence, Pisa, and Ravenna. Britain’s map iconNational Gallery and map iconSouth Kensington Museum had made a series of high-profile purchases in the 1850s and early 1860s that reinforced the status of High Renaissance art as central to the Victorian canon.[1] Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian culture was seen to embody many qualities that Victorian thinkers wanted to appropriate, with its flourishing of classical scholarship, its visual artistry, and its prizing of individualism captured in the bold type of the “genius” inventor or artist. Arnold Hauser argues that the Italian Renaissance is itself a nineteenth-century invention, a fantasy of origins for the “individualistic-liberal” embracing a “sensualistic” and nature-based vision more true to nineteenth-century psychology than to any actual Renaissance history (2). While fully evaluating Hauser’s claim is beyond the scope of this essay, his insight is valuable for describing the way that nineteenth-century European thinkers used the Renaissance to advance their own modern-day concerns. In Britain, some late-Victorian writers promoted a cultural nationalism that assimilated the perceived superiority of Renaissance Italian culture into the economic and political dominance of modern-day Britain, thus forging an imaginative link between two very different histories and cultures.[2]

Beyond these more normative uses of the Renaissance, however, the Italian past also offered a convenient screen by which Victorian authors could explore at a remove disquieting or taboo themes—as in Robert Browning’s poetic monologues, featuring Italian speakers who were debauched, insane, or even murderous. Italian subjects might conform to the type of the Catholic, the Southern, the warm-blooded, and the emotional, as opposed to the ostensibly cold-blooded, logical, and morally correct peoples of the North. This stereotyping allowed Victorians to address indirectly some of the more irrational or carnal strains implicit in their own culture.

Pater’s essays take up a two-sided idea of the Renaissance, both normative and subversive, celebrating canonical artist-heroes even while depicting them engaged in behavior that would have scandalized Victorian society. (For example, many of the male artists he studies, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, are romantically involved with other men.) His recurring strategy is to engage with a well-known author or artist in a way that seems to agree with conventional wisdom, pretending to fit in with accepted judgments while at the same time proposing his own audacious opinions. Most famously, he quotes Matthew Arnold approvingly in his preface to The Renaissance, only to overturn Arnold’s idea in the following clause:

“To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly. . . . What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? (3)[3]

While Matthew Arnold—map iconOxford’s Professor of Poetry and representative of the cultural establishment—demands that critics put aside personal prejudices to take an objective view, Pater instead promotes the subjective view, focusing on the impression felt by the individual spectator. Arnold’s dictum implies that a single, objective Truth—“the object”—can be ascertained through a kind of unifying positivist vision. Pater, by contrast, moves to “one’s object”—the object as it is possessed by a lone viewer, who makes idiosyncratic associations based on his own experiences. Pater implies that the Truth must be replaced by innumerable, diverse, myriad truths.

da Vinci's Mona Lisa

Figure 2: Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda (Louvre Museum)

Hence the fantasia of The Renaissance, which combines familiar legends and stories of well-known artists with unusual and even startling comments on their artworks. Pater rehearses the customary Victorian visions of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as genius artist-heroes who create masterpieces rendered in unique styles. But he also gives us, famously, the comparison of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (Fig. 2) to a vampire, seeing in her figure “the animalism of map iconGreece, the lust of map iconRome” (70). He dwells on the more grotesque, discomfiting aspects of Leonardo’s oeuvre, from a painting of Medusa’s monstrous severed head to drawings of “clairvoyant” women whom Pater labels “Daughters of Herodias” (65). (See Fig. 3.) These are truths for Pater’s version of aesthetic experience, a beauty mixed with darkness and death. Jeffrey Wallen notes that the recurring shadowy figures of Pater’s essays—the vampire, the specter, the clairvoyant, the god in exile—“all radically confuse the boundaries between historical eras, and between what is living and what has passed on” (1043). These diabolical figures not only serve as vehicles for a perverse aesthetics but also embody a theory of historicism, showing how culture’s present is infinitely permeable and infiltrated by its past.

Medusa painting

Figure 3: The Head of Medusa, ca. 1600, formerly attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (Uffizi Gallery)

Pater’s challenge to accepted norms of scholarship is most apparent in his ever-shifting and porous account of “the Renaissance” itself. The book opens with a study of two French medieval tales and concludes with a lengthy essay on the eighteenth-century German art critic, J. J. Winckelmann—thus delineating the Renaissance as a historical movement that spans six centuries and at least three different national traditions. It was apparent to Pater’s earliest readers that he was not practicing history writing as they had come to expect it, based in known facts and organized around a distinct time and place. Pater’s friend Emilia Pattison (the art critic later known as Emilia Dilke) writes in her review that the book’s title is “misleading; the historical element is precisely that which is wanting, and its absence marks the weak place of the whole book . . . . the work is in no wise a contribution to the history of the Renaissance” (Westminster Review, April 1873; qtd. in Seiler 71).[4] Pater’s subjective method, applying his own unusual sensibilities to artworks of the past, must inevitably be ahistorical. As Margaret Oliphant notes, Pater imparts sentiments that “never entered into the most advanced imagination within two or three hundred years of Botticelli’s time, and [were] as alien to the spirit of a medieval Italian, as [they are] perfectly consistent with that of a delicate Oxford don in the latter half of the nineteenth century” (Blackwood’s Magazine, Nov. 1873; qtd. in Seiler 88). Pater responded to these criticisms by retitling the book in later editions as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.

Pater’s challenge to the scholarly practice of history takes place on multiple levels. Carolyn Williams has shown that his “aesthetic historicism” is grounded in a radical skepticism toward the idea of history itself, asserting the impossibility of any kind of historical recovery, return, or revival (5).[5] That skepticism is also evident, I would add, in the bold untruths Pater presents using the deadpan tone of the scrupulous scholar. Indeed, The Renaissance is riddled with inaccuracies—deliberate misattributions of paintings, citing of legends known to be false, misquotations from authorities, inexact or spurious translations, stories retold or changed for romantic effect; as Sidney Colvin warns in his 1873 review, “The book is not one for any beginner to turn to in search of ‘information’” (qtd. in Seiler 50). The numerous mistakes and modifications of Pater’s Renaissance are thoroughly documented in Donald L. Hill’s 1980 annotated edition. Adam Phillips observes that Pater footnotes the word “kissing” in the Winckelmann essay with the note “Hermann, Th.ii.c.ii.s21, (n.)16” in the book’s first two editions, hinting at a parody of scholarly apparatus. Phillips draws the cautious conclusion that Pater’s factual errors are perhaps “idiosyncratic rather than unscrupulous” (ix), but we might conclude more forcefully that Pater deliberately ironizes the conventions of modern history-writing in order to enact the values he finds in the Renaissance, as different artists and critics over time overthrow the constraining limitations of their eras. In Pater’s own moment, humanities scholarship was being constrained by the fact-based methods of scientific reason, whose denuding and sterile approach (from a Paterian perspective) opposed the more delirious, ecstatic, and irrational forces of passion and lived experience. When Pater quotes Matthew Arnold in false agreement and then moves directly to contradict him, this oblique ironic reversal encapsulates one of The Renaissance’s major subversive tactics, aimed at the hierarchies of cultural establishment and even at the accepted structures of knowledge themselves.

Returning to Pater’s footnote of the word “kissing”: not coincidentally, this moment occurs in his essay on the German classical scholar J. J. Winckelmann, by far the longest essay in the collection as well as the most plainly homoerotic. Winckelmann is not himself an artist but an art historian, and hence serves as a model for the Paterian type of the modern critic. Winckelmann’s methods are certainly unusual—he makes a false conversion to Catholicism to gain access to Rome, and he cultivates “romantic, fervent friendships with young men” in the spiritual-sexual pursuit of the erotic male bodies depicted by Greek sculpture (Pater 93-94). (See, for example, Fig. 4.) His practice of art history is not intellectual but enthusiastic and sensuous; he understands Greek art “by instinct or touch” (95). Winckelmann’s art-critical scholarship encompasses frank sexual pleasure as a way to “know” the human form, a pun that describes a knowledge of and through the body: “He has known, he says, many young men more beautiful than Guido’s archangel” (94). The distinct homoeroticism of this essay makes it striking that few of the book’s 1873 reviewers noted anything unusual about the piece; Sidney Colvin calls it “completely excellent from beginning to end” (qtd. in Seiler 52). Again, Pater’s moderate, scholarly tone lends a veneer of respectability to a potentially scandalous theory of art criticism.

Parthenon frieze

Figure 4: Cavalcade, Block II from the west frieze of the map iconParthenon, ca. 447–433 BC

Pater’s appropriation of the classical scholar Winckelmann for Renaissance history locates his book within the homosocial tradition of Greek Studies at Oxford—producing what Linda Dowling has influentially termed a “homosexual code” by which writers like Pater and Wilde could quietly invoke a “homosexual counterdiscourse able to justify male love in ideal or transcendental terms” (xiii). For Victorian readers in the know, Greek culture might be used to signal secret sexual preferences. Yet it is worth pointing out that Pater’s Hellenism in the Winckelmann essay goes beyond mere code signaling. This essay is distinctive, like all of Pater’s writing, for its investment in punning and wordplay, a code within a code. Using linguistic cunning, Pater yet again ironizes his rational, scholarly disguise. For example, a verbal joke recurs in the way both Goethe and Winckelmann are said to “handle the antique,” engaging with classical art in a quasi-physical manner that accentuates the hands (87, 88). Winckelmann “fingers those pagan marbles with unsinged hands, with no sense of shame or loss. That is to deal with the sensuous side of art in the pagan manner” (112). In Pater’s telling, Winckelmann’s sexualized appreciation of male sculpted bodies is not shameful because pagan culture itself glorified the male body in a normative way. (This ideal stands in stark contrast to Christianity, described in the essay as “the dust of Protestantism” [91] with its “crushing of the sensuous” [113] and “flesh-outstripping interest” [113], and implicitly encompassing the Victorian Christianity of Pater’s own day.) “Handling” is a key term for Pater across all of The Renaissance’s essays, invoking both an artist’s brilliant execution of form and the critic’s sensuous reception of the artist’s work. The erotic overtones of this word echo slyly across Pater’s volume. Obliquity itself is both a strategy and a philosophical ideal for him, as the erotic tremors and insinuations of language cause words to manifest themselves as a beautiful screen.

The most influential pages of The Renaissance come in its brief “Conclusion.” Only three pages long, this aesthetic manifesto—adapted from Pater’s 1868 review of William Morris’s Earthly Paradise—turns away from the explicit subject of Renaissance art to address the reader directly. What matters most in life, according to Pater? Not any of the usual Victorian middle-class values of Christian faith, moral rectitude, social status, business competition, financial gain, nor any kind of public life. Facing the stark fact of human mortality, Pater exhorts his readers to take pleasure in sense impressions and in the pursuit of knowledge, whether admiring an artwork or another person:

A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. (119-20)

The idea of the Renaissance here takes on its broadest possible meaning, alluding to a cultural rebirth possible for Victorian readers as much as Italian painters. In a Victorian world defined by strict etiquette and severe conventionality, we can understand why Pater’s recommendation of “ecstasy” as the best life path invited immediate controversy.

II. Reception

In the legend surrounding The Renaissance, Pater’s book exploded onto the Victorian cultural scene in 1873 and, with its bold embrace of atheism and hedonism, plunged him into a scandal from which his career never recovered. While this legend contains elements of truth, the actuality seems to have been more complex. In the first instance, The Renaissance drew disapproval within the hothouse world of Oxford, where Pater spent his academic career. Negative responses came especially from Oxford’s religious and conservative quarters.[6] John Wordsworth, one of Pater’s former students and Chaplain of map iconBrasenose College, wrote an oft-quoted letter to Pater in 1873 describing his pained disappointment in the book:

I cannot disguise from myself that the concluding pages adequately sum up the philosophy of the whole; and that that philosophy is an assertion, that no fixed principles either of religion or morality can be regarded as certain, that the only thing worth living for is momentary enjoyment and that probably or certainly the soul dissolves at death into elements which are destined never to reunite. (qtd. in Seiler 62)

Mary Augusta Ward, twenty-three at the time of The Renaissance’s publication and living in Oxford, recalls in her 1918 memoir

the effect of that book, and of the strange and poignant sense of beauty expressed in it; of its entire aloofness also from the Christian tradition of Oxford, its glorification of the higher and intenser forms of esthetic pleasure, of “passion” in the intellectual sense—as against the Christian doctrine of self-denial and renunciation. It was a doctrine that both stirred and scandalised Oxford. The bishop of the diocese thought it worthwhile to protest. There was a cry of neo-paganism, and various attempts at persecution. (A Writer’s Recollections, 1918; qtd. in Seiler 19).

Particularly within the world of the university, Pater’s book was seen by critics as a dangerous and alluring influence on young men. When the Bishop of Oxford preached a sermon against The Renaissance in 1875, he complained that “too many of the younger students go miserably astray” under the damaging guidance of atheistic mentors. Quoting from Pater’s “Conclusion,” the Bishop asks, “Can you wonder that to young men who have imbibed this teaching the Cross is an offence, and the notion of a vocation to preach it an unintelligible craze?” (qtd. in Seiler 96).

As these comments would suggest, “young men” were a particularly worrying and vulnerable demographic in late-Victorian Oxford, prone to all kinds of hazardous enticements. Anxiety about young men seems to have been exacerbated at Oxford in the late 1860s and 1870s, during what Linda Dowling has described as an “interval of particularly intense male homosociality”—before university reforms eliminated the celibacy requirement for fellows in 1884, and before Oxford’s first residential colleges for women were founded in 1879. Dowling suggests that this period at Oxford was a “halcyon” moment for homosociality based in “the ethos of a wholly male residential society” (85), but the Oxford response to Pater’s Renaissance suggests that anxieties also abounded, especially in the close relationships between dons and students fostered by the tutorial system. A. C. Benson unwittingly captures the aura of concern surrounding vulnerable young men in an early biography of Pater, presenting a still quite Victorian worldview in 1906: “Young men with vehement impulses, with no experience of the world, no idea of the solid and impenetrable weight of social traditions and prejudices, found in the principles enunciated by Pater with so much recondite beauty, so much magical charm, a new equation of values” (52). Rhetoric surrounding the suggestible young man ironically worked to eroticize and sensationalize the very subject it attempted to protect. We find hints of this rhetoric in the well-known footnote Pater appended to the third edition of The Renaissance (1888), in which he explains his decision to omit the “Conclusion” from the second edition (1877):

This brief “Conclusion” was omitted in the second edition of this book, as I conceived it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall. On the whole, I have thought it best to reprint it here, with some slight changes which bring it closer to my original meaning. I have dealt more fully in Marius the Epicurean with the thoughts suggested in it. (qtd. in Pater, Renaissance, ed. Beaumont 177)

Many scholars, including A. C. Benson, have taken Pater’s cautious actions after 1873 as the sign of his life-long retrenchment from the controversial positions staked out in The Renaissance. Yet it is ultimately difficult to take Pater’s footnote at face value. Judging from the contents of The Renaissance, one might conclude that misleading young men was, in fact, a desirable activity. The footnote directs us once again to young men’s “hands,” presenting the transfer of knowledge as an erotic passage from book to receiver—one that might indeed lead to a “fall,” with all the forbidden and sexualized connotations of the word. Such a moment of impressionable reading is captured in Pater’s novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), as the adolescent Marius discovers the “golden book” (67) of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses in an act of “truant reading” (66) that stirs his character and stays with him for life. While Pater’s footnote ostensibly follows the Bishop of Oxford in showing concern for the well-being of young men, his language also hints at an ironic and subversive relationship to that responsible administration.

After the 1873 publication of The Renaissance, Pater failed to succeed in Oxford competitions for academic promotion. In 1874, a promised proctorship was withheld at the last moment by Benjamin Jowett, Master of map iconBalliol College and Pater’s former mentor. Letters found late in the twentieth century suggest that Jowett’s decision was the immediate result of an uncovered epistolary “romance” between Pater and a nineteen-year-old undergraduate, William Money Hardinge, known for his open homosexuality.[7] In 1877, Pater was forced to withdraw his application for the professorship of poetry at Oxford because of veiled homophobic attacks on his candidacy, likely inflamed by the devastating satire of W. H. Mallock’s The New Republic, which had been circulating in serial form since June 1876 (Dowling 112). Mallock depicts Pater as the thinly disguised “Mr. Rose,” an aesthete whose effusions about beauty are tinged with sexual innuendo. “What a very odd man Mr. Rose is!” one character exclaims, “He always seems to talk of everybody as if they had no clothes on” (Mallock 350).

Outside the world of Oxford, however, the reception of The Renaissance was actually quite favorable. Many of the reviews were positive, and some of them outright admiring. Though most of the book had previously appeared anonymously in essay form beginning in the late 1860s, the book’s publication drew concentrated attention from critics as it circulated among the journal-reviewing crowd.[8] John Morley praised the emergence of “a learned, vigorous, and original school of criticism” that made a desirable “English contribution to the research and thought of Europe” (The Fortnightly Review, April 1873; qtd. in Hill 287). Almost all of the reviews, even those hostile to the book, expressed esteem for Pater’s jeweled prose style. R. H. Hutton commented in The Spectator that the book’s best passages, though “perhaps too visibly laboured, have subtle touches of lovely colour, and a sweet, quiet cadence, hardly amounting to rhythm, which are distinguishable from those of poetry only in form” (June 1873; qtd. in Hill 287). (W. B. Yeats continued the tradition of reading Pater poetically when he chose the notorious Mona Lisa passage as the opening poem for his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, breaking up Pater’s paragraphs into free verse.) While our contemporary view has tended to emphasize The Renaissance as a publishing scandal, many readers and reviewers embraced Pater’s aesthetic scholarship. It does remain an open question, though, to what extent Victorian readers understood the ironic or insinuating quality of much of the book’s writing.[9]

If The Renaissance can be claimed as the major theoretical work of the Aesthetic movement, it remains to be discussed to what extent the book was linked to the broader popularization of the movement in the later 1870s and early 1880s. A direct link is not obvious; Walter Hamilton’s 1882 study The Aesthetic Movement in England does not mention Pater. Yet The Renaissance was a central inspiration for followers such as Oscar Wilde, who preached the cult of beauty to a wide audience in both Britain and America. (Wilde called The Renaissance his “golden book,” and claimed to travel with it everywhere [Seiler 2].) Ideas that first circulated among an elite, artistic circle in the late 1860s began to diffuse to a larger middle-class crowd, leading to the creation of a recognizably “aesthetic” lifestyle.

The Renaissance offered a theory of living centered around the experience of art and beauty; but what would it mean to put these philosophical ideals into practice? Satirists were quick to attack the pretensions of aesthetes, whose values seemed ineffectual and absurd when performed in the real world. George Du Maurier published a series of ingenious cartoons mocking aesthetes in the humor magazine Punch, each one playing on the incongruity between an aesthete’s highflown ideals and the silly behavior by which he expressed them. In “An Aesthetic Mid-Day Meal” (1880), an aesthete in a restaurant contemplates a lily with dreamy absorption, rejecting the solicitations of a puzzled waiter. Instead of nourishing his body with food, the aesthete needs only the beauty of the lily—suggesting an unnatural relationship to the body, as visual pleasure replaces the more usual gustatory experience. The aesthete also stands out for his effeminate masculinity, apparent in his languid and unmanly posture. The signature pose of aestheticism was passive, dreamy, and reclining, a pose performed in resistance to the mainstream masculinist values of progress, work, and arduous labor. Pater’s Renaissance made male passivity into a virtue, as receptive artists and spectators opened themselves to the flood of the world’s impressions. This non-normative masculinity was reflected in the new popular identity of the aesthete, whose sexual dissidence functioned as part of a broader rebellion against middle-class cultural norms.

Crane frontispiece

Figure 5: Walter Crane, “My Lady’s Chamber,” frontispiece to _The House Beautiful_ (1878), reproduced with permission of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries

If The Renaissance presents Winckelmann as a new ideal type of manhood, that type also entails a passionate commitment to art and an artistic lifestyle. Translated into the Victorian world, that commitment was expressed by aesthetes participating in a vogue for artistic home décor.[10] A typical aesthetic home is depicted in the frontispiece to Clarence Cook’s The House Beautiful (1878), rendered by illustrator Walter Crane, with china plates, fancy tea ware, patterned rugs and wallpapers, and Japanese fans. (See Fig. 5.) George Du Maurier ridicules both male and female aesthetes with his cartoon “The Six-Mark Tea-Pot” (1880), in which an “Intense Bride” clutches a teapot and declares to her “Aesthetic Bridegroom,” “Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!” Rather than devote themselves to more typical newlywed behaviors, these two aesthetes have channeled their nuptial energies into their home décor. Du Maurier captures the embarrassing distance between Pater’s elevated theory of beauty and the more mundane practice of aesthetic collectors, who made decorative items like teapots into sacred objects of worship.

Du Maurier’s teapot cartoon points us to a perhaps surprising fact about popular aestheticism, given what we might have expected from Pater’s volume: namely, that the movement engaged women as well as men. For all of Oxford’s focus on endangered “young men,” in fact women also embraced aestheticism as part of a broader sexual dissidence. Pater’s Renaissance largely focuses its erotic energies on men—male artists pursuing male lovers and the perfection of a universalized yet distinctly male “human form.” The book’s female figures appear mostly as subjects within artworks, such as the Mona Lisa, and their rendering is so odd and idiosyncratic as to empty them out as human agents, making them appear as purely symbolic or poetic figures.[11] Yet, despite the male-centered focus of Pater’s book and of the cloistered aesthetic preserve of Oxford, some Victorian women saw in aestheticism the promise of an escape from restrictive gender roles and binding social conventions. Talia Schaffer has located many of the “forgotten female aesthetes,” late-Victorian women writers who affiliated themselves with the movement such as Ouida and Rosamund Marriott Watson.[12] Yopie Prins, in “Greek Maenads, Victorian Spinsters,” describes how a generation of female classical scholars after Pater followed his example by using the alternative gender behaviors of antiquity to legitimate their own queer pathways. Women also supported the aesthetic lifestyle as patrons of the arts, collectors of aesthetic objects, even as wearers of dresses freed from corsets. Though Pater’s Renaissance may seem to be aimed in the first instance at a small and elite group of male readers, the book’s message of liberation—when “the imagination feels itself free” (88-89)—offered an idea of aesthetic, erotic, and intellectual freedom to any potential viewer with the right kind of artistic education.

published September 2012

Rachel Teukolsky is Associate Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics (2009).


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—. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. The 1893 Text. Ed. Donald L. Hill. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980. Print.

—. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. 1873. Ed. Matthew Beaumont. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

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—, and Kathy Psomiades, eds. Women and British Aestheticism. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1999. Print.

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—. “The Politics of Formalist Art Criticism: Pater’s ‘School of Giorgione.’” Walter Pater: Transparencies of Desire. Ed. Laurel Brake, Lesley Higgins, and Carolyn Williams. Greensboro, NC: ELT, 2002. 151-69. Print.

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[1] See Levi; Fraser 63-66.

[2] See Teukolsky, “Politics” 157; also Hinojosa.

[3] All quotations are taken from the 2010 Oxford Studies in the History of the Renaissance, edited by Matthew Beaumont, which reproduces the 1873 first edition of Pater’s book. Three later editions of the book appeared in Pater’s lifetime, each with many minor and incremental changes of wording. Hill’s 1980 annotated edition, which uses the 1893 Renaissance as its copy-text, documents all of the textual variants across the book’s different editions.

[4] Emilia Dilke (1840-1904), born Emily Francis Strong, became “Mrs. Mark Pattison” after her first marriage in 1861, and subsequently “Lady Dilke” or “Emilia Dilke” after her second marriage in 1884. She was a prolific art critic and reviewer as well as a noted art historian specializing in French art. See her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for a more in-depth account.

[5] Williams’ book Transfigured World is an important study of Pater’s “aesthetic historicism” that can only be touched on briefly here. It serves as one of the major in-depth analyses of Pater’s complex philosophical engagements.

[6] See Levey 142-44; Donoghue 55-64; Dowling 100-03.

[7] See Inman.

[8] The essay on Winckelmann (1867) appeared in the Westminster Review, as did “Poems by William Morris” (1868), from which the “Conclusion” to The Renaissance was drawn. The Fortnightly Review published the essays on Leonardo da Vinci (1869), Sandro Botticelli (1870), and Michelangelo (1871). An essay on “The School of Giorgione,” appearing in the Fortnightly Review in 1877, was added to the third edition of The Renaissance in 1888. Because of this later publication date of “The School of Giorgione,” I do not discuss the influential essay here; my focus is on the 1873 first edition of The Renaissance.

[9] The same question might be asked of more modern readers. Rupert Crofte-Cooke writes in his 1967 classic Feasting with Panthers: “The words in [Pater’s books] are manipulated with a cunning almost unprecedented in English prose, but they have no guts. If Pater had anything to say he never dared to say it” (qtd. in Seiler 3). Crofte-Cooke’s analysis does not allow for the idea that Pater cultivated obliquity or indirection as essential aspects of his aesthetic and erotic philosophy.

[10] See Teukolsky, Literate Eye 127-36.

[11] Scholars such as Richard Dellamora have even argued that The Renaissance’s famous female characters are “phallic women,” or masculinized self-portraits of the artists (see 136-46). Normative Victorian femininity is difficult to locate within these essays.

[12] See also Schaffer and Psomiades.