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The Aesthetic Movement

BUCKS Magazine: Nov/Dec 2008

When it comes to getting the best price for the jewelry you no longer wear or want, it's a case of seller beware.

The apartments of lower Manhattan… They thumb their noses at the country décor of the 1980s with its ducks in bonnets and at the aging hippie design scheme of the 1970s with its oak settees and colorful pillows made by third-world villagers. Modern and minimal, metal and glass, simple lines and emerging art predominate. So committed are many young urbanites to a refined aesthetic standard that they strive to maintain it in all aspects of their lives.

In the late 19th century there was another generation of young people equally obsessed with the discipline and virtues of a well-designed existence, with "living up to one's china". They too kicked over the design traces of an earlier era. In their case, it was Victorianism, whose musty fringes and stiff, formal rooms they abhorred. They too believed in inhabiting and personifying beauty. The cult that they created - brief-lived, highly influential - is known as the Aesthetic Movement.

The Aesthetic Movement began in England in the 1860’s among crusading artists, architects and writers including William Morris, John Ruskin and Christopher Dresser, who championed “art for art’s sake”. They rejected the idea that art must serve the state or church and reflect institutional morality.

Believing that everyone should use beautiful objects in their everyday lives, the proponents of the Aesthetic Movement elevated the decorative arts to the status of fine art. Their ideas about beauty spread to the aristocracy and upper classes. They crossed the ocean to North America. There, under the influence of democracy and capitalism, they infused the middle class and changed the look of fashion and jewelry, fine art and illustration, textiles and tableware, metalwork and furniture.

Here’s an overview of three dominant elements that characterize Aesthetic Movement design:

The Far East: A closed society for over two centuries, Japan was just opening up to contact and commerce in the late 19th century. The simplicity and elegance of the Japanese items arriving in European markets created something of a mania. (Persian, Arabic and Indian elements also figured in Aesthetic Movement styles, particularly in its later years.)

The natural world: The tastemakers of the Aesthetic Movement went in for studied spontaneity, a profusion of interior pattern intended to echo the effortless effect of a well-designed and tended English garden. Within this, images of the natural world itself abound: flowers including sunflowers, cattails, and lilies; acanthus and gingko leaves, birds and peacock feathers.

Science: Another influence on the Aesthetic Movement was mounting information about health and hygiene. Germs were discovered and were known to accumulate on unwashed surfaces. Victorian rooms were a clutter of heavy carpets and draperies and deep carvings that held dirt and dust. Furniture lightened. Ornamentation became far more restrained than rococo, confined rather than applied lavishly.

Individual Aesthetic Movement pieces can be found at all price points. If you like what you see in the photographs here, start looking now, because prices (always very high for museum-quality work) have been climbing. At the lower end, look for tiles, majolica, and transferwares, plentiful by English and American makers alike (Minton’s, Chelsea Keramic Art Works, J. and J.G. Low). If you want to commit more strongly, there is beautiful silver to be found from Tiffany and Dresser and furniture in the style of great makers like the Herter Brothers for as little as $1,000.

This brings me to a recent New York Times piece on a newly popular and exclusive haven for the young people who beautify Manhattan. Their destination? The Rose Club, a bar and lounge in the newly refurbished Plaza. The Rose Club occupies a space that once belonged to the storied Persian Room. It’s anything but modern. The walls are mahogany-paneled. Its lighting is pink. Its furniture is French - gilded and antiqued. And it has found favor among the owners of the spare apartments, who doff their fedoras and tuck up their Laboutins on its plump sofas.

When you sell art and design for a living, as we do at Rago’s, you’re always sniffing the air for the scent of change. The Rose Club started me thinking. Is ornament fresh again? Are we moving on from modern? And if we are, what’s next? Aesthetic Movement, anyone?

What to look for:
Rectilinear furniture of ebonized wood (influenced by Japanese lacquer ware) with gilt highlights.

Flat, stylized ornament like marquetry or painting.

Anglo-Japanese silver, jewelry and textiles that feature fans, chrysanthemum, and flowering branches of dogwood or cherry blossoms.

Prominent use of natural motifs.

Blue and white porcelain (which contrasts gloriously with ebonized finishes).

Names to know:

Thomas Jeckyll
William Morris
Edward C. Moore (Tiffany and Co.)
The Herter Bros.
Christopher Dresser
Minton Tile Works
Chelsea Keramic Art Works

Where to find it:

The infamous Peacock Room, original to a house in London, now installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Repainted by artist James McNeill Whistler.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has fine examples of Herter furniture in the Aesthetic Movement style and Aesthetic Movement silver and textiles.

The Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut for rare surviving examples of the Herter's interior design schemes.

The Veterans Room in the Park Avenue Armory, decorated by L. C. Tiffany and Associated American Artists. It survives as conceived, including the stained glass, mosaics, coffered ceiling and wrought iron.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical comedy “Patience,” which mocks the too-too utterly beautiful and poetic sensibility of the British Aesthetic Movement devotees.


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Miriam Tucker
(609) 397-9374 ext 241

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